Danilo Acosta jogged out next to Justen Glad in the middle of the back line instead of out wide to his usual spot at left back as Real Salt Lake broke from its pregame huddle.
“Looking back on last year very shortly after I took over, the injuries that we had, and we just decided this year to be very proactive,” RSL coach Mike Petke said after that Feb. 3 preseason match against the L.A. Galaxy. “I know Danny can play left back. I know what he’s capable of there. I could have easily put David Horst in, who is our center back, in the first half.”
He instead used RSL’s first preseason match to get a look at Acosta at center back. Petke’s proactive approach comes from inheriting a team last year that racked up 231 available games lost to injury, international duty or suspension in the first 30 matches of the season. So the RSL coaching staff has made sure it has a backup plan for the backup plan in addition to taking measures to prevent injury this season.
“It was just chalked up, I think, to a lot of bad luck,” captain Kyle Beckerman said about last season’s injury plague. “It just happens sometimes, and usually it’s middle of the season or end of the season, and it was just really strange that it all kind of happened at the beginning. And I remember us thinking back last year and just saying, ‘What is going on here?’”
Petke, his players and then-head athletic trainer Tyson Pace couldn’t find an encompassing explanation to that very question last year. There was no way they could have prevented Chad Barrett’s femoral chondral defect, for example.
Of course RSL always tries to prevent preseason injury, but Petke made a point at the end of last season to tell his players that they had to come back fit. Starting training with everyone in shape allows the team to move into tactics right away and decreases the players’ propensity for muscular injuries.
As usual, the strength and conditioning coaches have monitored training sessions. The staff tries to strike that tricky preseason balance: working the players hard enough to prepare them for the regular season, but not so hard that they’re too worn out to make progress.
“The preseason is actually shorter than the offseason’s been,” said midfielder Albert Rusnák, who after experiencing his first MLS offseason grumbled that it was too long. “So from that point of view, I understand that the coaches want us from Day 1 to be right at it. The trainings have been hard, we’ve been doing running, we’ve been on the fields for two, three hours a day.”
Rusnák and center back Marcelo Silva both sat out for RSL’s match against the Galxay — prompting Acosta’s start out of position — and Joao Plata missed the San Jose game the following Wednesday, all as a preventive measure. There was no sense in them pushing through tightness and soreness, risking a pulled muscle that could sideline them for much longer, for a preseason match.
Some injuries can’t be predicted, however, so Petke has used the early part of preseason to experiment with players in different positions every once in a while.
Maybe it’s just seeing if a winger can play on the opposite side or if a No. 6 can slide back to center back. Or maybe it’s putting Acosta in a position he hasn’t played for RSL but has experience in.
“At first I was a little off,” Acosta said in training three days after starting at center back. “Tactically I was a little sometimes too tight, sometimes a little bit too wide. But it was my first time playing it in over two years. … After taking a look at the video that we did today, I can tell that I can improve on a lot of things for sure.”
But if RSL needs him to, Acosta said, he’ll gladly fill in.