Too tired to celebrate Real Salt Lake’s biggest week in a long, long time, forward Jefferson Savarino sat down and defender Danilo Acosta crouched in the middle of the field after the final whistle.
Rest was enough of a reward for RSL, after Albert Rusnak’s penalty kick early in the first half and Luis Silva’s goal in stoppage time made a steamy Saturday night a success at Rio Tinto Stadium. RSL’s 2-0 victory over Western Conference leader FC Dallas was the latest episode in a four-day stretch that radically altered the season’s outlook for this team.
RSL (9-8-2) suddenly looks a lot better than average, thanks to the most meaningful short-term showing of the Mike Petke coaching era. Victories over Sporting Kansas City and FC Dallas, teams that began the week tied for first place in the West, made a significant statement in Major League Soccer. “We have such a special team, and we have to make the most of it,” forward Sebastian Saucedo said.
The homemade banner is hung on the railing in the middle of the south stands about 40 minutes prior to every home game, a capital-letters tribute to RSL’s coach: “Mike Freakin Petke.”
He’ll qualify for that favorable nickname as long as his team keeps winning home games. Since that memorable — or forgettable, more accurately — 5-1 loss to Los Angeles FC in the home opener in mid-March, Real is 8-0-1 at the RioT. Attendance is down this season (Saturday’s crowd: 17,319), but the atmosphere remains lively and the home team is delivering consistently.
“Fun” was Petke’s description of the week’s showing, but nobody was overreacting. In the locker room, players already were talking about next week’s visit to Minnesota United in an effort to reverse RSL’s road trend.
The players know what’s expected of them, in terms of playing style and performance. “If they haven’t bought into my stuff by now, I shouldn’t be here,” Petke said after Wednesday’s defeat of Sporting KC.
Petke is now 22-20-6 since taking over the team early in the 2017 season. One trait distinguishes Petke’s teams, above any other: They either win or lose. Ties are common in MLS, but not for RLS anymore. Whether they settled for them or viewed them as achievements, former coaches Jason Kreis and Jeff Cassar tied more than twice as many games as Petke. He plays to win, which sometimes results in losing.
This week’s wins over the West’s two best teams solidified RSL’s position above the MLS playoff cut, as the season moved into the second half. Last season’s 8-3-4 finish started with a July 4 victory. Although it was not sufficient for RSL to earn a playoff berth, that run helped Petke get established and created some momentum going into 2018.
Some ugly losses raised questions about the team’s direction in the spring. As of this July’s checkpoint, though, Real is trending well again. RSL dominated possession and turned away Dallas’ few scoring chances on a night when the visitors played conservatively and hoped for counter attacks that rarely materialized.
“My players managed the game perfectly,” Petke said. “At times, it was a bit boring, but I could care less.”
Rusnak’s penalty kick in the 11th minute was Saturday’s only goal until stoppage time, when Silva took a well-timed pass from Savarino, who was one-on-one with Dallas’ lone defender. Silva easily beat goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez, clinching the victory.
The crowd remained involved to the end, moaning when another scoring opportunity was missed. The fans want more from this team. Judging by the week’s performance, they’ll get it.