SANDY, Utah – Real Salt Lake head coach Mike Petke has played 26 different starting lineups this season. His 26th was arguably his most successful: The one that earned RSL’s 3-2 victory over LAFC in the Knockout Round of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs on Thursday night.
It can be tricky to maintain buy-in and effort from the players on the field and avoid negative feelings in the locker room when lineups and tactics are shuffled, but Petke has managed to pull it off.
“It’s knowing what’s expected at every position,” Salt Lake forward Corey Baird said. “There’s a standard we have set. We know when you’re in this spot, you know what’s expected of you. No matter who’s in the game, everyone knows what’s expected, the standard they have to uphold, and if they’re not going to do that they’re not going to get on the field. We have done a good job throughout the year just making sure that we have that standard.”
Baird replaced Joao Plata in the lineup early in the season, was overtaken by Plata through the summer and found himself back in the XI on Thursday. Midfielder Sunday “Sunny” Stephen was on the opposite side of such a decision on Thursday night.
“I have always said one player’s misfortune is another player’s opportunity,” Petke said. “I went with Luke [Mulholland] because over the last month of training he has been the highest worker and the most demanding. You could sense he’s worked so hard to get back [from back surgery], but he’s earned the right to start. I talked to Sunny. It was a sense that we had and it worked out.”
Mulholland provided exactly what Petke needed, and Sunny was ready to play, coming off the bench in the late going to help close out the win. Sunny said Petke makes it easy because of how open and specific he is with the players.
“For Mike, he’s been there from the start and he shows his character,” said the Nigerian. “What he wants from you, he tells you. We have been helping each other in every area we could. Whoever plays, everyone is ready. Even if he pulls you aside, you should be ready to play. The mentality is there. The training has been phenomenal. Everyone should be ready to go.”
Given the breadth of lineup changes Petke has made through this season, it’s impressive to see just how many players he has gotten solid efforts from. He’s switched out players for the best results throughout the regular season and now into the playoffs.
At left back, Aaron Herrera and Danny Acosta have platooned over much of the year. Brooks Lennon went from the first attacking player off the bench to starting right back. Baird saw time at center forward instead of his typical winger role. Damir Kreilach has bounced around from a holding midfielder to a false No. 9. Late-season signing Nedum Onuoha got up to speed in a month and a half to lend a great performance on Thursday. Center back Nick Besler even provided a solid performance as a midfielder in the win over New England on Oct. 18.
“It’s a credit to the players who have stepped up when they have maybe not got the minutes they wanted,” Petke said.
Given RSL’s success against Sporting Kansas City (1-0-1) so far this year, Petke may not spring too many surprises in Sunday’s Western Conference Semifinal first leg at Rio Tinto Stadium (10 pm ET | FS1, TVAS, TSN5).
But you can expect that whoever is in the starting XI will be ready.