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SANDY — It’s only four games into the 2018 regular season, but Real Salt Lake is just 1-1-2 with two multi-goal losses.
RSL’s lone victory was a gritty 1-0 home win over the New York Red Bulls, while it also boasts a 5-1 home loss to expansion club Los Angeles FC and a 3-1 road defeat to Toronto FC — the defending MLS Cup champion — last Friday.
Suddenly a once-proud defense has been leaking goals.
What’s happened to a side that once boasted one of the top defenses in Major League Soccer, and still has arguably the league’s all-time best goalkeeper in Nick Rimando?
It’s pretty simple, Albert Rusnak mused after training this week.
“We played four games, and we’ve conceded five goals, three, one — that’s nine goals in four games,” he calculated. “That’s way too many.
“We score every game … so that’s not our problem. If we can keep a clean sheet like we did against New York a bit more often, then we’ll get more points on the table.”
RSL coach Mike Petke also has a solution, and it doesn’t have to do with designated players, formations or the players currently under contract.
It’s not even about the mounting injuries barely a month into the season — though that could also be an excuse, with a lack of depth plaguing the back line, in particular.
Great question, coach. 🤔 pic.twitter.com/3aybzEYi5L— KSL SportsBeat (@kslsports) April 5, 2018
Still, Petke sums up Salt Lake’s issues in one word: mentality. It’s a buzzword that can mean a lot of things for a lot of coaches. But for Petke, a former psychology minor at South Connecticut State, it involves a collective off-thinking to his team that remained largely intact from last season’s squad that ended the year as one of the hottest teams in MLS.
“Mentality is not a huge problem for our team,” Petke said during the Mike Petke Coach’s Show on the KSL TV app. “When I talk about mentality, people think there’s something crazy going on. But no, it’s the little things.
“The way I was as a player — which is perhaps unfair — is that I came to work every day and my mindset was that I didn’t have a starting position. How can I go to a player who doesn’t have that mentality?”
Petke was the New England Collegiate Conference defensive player of the year and first-team All-American in 1997. He went on to a 12-year career in MLS, mostly with the Red Bulls and its rebranded predecessor, the New York/New Jersey MetroStars.
But every time he checked into training, he assumed he didn’t have a starting job.
Is that what RSL needs?
It might not fix everything, he admits. But the talent is there for Salt Lake to compete for big prizes in the league — as it did in 2009 and 2010, among other seasons.
“When I talk to Greg (Vanney) and Robin (Fraser, both at Toronto FC) for an assessment of my team, the one thing they said was the talent we have when they show up and are on board — when the mentality is 100 percent — is on top of the league with other teams,” Petke said.
Instead, little things add up. Real Salt Lake gave away two penalty kick opportunities in the first 20 minutes at Toronto (Rimando saved one), and was behind the attacking foot almost immediately.
“It’s simple stuff,” Rusnak said. “It’s just one ball played through, and all of a sudden, it’s a PK or a goal. That’s far too easy.
“We have to sort it out here on the practice field.”
Of course, winning cures a lot — as it did when RSL bounced back from its 5-1 humiliation to Los Angeles and picked up a badly needed win against New York.
And while a lot of tactics will be tested before kickoff Saturday at 7:30 p.m. against the Whitecaps, Petke and his players stressed that, yes, the season that doesn’t wrap up until the middle of autumn is still young.
But there is no better time to fix RSL’s issues than the one-year anniversary of Petke’s first home match after being promoted from head coach of the Real Monarchs, who are thriving in the second division.
“As long as we can bounce back with a win against Vancouver this Saturday, a lot will be forgotten,” Rusnak said. “We have to win the home games, and then we have to pick up some points on the road. But the home games are the key.”