SANDY, Utah – Inheriting a last-place team with myriad issues, Mike Petke tore down Real Salt Lake and built the team he wanted, layer by layer.
The team has made a late climb into the playoff hunt, but regardless of how the standings look at season’s end there’s new hope for the future in Utah. Petke’s done it with a couple new additions and some tactical shifts, but he says his first task was to get everyone to listen.
“I remember the very first practice I was here, very first, I made one tactical change, which is how our outside backs played,” Petke said. “We worked on it for that first day, second and third day leading into the first game, and I saw that aspect right away. That told me immediately, ‘OK, I have players that are willing to listen.’”
From there, he went about building a new foundation and constructing a revamped contender on top of it.
“It’s been a lot of hard work,” RSL captain Kyle Beckerman said. “It’s winning games. It’s finding an identity again. You start to get all those things. You build a foundation. Guys start to get familiar. You start playing together more. You start going into games expecting to win. When you’re on the road, you’re going to expect a result. You get that belief more in everything you do and that builds your foundation.”
Petke was skeptical of just where everyone was when it came to believing in themselves and the team at first. But now he’s confident in the team’s mentality.
“These guys believe and they know what they’re capable of. That’s one thing that I know I’m not questioning at all,” said the former New York Red Bulls boss.
With those answers, Petke went to work changing the team to look a bit more like him.
“The way things click is, we tell the players, we show the players, we work on with the players, how we want to play and what our expectations are,” Petke said.
Since April, RSL have changed into a team that likes to press defensively, transition quickly into the attack, involve the outside backs in the buildup and stay solid at the back, even when there are only four players back to defend.
“We were able to add layers. I’m not saying every layer we added was perfectly implemented, but my whole thing is I like to see the attempt at it,” Petke said. “It’s not always going to come off. If I want a player to do A and he does B, C and D, I’m not going to be happy about it, but if I tell him to do A and he tries to do it, I can never fault him if it doesn’t work out. Just as long as they’re listening.”
Each new layer was a work in progress from April through June, and a new layer didn’t always lead to better match results. A couple wins here and there were followed by lopsided defeats in the following weeks. That cycle continued until July.
Then Real started matching results to their mentality and implementation of Petke’s tactics. Center back Justen Glad also returned at the end of June and stepped into Petke’s lineup to good effect. With the addition of attacker Jefferson Savarino and the later signing of Marcelo Silva, Salt Lake found a starting XI that worked well together and started to produce wins at home and points on the road consistently.
“We played Portland and had that good result. We played LA and had that good result. The ball just started rolling,” Glad said. “People were healthy. People were feeling good. The attacking players started clicking. The defense tightened it up a little bit. It’s been awesome to be a part of.”
Over the last three months, Salt Lake are 7-2-4, haven’t lost at home and are doing so with a relatively young lineup outside club mainstays Beckerman, goalkeeper Nick Rimando and right back Tony Beltran.
However the season’s final two weeks turn out, RSL will either have a run of good form heading into the playoffs, or a solid base to start next season with.
“We’re excited to be a part of it," Beckerman said. "To just keep building and building to build up a house with a good foundation to stand on for a while."