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Mike Petke faces difficult lineup choices for Real Salt Lake's playoff match

Real Salt Lake midfielder Damir Kreilach (6) celebrates with teammates after scoring RSL's first goal of the first half as Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids play at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, July 21, 2018.
Real Salt Lake midfielder Damir Kreilach (6) celebrates with teammates after scoring RSL's first goal of the first half as Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids play at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, July 21, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

HERRIMAN — Late in the 2017 season as Real Salt Lake fought to climb back in the MLS playoff picture, coach Mike Petke’s lineup choices were usually pretty predictable. Aside for the occasional swap because of injury or suspension, there was an obvious preferred 11 he felt most comfortable trotting onto the field.

Heading into Thursday’s knockout round playoff game at Los Angeles FC (8:30 p.m., ESPN2), it’s nearly impossible to predict who Petke’s starting 11 will be.

Petke’s preferred starters had already ebbed and flowed throughout the season, and with Real Salt Lake stumbling down the stretch with a 1-3-2 record that adds even more uncertainty to Thursday’s game.

After training this week, Petke said he’d pick people who he knows will battle but who are also good on the ball.

“We have a couple of options and we have been working on those options. [It’s] not like we’re going to spring them on the team the day of the game. We’re working on a couple of scenarios,” said Petke.

One of the biggest questions is at center back. In the final three games of the season Petke utilized four different defenders and three different pairings.

The only combination to earn a result was Marcelo Silva and newcomer Nedum Onuoha, who started in the 4-1 win over New England. In the bookend losses to Portland, Nick Besler and Justen Glad got the start in the first game and Silva and Glad in the second game.

Will Petke give one of the starting spots to Onuoha, a player with Premier League experience, or does he feel most comfortable with Glad and Silva who’ve started the most games this season?

The other primary uncertainty is where will Petke slot Damir Kreilach? If he starts him up top that allows Sunday Stephen to be paired up at holding midfield with Kyle Beckerman.

Against a LAFC team that finished second in MLS with 68 goals scored, that extra defensive cover will probably be needed.

Then again, Petke might want to start the much faster Corey Baird up to instead of Kreilach to cause more havoc for LAFC’s backline. That would then mean Kreilach gets the nod next to Beckerman, which has been a so-so pairing this season.

The possibility of a five-man backline can’t be discounted either. Petke tried it with Aaron Herrera, Glad, Besler, Shawn Berry and Brooks Lennon in the 2-0 loss at LAFC back on Aug. 15.

With different personnel at his disposal with Onuoha and a healthy Silva, it’s something Petke might explore again.

Regardless of the lineup Petke chooses, the task will be a difficult one. Real Salt Lake only won three games away from Rio Tinto Stadium this season while expansion LAFC only lost at Banc of California Stadium once.

Both teams lost their final game of the regular season as well, so overconfidence shouldn’t be an issue on either side as well.

“We know they’re a tough team, but everybody is beatable. Nobody is unbeatable in this league,” said Kyle Beckerman.

Real Salt Lake was the odd team with a bye in last Sunday’s Decision Day, so it will be well rested for the match while LAFC will only have three days rest after playing at Kansas City on Sunday.

Petke doesn’t expect that be an advantage, but Beckerman said if RSL can have long stretches where it’s on the ball and making LAFC chase, those tired legs could become a factor — especially if the game goes into overtime.

If RSL wins Thursday’s match, it will advance to the two-leg Western Conference semifinals and would host top seed Kansas City on Sunday.