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The Salt: Is Mike Petke a good coach?

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MLS: Real Salt Lake at Sporting KC Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Well, it’s another midweek issue of The Salt today, and I suspect we’re going to keep that as the new normal for the season.

After all, we need to keep our focus on Real Salt Lake and the playoffs, and anything else is going to be a bit distracting.

When the playoffs end, I’ll likely switch this back to a Monday column, but for now, enjoy a blast of midweek action. Let’s hope we don’t change the timing of this column for that reason until, say, mid-December.

With that in mind, let’s talk soccer. And then not soccer.

The first section of the column

Yeah, alright, hi. It’s time to talk about Real Salt Lake.

I’m actually feeling pretty positive right now, which I did not expect a week ago. I also didn’t expect it to be an issue two weeks ago. See, we’re in a very weird nebulous zone with the club now where we’re both good and kind of mediocre. I’m not really used to that. In the past, we’ve either been good or we’ve been mediocre. Maybe in 2014 I could see us having been both, but there were other reasons to be frustrated about that season.

Now, I think there are a few things that have been making things tricky for us. Let’s talk about some of them.

Is Mike Petke a good coach?

I know this is a topic that people are thinking about, if just because Jake Simons of The RSL Show and I talked about it just this week. I think people are starting to wonder if Petke is a good coach or not, and I think what I’ve come to is that whether he’s a good coach or not, he’s a young coach, and it’s easy to forget that.

Petke started his coaching career as an assistant at New York Red Bulls in 2011. Think about that. Nick Rimando was 32. Kyle Beckerman was 29. Petke was 35. He’s 42 now.

Those are just ages, but I think what we can see is that Petke isn’t exactly an experienced manager. I think that’s OK, but we just need to keep it in mind. He doesn’t have much experience against coaches like, say, Tata Martino, who is clearly one of the best coaches in the league.

This is, I think, why he sometimes ends up getting out-coached. He’s still very much figuring out who he is and who he wants to be as a coach. He has the start of a coaching identity, but he’s in just his fifth year of coaching.

Contrast that with someone like Sporting Kansas City’s Peter Vermes, who is finishing up his 10th season. The experience he’s gained during those extra five years has made him a better coach than he was in 2013. (Ugh. Don’t start with me, Matt.)

Anyway, none of this is to excuse Petke’s shortcomings, but it is to illustrate why he might not be where we’d hope. We have to remember that, at times, Jason Kreis found himself outcoached, too, especially earlier on at RSL. Things worked out OK for us there, more or less.

I do think we have enough experience with Petke now to really define who he is as a coach at this point in his career. He’s principled, but he has a pragmatic streak, and the two sometimes collide in interesting ways. He is strategic, but he’s not always a great tactician. He can be an excellent motivator, but his teams sometimes come out from breaks slightly unprepared.

These are things that Petke can grow over time. We’ve seen growth in all those areas this season. I do think Mike Petke is a good coach, but he needs to become a great coach to cement himself in the annals of American soccer. He’s shown the propensity to do that, and the rest is on him.

Petke and substitutes

I know we’re all angry about substitutions, so I wanted to take a quick moment to talk about that. Derek, this part’s for you.

I think what we’ve seen is that our squad is actually a little unbalanced. We’ve had a good number of defensive players available at any given time, but our attacking options are limited. We’ve often needed attacking substitutes, and our only true options have been Sebastian Saucedo and Corey Baird.

Baird has been surprisingly good this season — I think he’s rookie of the year material — but when we need a goal, he’s not the player we might want to look toward from the bench. Two of his seven goals have come from the bench, but one of those came in an early season 3-1 loss to Toronto FC and was just a consolation, and one came in the 6-0 win over Colorado Rapids, and it’s not really fair to count that for anything.

In that way, I think we need to remember that Petke’s lack of movement at times is down to just that. He seems to apply the same criteria to substitutions that he does to lineup selection: Players have to earn it. Is that the right thing? I don’t know, but it’s a general part of his coaching strategy, and it is both a strength or a weakness.

At any rate, I really do think that a big part of our substitution patterns is down to how we’ve been performing. In some matches, it’s certainly hurt us — see the Minnesota United match for an example — but I do think it’s helped at times, too. As with every strategy, you win some, and you lose some.

### RSL vs. Portland Timbers, part I

This is stupid. We face Portland Timbers in back-to-back matches for them (because MLS has decided to exclude us from the last week of league play) and with a team between for us. Come on. Why? Good. Grief.

Anyway, I’d like to see a few changes. First, let’s get Nedum Onuoha in the match from the outset. I think Nick Besler has been good enough, but neither he nor Justen Glad is providing on-field defensive organization in the way we need. Both of them are capable, but a player with experience doing that while also performing at a high level would do better right now.

If Onuoha is ready, I’d put him in without hesitation.

I’d also like to see Corey Baird start again after looking dangerous against Sporting Kansas City, especially as he scored a goal agains them. Scoring a goal against SKC is basically an automatic A for me. That would mean dropping Damir Kreilach into the midfield, and I think that’s the right thing, too. Sunny has been on a bit of a downward trend the last two matches for me, so rotating him out wouldn’t be a bad idea.

As above, too, I do think that Baird is a very good starting player and a less effective substitute.

Off-topic

Not too much today, as I’m at a tech conference, but we’ll continue forward anyway.

I’ve still been reading the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine relaunch novels, and I’m almost through the Mission Gamma miniseries. They’re quite good, but I’m also mildly wholly obsessed with Star Trek, so it’s not really a fair and balanced assessment on my part. I’ve also finally mapped out reading order (from a few sources, like the Memory Beta wiki) of the post-Nemesis novels. And now you know how I spend my time when I’m not thinking about soccer.

I also beat Super Mario Odyssey, and then I realized that there’s still about 50 percent of the game left for me to play. That’s delightful, but I did just get Mega Man 11 in the mail, and I’d like to get on to that, too. There are too many video games and too little time.

Alright. Let’s soccer.