HERRIMAN, Utah – Real Salt Lake head coach Mike Petke has three or four different scenarios bouncing around his head when it comes to his starting lineup for Thursday on the road at LAFC in the Knockout Round of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs (10:30 pm ET | ESPN2, UniMás in US; TSN, TVAS in Canada — Full TV & streaming info).
The only thing he knows for sure is his wife won’t be suiting up for the Claret and Cobalt.
“I want to pick people who I’ll go to battle with,” Petke said on Monday. “Obviously this is not battle, in a sporting context I’m talking about, they have to have qualities on the ball as well. My wife I’d go to battle with any day, but I’m not going to put her out against LAFC.
“We have a couple of options and we have been working on those options. [It’s] not like we’re going to spring them on the team the day of the game. We’re working on a couple of scenarios.”
Picking a starting XI has been made difficult for two reasons. First, the assumed first XI hasn’t performed as well recently, with recent 3-0 and 4-1 losses against Portland. In between, Salt Lake’s 4-1 win over New England came without Albert Rusnak, Joao Plata, Jefferson Savarino, Kyle Beckerman, Justen Glad and Sunny on the field.
Rusnak hasn’t scored or assisted on a goal since Sept. 1. Damir Kreilach had a goal and two assists playing as the No. 10 against New England. Corey Baird and Sebastian Saucedo each had a goal and an assist in that victory, totals that took Plata his last six games to reach. Savarino did it over his last three games, but the question remains which combination up top will give Salt Lake the best chance for the victory.
Between his games for Slovakia all over Europe, Rusnak has probably traveled more miles and played more games than any other RSL player this season. In the middle of that was his decision to not travel with the team to finalize his new contract. For him that’s in the past, it’s everyone else that needs to be patient.
“Before the end of the season everybody will know what’s going on. I’m not focused on that anymore,” Rusnak said.
After returning from Europe and suiting up for the Portland game, Rusnak has had 10 days off. Add in the jolt of his first playoff berth and he feels ready to get back to his old self on the field.
“That second half of LA-Houston recharged my batteries. I’m feeling good,” Rusnak said.
LAFC is coming off a loss to Sporting KC and for Rusnak he won’t have a true holding midfielder to mark him all game. That’s a two-edged sword in his mind.
“They have all three midfielders who are attack minded so that means they’ll be looking to keep the ball more than us and that means we could be defending more than attacking and that’s not the way I like to play,” Rusnak said.
Who does Petke feel will step up?
“Time will tell,” he said.
Whoever gets the start, whichever scenario wins out, that group will have been tried in practice to the point where Petke is comfortable with what they’ll bring in a pressure-packed elimination game.
“The way that we have wanted to handle these last seven days was, even before the game [last Sunday], we were preparing to play Thursday,” Petke said. “It didn’t matter what happened on Sunday. That’s what we were preparing for. It was a playoff mentality. There was a lot of fight in practice and they’re in that zone right now.”
The second reason his lineup decision is tricky is that RSL lost both games to LAFC this year: 5-1 in Salt Lake’s home opener and 2-0 in LA in August. There’s not a lot of success to build on, so something has to change.
“We feel like we haven’t shown our best against them yet,” Beckerman said. “We haven’t shown what we’re capable of yet. We were excited when we saw it was them. It’s going to be extremely tough. They’re a really good team and they have got the better of us, but there’s no reason we can’t try and change things.”