After walking off the field on Saturday, Real Salt Lake’s players and coaches slowly learned that their 2-1 win over the Portland Timbers – combined with other results around the league – lifted RSL into the top six spots in the Western Conference. For the first time in the 2017 season, the Claret-and-Cobalt was in playoff position.
There were noticeable smiles around the room – “subdued excitement,” according to Head Coach Mike Petke – but the overwhelming feeling was that there was still more to be done.
“That’s a great feeling,” said midfielder Albert Rusnák, who had a goal and an assist in the win. “We do need the other teams to drop points around us, but all we can do is try to win the rest of the games we have in the season. If we do that and we don’t make it to the playoffs, we can still look ourselves in the mirror and be proud of what we did in the final push to the playoffs.”
The win over the Timbers – and the manner in which RSL earned the three points – gave reason to be optimistic about the final four matches on RSL’s regular season slate. It was also a culmination of the efforts Petke had made since being elevated to the head coach’s chair five games into the season.
It was a slow process, but a process nonetheless that the players patiently endured, fighting through difficult stretches in the season trusting that once Petke’s vision was closer to reality it would bear fruit for RSL.
“Since Mike’s come in, it’s been a transition – trying to understand the way he wants to play and the mentality he wants us to have,” defender Tony Beltran said. “I think you saw that gradually come to a head starting in July. We just have to continue it trending upward the rest of the year.”
Salt Lake is 11-11-3 since Petke took over the reins, but the real dramatic turnaround came on July 4. That is when RSL topped the LA Galaxy 6-2 at the StubHub Center and in the 11 matches since RSL has been among the top teams in MLS. The 6-2-3 record Salt Lake carries ranks fourth in MLS since July 4, behind Toronto FC (8-0-3), Seattle Sounders FC (6-0-5) and Vancouver Whitecaps FC (7-2-3).
“To be there right now is a credit to the guys,” Petke said. “Once the whistle blows I have no control, so credit to the players these last couple months and for the win tonight and to be at the position they’re in right now.”
While there is excitement – no matter how subdued – about looking at the Western Conference standings and seeing Real Salt Lake listed above the playoff line, the sense of what’s ahead is not lost on RSL.
“It’s on to the next one,” Petke smiled. “Next weekend’s going to be a bigger game.”