SANDY — Real Salt Lake’s season came to a close Sunday at Rio Tinto, through no fault of its own. The team did its part, dispatching Sporting Kansas City, 2-1.
This one was in the hands of others.
Real had to win, but both Dallas and San Jose had to lose or tie in order for Salt Lake to make the playoffs. That didn’t happen. But unlike most short endings, this one ended on the upswing.
After a coaching change, the accompanying transition, and overcoming injuries, suspensions and call-ups, Real closed out the year by gaining a result in seven of its last 10 games. That’s in large part due to the addition of coach Mike Petke. Next year things could look considerably different, with Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman now free agents. Yet Sunday’s postmortem wasn’t a downer event.
From July 4 through Sept. 9, RSL got a result in eight of nine matches.
That comeback turned arguably the league’s worst team into what Petke felt was “the best team in the league” during that run.
Petke has a gift for entertainment, win or lose. Asked after the game about plans for the off-season, he rattled off a short list of things he wanted to work on with the team.
“And I’m going to Africa on safari in December,” he said. “I didn’t know if you wanted to know what I was doing in the off-season, or just tactically, but I’m going to be going to Africa.”
RSL might miss the playoffs, but don’t miss out on Petke. Neither he nor his team went out quietly. Which is a gift for Utah.
A coach who speaks openly is a rarity nowadays.
Take, for instance, the lead-up to Sunday’s concluding match. Petke met with media members after practice during the week and laid it out, calling an injury to Tony Beltran against Colorado “crap.”
"Tony got injured in a crap game with a team that had no ambition," Petke said. "He got injured on a crap play in a crap environment.”
He admitted at the time he would be checking scores of the concurrent San Jose and Dallas games during Sunday afternoon to see if Real made the playoffs. Then he caught himself.
“I’ll know,” he said. “Well, I don’t know if I’ll know. Hopefully someone from the crowd yells it out to me because I don’t believe we’re allowed to be told. But I’ll relay our tactics based on no, what am I saying?”
He’s saying something interesting.
Petke earned postgame immortality this summer when he went on a rant after being dismissed from a July match in which Joao Plata was roughed up by Kansas City’s Ilie Sanchez. Petke began by apologizing to the team, the ownership and the fans, then blasted away about what he termed a “headlock” on Plata.
“Do you have your cameras rolling? Do you have your radio recording devices on? Get ‘em on,” he told media. He handed out photos of that play, and other apparent Sanchez violations, this year, and ripped away. Included in the collection was another shot of a Kansas City player with his hands on the throat of an opponent.
“I am who I am,” Petke said that day. “If I don’t act the way I do, I can’t sleep for the next four weeks.”
He concluded, “OK? Now I’m good. Now I’m good. Questions?”
Will he please stay forever?
Then came Sunday. Same opponent as on the night he went on his rant. Petke was quotable as ever.
“I’m extremely proud of these guys because they’ve earned the right to be in the playoffs and we’re not,” he said.
Missing the playoffs is never a good thing. But once things got synched, RSL was impressive. That’s why there was considerable optimism, despite drawing a postseason blank.
Considering RSL’s turnaround, Petke should be able to sleep just fine this winter.