What does it take to make a change?
That’s a rather ethereal question when it comes to life, or to just about anything else really. Change is hard, it’s painful and rarely fun, and the only guarantee in making a change is that something will...well, change. There is no guarantee of success or happiness associated with change, only that things might be different.
In soccer the same holds true, and for Real Salt Lake a season of change is upon us — with all the same hopes and risks that change brings along with it.
There’s something about being comfortable with where RSL has been over the past 10-ish years that really makes this season a tough pill to swallow. To many of you hearing that I was comfortable with the last 3 years might make you want to reach out and punch things, and I completely understand that knee jerk reaction. I kind of want to go back and punch myself. When Jeff got the job as the head coach after we lost MLS Cup 2013, I committed to giving him 3 years to prove himself. I think that any new coach in MLS needs that much time to assemble a team and change a philosophy. Given his 3+ years Jeff wasn’t the guy and now we’re onto something new.
The timing of the change is something that I am sure that we will all have lots to say about for years to come, but here we are. Four games in to the Mike Petke era and it’s been a roller coaster so far. So many people were WAY up after two wins in a row. Now, SO many people are off the bandwagon with two less-than-inspiring performances in a row. I have to admit that I was trying to stay even-keeled about it all but beating Colorado the way we did had me pretty excited about the trajectory of the team. Finding a win in that match was a huge boon to my confidence in the team. Now, two losses later, it’s time to take a step back and reassess ourselves (me too) with the context of the situation we find ourselves in.
Imagine that you get a job as a director or general manager of a company that has been doing the same thing every day for the last 10-ish years. From their morning meetings to how they train their new hires, it’s all been the same monotonous and mechanical repetition for the greater part of ten years. The product the company produces has stagnated in the market and it’s your job to come in and refresh things with the hopes that you will bring renewed success to the organization.
To a large extent this is the situation Mike finds himself in. Fighting against the years of history and the ghost of who we all know RSL to be. The success, the runs at cups, the glorious wins, and so much more. He’s fighting against 10 years of training habits, mantras, and culture. The egos in the locker room and across the organization that were fostered by a lack of accountability and minimal focus on the details are giant roadblocks in the way of progress that he will have to fight as well — and so much more.
Overwhelming a bit?
Imagine doing that with many a thousand fans breathing down your neck.
I get it, that’s the job. The expectations, I am sure, were very clearly laid out and this isn’t Petke’s first rodeo. That said, the team hasn’t changed, the injuries are still a ever present reminder of the failures of the pre-season, and the results are following the pattern that we became accustomed to at the end of 2016. Should we be surprised by that?
Here’s a reminder: CHANGE IS HARD AND TAKES TIME.
Think about how many things that are changing right now at the club just on the soccer side of things. Training - physical, tactical, and technical - is changing in a dramatic way for the first time in a lot of years. That is a change that could/will have a real impact on the team, but even that is incremental and will show more effect with time. Injury rehab is another thing that is changing as we are starting to see players coming off injuries spend some time with Monarchs before returning to the first team. This is something that should have been happening before this year, but somehow never did. Again, something that will show incremental impact/benefit given time — hopefully leading to real recoveries and players coming back ready to go 90 minutes. Point is, lot’s of things are changing.
With all that change there’s bound to be a ramp up time that will be painful for everyone involved. We haven’t had an easy start to the year, obviously, but it’s not going to get any easier. Think about all the injuries and then add on top of those that three of our current starters (I’m counting Bofo) are heading off to youth national team duty here shortly AND it’s likely that Rusnak will get a call to his national team. Yeah. That’s a fun feeling, huh?
Here’s some unsolicited advice: Find little things to focus on and watch if they get better. I’m not even talking about results, in fact, especially not results. Focus on player movement off the ball or possession out of the back or even how those two work together. Focus on moving the ball forward and runs in to the box. There’s a thousand things to focus on that are all better indicators of whether or not we are making progress than the actual results — for now.
For me those things are roster choices (more so as we get healthier), individual playmaking, and involving the midfield in the build up. That last one has been painful.
Yes, there will come a time when the results need to be there but honestly we are not at that point yet. This is the painful part of the journey where everything will be uncomfortable and un-fun. In a way that should be the interesting bit. We get to watch this team move through the awkward stage into what we all hope will be the suave-goal scoring-aggressive-ass-kicking phase. That time will come. Until then, buckle up and enjoy the ride for exactly what it is.