HERRIMAN, Utah – With star playmaker Albert Rusnaksuspended for the second leg of their Western Conference Semifinal clash vs. Sporting Kansas City on Sunday (3 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes, TVAS, TSN2), Real Salt Lake will be looking to replace his attacking abilities.
But whoever is able to “manage the game” better may get the nod in his place.
“We know how we want to approach it, but who plays in that position is going to be key,” RSL head coach Mike Petke said on Tuesday. “We have a number of different options; managing the game is going to be huge.”
Salt Lake will miss Rusnak’s on-the-ball quality and ability to finish, like he displayed with his spectacular goal in the first leg, a 1-1 draw at Rio Tinto Stadium. Petke knows they aren’t going to find a like-for-like replacement, and it will come down to which combination works best through practice this week.
“No two players are exactly alike,” Petke said. “It’s a give and take, and without drastically changing the way you want to play, you have to recognize those differences and play a little bit more to the strengths.”
Damir Kreilach has become a bigger part of the RSL attack of late and played as an attacking midfielder at times this year, including in the 4-1 win over New England in October. Winger Jefferson Savarino has lined up centrally before and could be a more creative option to spark the offense if needed.
Moving either of those into Rusnak’s central attacking midfield role would open up another forward spot in the starting XI. Based on recent lineups, that means Corey Baird and Joao Plata may both find themselves in the lineup, with Sebastian Saucedo and Luis Silva as other options.
Inserting another midfielder asked to control the game, rather than attack first and foremost, could be an option right from kickoff. With Petke’s main concern being the first 15 to 20 minutes of Sunday’s game at Children’s Mercy Park, Kyle Beckerman, Sunny and Luke Mulholland could all line up in the engine room behind Kreilach and RSL’s usual forward line.
“Whoever is in needs to recognize this is the game, managing it is huge and to let the game settle down a little bit. We’ll have our opportunities and we have to capitalize on them, and we can’t be giving things away,” Petke said, hinting that he may take a more cautious approach in his starting lineup, with the opportunity to become more aggressive as the game wears on.
“The first 15-20 minutes, [SKC are] going to be amped up and be on the front foot for sure,” Petke said. “We aren’t going to be sitting back on the 18, but we have to be organized. We have to not give them anything. As that happens, as the game gets opened up, there will be more and more room to play.
“Ninety minutes is a long game. The opportunities will be there. At certain scenarios and certain times, adjustments will be made based on the score, and then we’ll take it from there.”
Petke may well face more than one of his scenarios on Sunday, so one way or another, it could take more than one person to fill Rusnak’s shoes over those 90 – or 120 – minutes.