Real Salt Lake coach Mike Petke was seething after last weekend’s 3-1 loss to Toronto FC, and took it out on some unsuspecting broadcasters in the post-game interview.
“The only thing I’m going to say is I know what the problem is, and it’s going to be remedied one way or another, OK?” he fumed, moments before ripping off his headset and rage-walking out of the broadcast.
“That’s all you’re going to get from me right now, and I apologize. I know what the problem is, and it’s going to be fixed. One way or another.”
It has been another rough start for Petke’s boys — who have just one win in their first four Major League Soccer games — but not an unfamiliar one.
Last year, they were winless in their first five games, drawing two and losing three before Petke took over on March 29. The slow start was matched by a late-season surge that saw them win eight and lose just three over their final 15 games. That’s why this year’s leaden beginning has vexed Petke so much.
“You can teach players to pass the ball from A to B,” Petke told the Salt Lake Tribune earlier this week.
“You can teach a player to move three yards to the left to receive the ball. I’m not a psychiatrist. It’s going to be interesting to talk to individuals and collectively about our mentality. But again it’s early in the season, but that’s clear. When I say mentality, it covers a lot of things.”
There are shades of 2017 to this year’s start. When Petke took over the Claret and Cobalt last year, the team had scored just nine goals and was on a 13-game winless slide. They’re tied for the league’s worst goal differential this year, and that includes a winless Seattle Sounders team that has yet to score a goal in 2018.
Petke pointed to his team’s mentality as its Achilles heel. For Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson, his team’s mentality has been its greatest strength on the road.
They endured Houston’s dynamic attack. They rebounded from the red-card controversy in Atlanta. They stood the course following a scoreless tie with L.A. They held firm after giving up a soft goal and having one disallowed in Columbus.
“When things go against you, it’s important that you stick your chest out, you smile, and you work hard. And we did that. We didn’t let the disappointment of the goal (in Columbus) affect us, we went again and again. We knew we had a point, but we wanted more,” said Robinson.
RSL’s road back to respectability under Petke, Robinson’s former teammate and fellow assistant with the New York Red Bulls, began in his very first game: last year’s April 8 meeting with the Whitecaps at Rio Tinto. A scoreless first half gave away to a flurry of snow and RSL goals in the second in the infamous snow game.
“It’s a tough place, the altitude … the weather. Last year was probably the coldest game I’ve ever played in my life, to be honest,” said right back Jake Nerwinski, who is the only Whitecap besides goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic to play all 450 minutes this season.
“They’re a lot like Columbus. They have the guys, their inverted wingers so they play inside, those quick little guys, and they’re pretty good up top. They have good movement, they keep the ball well, so it’s going to be a tough game.”
One of those is 5-2, 157-pound Ecuadorean midfielder Joao Plata, who’s got half of the team’s four goals this season. A teammate of current Cap Aaron Maund both at TFC and RSL, is part of a creative and aggressive midfield line that enjoys running at opponents with the ball at their feet.
“I’ve played against him twice last year, so I kind of know his tendencies a little bit,” said Nerwinksi. “He’s a quick guy, he’s small, he’s low to the ground, he’s very good with the ball, but I just have to be aggressive with him early.”
The Whitecaps’ simple counterpunch style has worked well on the road, with an unmatched regular-season record over the past four years. Since the 2014 season, no one has more road wins (22) or shutouts (19) than the Caps.
Plan A has been working, with no need for a plan B — yet.
“(If we can’t get crosses), then we work through the middle,” said Nerwinski. “If it doesn’t work out, we have to try something else.”
Vancouver Whitecaps at Real Salt Lake
6:30 p.m. Rio Tinto Stadium, TSN, TSN 1040 AM
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