I can’t be the only one who wanted to be a fly on the wall in Mike Petke’s office on Monday morning, when Yura Movsisyan presumably came barreling through the door to issue his head coach a spirited “I told you so” after scoring a scrappy game-winner against Minnesota.
Relations between Movsisyan and Petke have been tense for weeks – a spat about playing time went public following a loss in Seattle in late May – and the most expensive player in Real Salt Lake history gave us plenty to chew on when he celebrated his first goal since April 15 by making shushing and lip-zipping motions, some said in the direction of his own bench.
Afterwards, basking in the glow of three much-needed points, Petke seemed unbothered by the display. Ever unfiltered, Petke described a conversation he had with Movsisyan before the game about his substitute role vs. the Loons, this after giving his Designated Player the hook at halftime of a 6-2 loss to FC Dallas – the second such early exit in a matter of weeks, making it clear that no spot was safe by relegating him to the bench twice more before that.
“I told him there’s nothing more that I would want than for you to come off the bench and score and for you to come into the office the next day and tell me ‘Go you-know-what-yourself. I told you so,’” Petke said of Movsisyan after last weekend's victory. “I would want nothing more. I hope he comes in tomorrow, slams the door, and tells me.”
I hope Petke has industrial-grade hinges on his office door because this season has been the sort of painful slog liable to rip that thing from its moorings. I also think Movsisyan’s reaction – the goal and celebration – is exactly what Petke was hoping for when he directly challenged his team’s attacking centerpiece to be better.
Don’t be surprised if this goal (and outburst) sparks the streaky Movsisyan. Petke wasn’t brought in to be buddy-buddy with his players. He was brought in to get more out of them than Jeff Cassar. The Long Island boy doesn’t pull punches and values discipline, and that’s what owner Dell Loy Hansen was looking for when he turned to the Real Monarchs boss in late March.
MLS’s top purveyor of sideline sweaters knows a thing or two about the mixture of pride, ego and pressure that courses through the veins of big-name strikers, too. Remember, Petke benched Thierry Henry in his first year as a head coach, a move that helped spark the New York Red Bulls to the 2013 Supporters’ Shield.
I can say with 100 percent confidence that this gambit won’t net RSL a Shield. But I have a feeling that the club’s future will be brighter because of the friction Petke, Movsisyan and the rest of the club are experiencing in the wake of a parade of recent blowout losses.
And not just in 2018 and beyond. Today. Tomorrow. The next day. All the way into October, where they may just be competing for a place in the MLS Cup Playoffs. As bad as it’s been, RSL are currently just three points away from the playoff line.
The only way they’re going to climb above that line is if their best players play like it, and that starts with Movsisyan, around whom RSL’s attack is built. With Joao Plata, Albert Rusnak, Brooks Lennon and now Jefferson Savarino providing service, this was Movsisyan’s year to finally hit double-digit goals in MLS. It was his year to chase a Golden Boot and maybe more.
The 29-year-old Armenian international may be upset and frustrated right now, but there’s no doubt Movsisyan is also motivated. He wants to prove Petke and the rest of the doubters wrong. This is his legacy, and he knows that collective success begets personal glory.
“It’s very important for the team. Important for the morale of the team and the players,” Movsisyan said Saturday night. “A lot of things have been said about the team and our players but we still believed in each other and everybody in this locker room believes in each other.”
Maybe I’m crazy, but they’ve got every right to believe. Yes, 2017 has been painful – OK, often downright excruciating – for RSL and their fans, yet there are plenty of reasons to think this team was miscast as a basement dweller.
Injuries ravaged the roster. Plata bucked back against a new management style – and saw his PT dwindle because of it – but seems on board now and primed to be the terror that prompted general manager Craig Waibel to sign him to a DP contract in February. The U-20 World Cup deprived Petke of the services of the young core that is this team’s future.
So, like any head coach in the midst of a slump, Petke pushed some buttons, including Movsisyan’s.
He did what he could while the starters healed up and the likes of Justen Glad, Danny Acosta, Bofo Saucedo and Lennon made names for themselves in South Korea. He gave Plata some tough love. He made it clear who the alpha dog was in the locker room.
It took a while and there were some lumps along the way, but RSL now have something to build on. They have hope in a season that was veering toward hopeless.