2018 Season in Review: Real Salt Lake narrowly makes playoffs, bolsters roster

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Sandy, Utah — There were two teams left and one spot open in the MLS Western Conference. It would either be Real Salt Lake or the Los Angeles Galaxy.

With the rise of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the MLS, all bets were on Los Angeles. However, Real Salt Lake had one more trick up the sleeve. All they needed was for Los Angeles to lose, especially after falling to the Portland Timbers in the final regular-season contest.

Season in Review: Real Salt Lake narrowly makes playoffs, bolsters roster

Real Salt Lake got its wish.

Against the Houston Dynamo, the Galaxy failed to prove victorious. The reign of Zlatan in the MLS was halted for at least one season. Meanwhile, Real Salt Lake marched into the playoffs and made plenty of noise. After upsetting Los Angeles FC, 3-2, Real Salt Lake put up a fight against Sporting Kansas City.

After a 1-1 draw in leg one, Real Salt Lake eventually fell, 4-2, in the second leg. With that, the club finished the season with a 14-13-7 regular-season record and 49 points.

Team MVP: Albert Rusnák

Albert Rusnák had a big year for Real Salt Lake.

Last season, Rusnák had a season under the radar, despite notching 14 assists. However, his higher number this season was in terms of goals, putting 10 goals into the back of opposing goalkeeper nets. He did have success with creating plays, providing seven assists.

Rusnák started 29 matches out of 31 appearances.

The Slovakian was recently rewarded for two positive seasons with a multi-year contract. His contract is through the 2021 season and Rusnák noted that Mike Petke was a big reason for his contract extension, saying that he “enjoys” working with Petke.

“I have really enjoyed playing for Real Salt Lake the last two years and I am now looking forward to us competing and bringing an MLS Cup back to the fans who have given me and my teammates unbelievable support,” Rusnák said.

Rusnák wasn’t the leading scorer for Real Salt Lake this season — that was Damir Kreilach, who scored 12 goals — but he has become an integral part of Real Salt Lake’s plans. Petke relies heavily on Rusnák to make plays, create plays and put in a little defensive work.

What Went Wrong in 2018? 

As Real Salt Lake’s record shows, there was hardly any consistency this season.

There were only three different times in 2018 where Real Salt Lake complied consecutive wins. However, there was only one time where a consecutive draw took back. There wasn’t even a consecutive losing streak — which is positive.

Real Salt Lake never hit rock bottom of the table. They always floated around the middle or bottom-middle of the Western Conference. However, Real Salt Lake never competed seriously for the top spot or a top three spot.

Real Salt Lake couldn’t ever get serious momentum going in 2018. Even in the playoffs, the momentum from the LAFC victory — which truly was an upset — couldn’t be carried over to Sporting Kansas City.

This upcoming season, Real Salt Lake needs to find some consistency and retain momentum. The 2018 season was too much of a rollercoaster for Real Salt Lake fans to handle.

What went right in 2018: Mike Petke grows into coaching MLS

Mike Petke wrapped up his second season of coaching in MLS.

Last season, Petke was learning the ropes of coaching in MLS and this year, he truly found his footing. Petke kept a lot of his roster intact and worked with them on improving. He didn’t pursue any major overhauls on the Real Salt Lake roster. He decided to help players improve on weak points of their game to help improve.

Petke has helped players like Justen Glad and Nick Lima get noticed by the U.S. National Team, as new head coach Gregg Berhalter recently selected them to compete in January camp.

Right now, Petke has some holes to fill on his roster — but he’s already gotten a lot done. So far in the off-season, Petke has picked up options for players like Andrew Putna, Nick Besler, Corey Baird, Sebastian Saucedo and Jefferson Savarino.

He has sent Danilo Acosta on loan with Orlando City SC, while picking up 26-year-old defender Donny Toia in the MLS Re-Entry Draft. Petke helped get Tony Beltran resigned to a new contract after having his option originally declined.

And, the off-season work hasn’t even fully begun.

How can Real Salt Lake improve in 2019?

Just like the case of D.C. United and the Seattle Sounders, Real Salt Lake needs to find a way to come out of the gate with explosion in 2019.

While Real Salt Lake didn’t find itself as low as Seattle and D.C., there needs to be some discover of consistency. There was too much win-loss, win-loss, draw-loss, commotion last year.

Now, it’s understandable to not win every single game.

It’s a feat that has never occurred in Major League Soccer — and it likely never will. However, it’s been proven that an old MLS streak for consecutive victories can be broken. It’s not impossible.

Petke can make it happen with the right roster moves.