RSL (13-11-6) are currently in a Western Conference playoff spot, and the team hasn’t lost at home in league play since March. The offense has found its rhythm even without a true No. 9. Perhaps most importantly, Salt Lake’s roster is young and gaining a lot of experience that will pay off down the line, if not this season.
“I’m happy that it’s young. I’m happy they’re getting experience,” Petke said. “I’m not afraid to play young guys in the short term knowing there could be some mistakes and some learning curves, but as long as they learn from those, in the long run it’s going to benefit us.”
Three-quarters of his backline is under 22. Half of it is playing in a new position this year. The other is learning to lead among career MLS record holders and former US national teamers Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman.
Brooks Lennon played on the wing as a forward in 2017 for RSL. After injuries forced Petke’s hand, Lennon has made the transition to right back this year and excelled with his service forward and honed his defensive instincts.
“I think he could be a national team right back eventually,” Petke said. “That’s why we put him there and kept him there. He has continually gotten better, game-by-game. He’s still in there. He’s still doing it. His one-on-one defending has gotten 10 times better. His understanding of when to go forward has gotten 10 times better.”
That was the story for 20-year-old Danny Acosta a year ago, and it’s similar for 21-year-old outside back Aaron Herrera this year. Herrera has earned consistent minutes since breaking into the lineup at left back, on the opposite side of his natural right back spot through the RSL academy and in college. Even with a healthy Acosta and veteran Demar Phillips on the roster, Herrera has maintained his starting spot on the left.
“You look at Aaron on the left who was thrown into an uncomfortable situation as a rookie left back, just like Brooks, he has improved on a weekly basis,” Petke said.
In the middle of it all is 21-year-old center back Justen Glad, who’s the most experienced of the youth on the roster. But he’s still rounding into a veteran in his third full season.
“Glad has continued to improve, learn from mistakes, and take more of a leadership role,” Petke said.
It's not just young defenders who are getting a run for RSL. In the attack, 21-year-old Jefferson Savarino continues to figure prominently with six goals and 10 assists, but has also refined his defensive effort and ability.
“His work rate this year defensively has been incredible,” Petke said of his forward. “That’s to me his evolution as a complete player and being full-time on the [Venezuelan] national team. Right now, he’s got to be one of the most fouled players in the league and that’s respect from the teams we play knowing how dangerous he is.”
Improvement from year-to-year is easier to see, but Petke is impressed with the youth on his roster because he’s able to see them improve week-to-week and game-to-game. That alone makes it easier for him to stay excited about what the future may hold for RSL.
“These are guys that the club believes in. Does that mean they’re bonafide starters for us? No,” Petke explained. “It means that, for now, they’re not only doing the things on game day, but they’re also showing they’re improving on a weekly basis, and that’s good enough for me.”