SANDY, Utah – The thrill of a successful season can be a powerful drug. Real Salt Lake head coach Mike Petke has the bitter pill of a close loss in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs to build anticipation for what 2019 holds.
Falling one goal shy of the Western Conference Championship by his estimation, Petke has his list for the offseason ready. His first task: finding more leadership.
With a young team and two well-defined leaders in Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman, Salt Lake need the next generation to put its newfound experience to use. That begins with Albert Rusnak. Petke expects more goals, more assists, and better play out of his star No. 10, but he also expects more leadership.
“The final thing for Albert is to continue to mold himself into a leader of this team,” the coach said. “I think that’s one of the next big evolutions for Albert is to really find a way that he could lead on this team.”
Given Beckerman and Rimando’s decades of experience, finding that type of role could be a challenge. Especially since they won’t be leaving any holes to fill quite yet.
“I don’t think bringing up the word ‘retire’ to them is a good thing,” Petke said. “Only they know that. and I don’t think it’s in their wheelhouse right now.”
Both are under contract for 2019, and will factor into Petke’s biggest offseason priority: RSL’s team culture. In more basic personnel terms, forward is his biggest position of need.
“It’s no secret. We have not had a striker playing for us for a year and a half,” Petke said. “We have made due with goals coming from different positions and with the re-invention of Damir [Kreilach]’s position.”
That re-invention will probably continue into 2019, however, no matter what other moves that are made.
“Damir was brought in as a No. 8. I consider him more now of a top-four attacking player,” said Petke. “Is he a forward? I would assume there’s going to be times next year, whether that’s one game or 34 games. Depends on who we bring in, depends on who we’re playing, depends on how things pan out in preseason. Obviously Damir has proved himself a big part of this team, a big asset and it’s on us to fit these pieces in place.”
This year RSL showed they’re close to a breakthrough with young talent that should keep improving. It’s the locker room and the club’s culture that has Petke wanting even more.
“We have talent, even though we’re young. We have talent and that side of it I’m happy with, but the culture for me is of the utmost importance,” Petke said. “That’s what we need out of 30 players – not 18, not 22, not 25, out of 30 players.
“Culture is a huge thing for me this offseason, in molding my team for next year.”