They’re very strong, they’re very fast, they’re very high aggressive, they’ve had a good run of games and I’m sure in their minds they’re thinking they’re going to continue that. —Real Salt Lake coach Mike Petke, on New York Red Bulls
SANDY — The New York Red Bulls are the toast of MLS right now.
Sandwiched around a season-opening 4-0 thrashing of the Portland Timbers last weekend, the Red Bulls beat Club Tijuana 2-0 at home and then 3-1 away in a dominant performance in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.
Along with Toronto FC, the Red Bulls are in the CCL semifinals and hoping to make history by becoming the first MLS team to win in its current format, which dates back to 2008. A Mexican team has hoisted the cup every year.
Real Salt Lake reached the CCL final back in 2011 — one of just two MLS teams to reach the final. That achievement seems like it occurred ages ago, especially in light of the club suffering its worst home defeat in franchise history last week against expansion Los Angeles FC.
The task this Saturday could be even more difficult for RSL as it tries to chill the Red Bulls on Rio Tinto Stadium (7 p.m., KMYU).
“We know what they’re going to come with. They’re very strong, they’re very fast, they’re very high aggressive, they’ve had a good run of games and I’m sure in their minds they’re thinking they’re going to continue that,” said Real Salt Lake coach Mike Petke, who previously coached at New York in 2013 and 2014.
New York has outscored its opponents 9-1 over the past three games, and one of its biggest strengths is similar to LAFC’s strength — terrific in transition.
LAFC exposed RSL in transition routinely in last week’s thrashing, a major source of frustration for Petke because that’s supposed to be his team’s strength.
“Everybody looks at the goalie or the back four when goals go in, but it starts up top. It has to be everybody in transition defending, has to be fully committed, and preseason and the end of last year that’s what made us as successful as we were last year, everybody committed and getting back in transition,” said Petke.
RSL was punished for its poor transition defense last week, but Petke has been pleased with the response in training this week.
“We very rarely, in my opinion, have a bad week of training. Obviously ramped up a little bit. The week of training was great. I’m very happy,” said Petke.
The Red Bulls like to play high pressure and try and force teams into poor giveaways. When they do occur, they’re off to the races.
Injuries might again limit Petke’s lineup choices on Saturday.
Joao Plata didn’t participate in Friday’s training session for precautionary reasons, while Marcelo Silva only participated in half the session and did individual work on the side during the rest of the time.
Shawn Berry did not train on Friday, which should open the door for Adam Henley to make his RSL debut after missing the first two games with a hamstring injury. Henley was brought in to be the starting right back after Tony Beltran had major knee surgery in the offseason.
After his team allowed five goals last week, more lineup changes could be in store. Petke, however, hopes results on the weekend aren’t dictating how his players train during the week. He expects max effort every week.
“In my career, if I didn’t start a game or two, to me it was a process of elimination. Not so much physically, but I’m going to go out there and I’m going to eliminate whoever is in front of me by outperforming him and working and not hanging my head and saying ‘I didn’t play this weekend, or coach doesn’t like me’ or whatever it is. For me, that’s an easy answer — they should always be bringing it,” said Petke.
After this weekend Real Salt Lake has a week off to prepare for a visit to defending MLS Cup champ Toronto on Friday, March 30.