Real Salt Lake Looking to Continue Second-Half Surge Against Columbus

Sean Meagher, AP

Real Salt Lake’s Joao Plata (10) and Portland Timbers Chance Myers (4) vie for the ball during an MLS soccer match Wednesday, July 19, 2017, in Portland, Ore. (Sean Meagher/The Oregonian via AP)

SANDY — Mike Petke has been around MLS long enough to know there was no need to panic when Real Salt Lake was struggling earlier this season.

“I wasn’t looking at the standings early on, because I knew being around MLS for almost 20 years I know it really counts in the second half, and then you start looking. And I’ve been looking,” said Petke.

The path to the playoffs is going to be a difficult one, but those prospects are looking up for Real Salt Lake with its three-game unbeaten streak (2-0-1). It will look to take another step toward climbing into the playoff conversation when it hosts Columbus this Saturday (6 p.m., KMYU) — and three points is a must.

Petke believes the magic number to make the MLS Playoffs is 48 points based on the past five seasons. With 22 games under its belt and just 12 to go Real Salt Lake is only halfway to the magic number with 24 points.

It’s taken an average of 1.09 points per game so far this season, but RSL needs to double that production to 2 points per game to position itself for a playoff berth.

“We have an exact replica build-up of what we need, who we’re playing and where we need to get points and the total we need to get it,” said Petke.

In all his scenarios, you can bet it starts with three points against a short-handed Columbus squad.

The Crew had two defenders red carded against Philadelphia in a 3-0 loss on Wednesday, which puts coach Gregg Berhalter in a bit of a lineup quandary. He’s played with three center backs quite a bit this season, but might have to tweak the formation and play with four at the back at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Petke said he’s preparing his players for both scenarios and expects a difficult match regardless.

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“The whole thing for me is it doesn’t matter who they have out, they play a certain style of soccer, they’re very good at it and they have very key players,” said Petke. “Nobody felt sorry for us when we were out and we were injured and when we had international call-ups. We’re certainly not going to feel bad but we’re also going to be wary that it’s not going to be an easy game no matter who’s out.”

Real Salt Lake is healthier than it’s been all season, with only Demar Phillips unavailable for Saturday’s match. Youngster Danilo Acosta has been terrific in his absence at left back as he’s recorded assists in back-to-back games.

Competition for playing time has been a big contributor to the club’s recent success according to Petke.

“When a player has no competition in a position it’s only human nature that he’s going to be feeling comfortable and confident obviously. When he has someone fighting (against) him, it’s going to make him fight more but also I’ve seen it makes him pay more attention. It’s just human instinct. They want to be the best in that position then,” said Petke.

Because of his ejection last weekend against Kansas City, Petke is suspended for Saturday’s match and can’t have any contact with the team at the stadium until after the match. Assistant Freddy Juarez will serve as head coach during the match.

“It’s like saying goodbye to my kids before they go to prom because I’m not going to be able to have any communication with them tomorrow until after the game,” joked Petke. “I told them to behave themselves and be home by midnight.”

He’d like them to come home with three points as well.

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