HERRIMAN — They’ve been waiting for this day since their second-round playoff exit at Kansas City, and the day has finally come.
Real Salt Lake is officially back.
RSL officially kicked off the 2019 season on Monday at Zions Bank Real Academy in Herriman with a short practice which included the dreaded first six-minute fitness run of the season.
“I’ve been waiting for this day since the last game in Kansas City, and that’s the truth. My wife’s sick of me, my kids are somewhat sick of me, I just was dying to get back here. It felt good and I’m looking forward to getting to LA (Tuesday),” RSL head coach Mike Petke said.
Expectations are high for RSL, which made a playoff run in 2018 after getting into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, after Houston defeated the LA Galaxy. RSL shocked LAFC on the road before falling to rival Sporting Kansas City on aggregate.
On Monday, though, Petke was just laying the groundwork. Most of the team was there on the first day of training, though Justen Glad and Corey Baird were at United States Men’s National Team training, Jordan Allen was given a personal day and Everton Luiz is still waiting to complete paperwork to officially join the team.
“We have 40 days from today until our season opener. The whole, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ is very true. The meeting I just had with them was just some basic parameters. Tomorrow night we’ll have a more in-depth meeting in LA and when we get back to Utah for the first day, when everybody should be here, Corey (Baird), Justen (Glad), and perhaps some other players, then we’ll have a real intense meeting, but today was just setting the groundwork, a little bit of expectations and just welcoming them back,” Petke said.
Early on, Petke is trying to hammer home building the right culture.
“A culture of accountability, of loyalty, of respect. Every single day, for the amount of time that we’re together, giving 100 percent — mentally and physically. Those are the key core values that I hold and I always have held. I’ve seen it more and more on a daily and weekly basis since I’ve taken over, but I think we can do better as a whole group,” Petke said.
RSL will try to build on last season’s playoff run and the breakout play of several of its stars.
“I think the biggest thing will be just age. We’ve gained a ton of experience, a lot of guys got a ton of minutes that they hadn’t had before, so that helps them come into this season with a lot of confidence and knowing what to expect,” midfielder Kyle Beckerman said.
Beckerman, one of the veteran leaders on the team, said that consistency is the key to a successful season.
“We’ve just got to keep building, just keep building toward consistency. Do better on the road than we did last year, do better at home than we did last year and all in all, we’ll be a better team. We’ve got a lot of work to do. Just because of what we did the past couple of years, we’ve gotten this experience, doesn’t guarantee anything this year. We’ve got to put in that work and hopefully the results will come with that,” Beckerman said.
RSL adds nine new players to its 2019 preseason roster — Luiz, Luis Arriaga, Erik Holt, David Ochoa, Tate Schmitt, Donny Toia, Julian Vasquez, Sam Brown and Kyle Coffee.
“We have plenty of new players. Me personally, I don’t know what they are like. It will take us at least a couple of weeks to see what each individual brings and what they’re like,” midfielder Albert Rusnak said.
Rusnak, Tony Beltran and Luke Mulholland expressed that they were happy to be back with RSL after being re-signed.
One of the main topics discussed during media time after training was the new MLS schedule. The league cut nearly a month off the regular season, which will now end on Oct. 6. The MLS Cup will be held on Nov. 10. Last season, the regular season ended on Oct. 28 and the MLS Cup was held on Dec. 8. There will be more than a few spans in the season where RSL plays three games in eight days.
MLS also shook up the playoff format significantly. Previously, the playoffs featured knockout games between seeds No. 3 and 6 and No. 4 and 5 in each conference to advance, with the top two teams in each conference receiving a bye. Then a two-leg series in the conference semifinals and conference finals, where the winner advanced on aggregate, determined the participants in the single-elimination MLS Cup final. In 2019, seven teams will make the playoffs and all playoff games will be a knockout format, with only the No.1 seeds getting a first-round bye, giving a big advantage to home teams — something that Rusnak stressed.
“In this league you have to make the playoffs, because just winning the regular season doesn’t really mean anything. With the new schedule of how the playoffs are going to be played, it will be important to finish as high as you can in the regular season so you get to play some home games. I believe the home game is the biggest advantage in this league,” Rusnak said.2 comments on this story
All the RSL players that spoke to the media were big fans of the new schedule, which means more time playing matches.
“I think it’s a no-brainer. It’s a win for packaging our league for television, which is the big money-maker and kind of the market we’ve been missing,” Beltran said. “I think it’s going to be fun, honestly, for me as a player.”
In other Real news, the Real Monarchs announced that Martin Vasquez is their new head coach. Jamison Olave remains on as an assistant coach.