Throughout the offseason and over the course of his tenure as General Manager at Real Salt Lake, Craig Waibel has sought players that challenge the depth on his roster – players that will enhance the dynamic in the locker room and create difficult decisions for the coaching staff when the lineup card is filled out each week.
With the addition of Alfredo Ortuno – a 17-goal scorer in the Spanish second division in his last full season – that mantra was taken to heart by incumbent starter Luis Silva.
In his second stint with Real Salt Lake, Silva started the 2017 season as a versatile contributor who gave the club options in many roles in the attacking third. By the end of the season, he had earned the starting forward role and shared the team lead with seven goals on the year.
Now he is making sure that no decision will be easily made for Head Coach Mike Petke when he draws up the starting 11 on March 4 when RSL takes on FC Dallas in the MLS opener.
“He’s taking it as a challenge and you can tell in the way he’s been playing this preseason,” Petke said. “You can tell that he realizes that he has to do what he did last year, which is earn a position in the starting lineup. It doesn’t matter that we brought in another number nine. The starter is going to prove himself on the field. It’s anybody’s game right now.”
For his part, Silva went into the offseason with a plan to make himself more suitable for the role as the striker in RSL’s formation. That included work in the weight room and fitness work to endure some of the battles with center backs that come with playing the target role.
He knew that coming into the preseason with a striker’s mentality would give him the best opportunity to continue his hot finish in 2017.
“When things are going for you, they’re going for you. I’m hoping to keep that up no matter who comes,” Silva said, noting he is no stranger to competing for a starting role, as he did with D.C. United when he shared the lead in scoring in 2014. “It’s good. It keeps you on your toes. You can’t relax. I like the competition. It helps improve your level of play as well.”
While Silva is vying for the starting striker spot, he doesn’t necessarily play the position in a completely traditional way. A technical player who plays well with the ball at his feet, his strengths involve pulling defenders out of their comfort zones to create open lanes for the creative trio that surrounds him in the attack. That leaves players like Albert Rusnák, Jefferson Savarino, Joao Plata and Brooks Lennon, among others, opportunities to utilize their strengths in better positions in and around the opponents’ goal.
That paid dividends late in the season when those five players combined to contribute 24 goals and 21 assists over the club’s final 15 matches of the season, a stretch that saw RSL go 8-3-4 to close out the regular season.
That chemistry has been evident early in RSL’s preseason.
“He’s been working well with the other players with interchanging and ball movement and combination play like he did last year,” Petke said. “He’s done well so far and he has to continue along that route.”
Whether starting or coming off the bench, Silva is approaching the season with an aim on doing whatever he can to help RSL get back into the playoffs after missing the postseason in two of the last three years. The daily competition for playing time is just added motivation.
“I think every player is different. I always look back at what I’ve been through to keep myself motivated. Family helps with that too,” he said. “It’s going to happen and some players are mentally stronger than others. If that’s the case, I’m prepared for it. If I’m starting, I’m prepared for it. I’m just trying to win that starting position.”