SALT LAKE CITY – Real Salt Lake begins their 2019 season at BBVA Compass Stadium against the Houston Dynamo Saturday night as they look to at least repeat, if not exceed, their 2018 playoff success, albeit in different fashion. Coming off a season where they squeaked into the playoffs before advancing to the Western Conference Semifinals, the club has high hopes and aspirations as they get ready to begin their 2019 campaign.
RSL was among Major League Soccer’s best at home in 2018, compiling a sterling 11-2-4 record at Rio Tinto Stadium, but conversely were among the worst on the road with an abysmal 3-11-3 mark. Head coach Mike Petke is fully aware of the road woes his team endured last year and hopes his team can get off to a quick start in Houston.
“I think every team would say – no matter if the schedule is condensed or not – you always want to start strong,” Petke said Tuesday after training. “[We’ve got] 9 out of 15 games on the road to start, where we had one of the worst records in the league on the road. We are obviously looking to improve our road form.”
Major League Soccer overhauled their postseason format and schedule in the offseason and as a result, the regular season in MLS will be shortened by nearly a full month, meaning additional midweek matches and an added emphasis on team depth. RSL built their roster with the compressed schedule in mind and Damir Kreilach feels the club has interchangeable pieces all over the pitch.
“We have such a big roster, and everyone can replace everyone,” Kreilach said. “I think the most important thing is getting 100 percent on the field as in practice. The season is so long, everyone will get a chance to play.”
The RSL faithful have grumbled for some time about the club’s inability to find a difference-maker at the forward position. After Yura Movsisyan flamed out & a failed experiment with Alfredo Ortuño last year, the club announced the signing of Liberian international Sam Johnson in early February. The 25-year-old striker most recently played for Valerenga in Norway & Petke feels confident in his new striker’s abilities.
“With Sam, the one thing that I know in my research of him and now seeing him in preseason is that he’s an honest guy, he’s an honest worker, and he has quality – he’s a very unselfish player,” Petke said. “I’m not ready to make any statements about Sam Johnson or what he could be. It’s just good that for the first time, I feel like I have a real No. 9.”
Kreilach, who saw his role shift from being a midfielder into becoming a forward in 2018, feels his new attacking partner will fit in with the group.
“First of all, he’s a good guy,” Kreilach said. “[He has a] good mentality, is good player. The club signed him to score goals and hopefully it will be this year.”
After being brought in as a Designated Player, there will undoubtedly be pressure for Johnson to produce but he said he looks forward to challenge.
“Coming as a designated player is a big pressure but I’m cool with it,” the fleet-footed Johnson said. “I’m just focused on trying to work hard to make a successful run for Salt Lake City.”
The Houston Dynamo boast one of the more dynamic offenses in the league, led by Mauro Manotas, Alberth Elis, Romell Quito and Tomás Martinez. The Dynamo are coming off a midweek victory in CONCACAF Champions League play over Guatemalan side CD Guastatoya and could rest some of their star power Saturday ahead of another a midweek CCL clash, when they face off against Mexican giant Tigres. Regardless, Petke is looking for his side to earn a result Saturday afternoon (4 p.m. MST on KMYU)
“We’re looking to get off to a hot start. But getting off to a hot start could mean some ties to be honest with you – for mentality and for building up those little bit of points. The road is definitely the spot, in my mind, where you are going to make the playoffs or not.”