SANDY — There was a clear sense of accomplishment coming from Real Salt Lake’s players and coaches following Sunday’s season-ending win over Kansas City.
It might seem odd for a team that missed the playoffs to be upbeat, but considering where the club was in late June to where it finished the season — battling for a playoff berth on the last day — RSL had reason to be pleased.
It finished the season with an 8-3-3 record over the final 14 games, the fourth best record in MLS over that stretch.
RSL missed the playoffs by just one point though, and it’s human nature to reflect back to the 15 losses or six ties and wonder how the club could’ve picked up one more measly point somewhere to qualify for the playoffs.
Mike Petke shared that sentiment after Sunday’s match, and he genuinely believes RSL would be in the playoffs had he coached a bit differently in his first month or so. He doesn’t regret how things unfolded, but he’s left wanting more as the season ends.
“I feel if I would have managed a couple of games in those dog days of summer a bit better, maybe we would have pulled out two or three draws instead of losses. My mindset that whole time was that I wanted to instill my philosophy on them in the way I wanted to play, even if we lost, because it would have paid dividends in the long run, and it did,” said Petke.
“But perhaps if I would have bunkered, and in those games we got two or three more points we’d be sitting here a little different.”
So while many focus on the three straight ties at home this summer against Kansas City, Columbus and Houston as the reason Real Salt Lake missed the playoffs, perhaps the four straight losses a few months earlier was the biggest culprit.
With a squad depleted by injuries and international call-ups, from April 22 to May 13 RSL lost to Atlanta 3-1, Kansas City 3-0, FC Dallas 3-0 and New England 4-0. Two of those losses were at home.
RSL didn’t intentionally sit back in any of those losses as Petke tried to put his stamp on the team — something any coach would prefer to do in the preseason.
It seems reasonable to think that RSL could’ve ground out a tie in at least one of those four games had that been the objective from the opening kickoff.
But, had Petke approached change more slowing after his hiring in late March, would the type of soccer RSL played over the last three months ever materialized? Had the squad not picked up on Petke’s vision in April in May, would highlights like the 6-2 win over Los Angeles, the 4-1 win over Portland, the 4-0 win over San Jose or the 4-1 win over Colorado ever happened?
Those are the what-ifs there are no easy answers to.
“I honestly make all of my decisions with, in the back of mind I don’t want to ever regret anything, so I check everything and I really go over and over it,” he said.
“I think we’re better off as a team and playing soccer the way I want to play because we didn’t bunker so many times, but it’s bittersweet because I’d like to be in playoffs right now and I know the guys would as well.”
That hunger should carry over 2018, and expectations will be very high for Real Salt Lake if they can keep most of the roster intact this offseason.