HERRIMAN — It’s the moment every player dreads in the playoffs.
Facing a one-game suspension on your next yellow card, the ref reaches into his pocket on what you believe was a simple foul and grabs the yellow card. In that moment, your heart sinks — you’re suspended for the next match.
For Albert Rusnak, that moment happened in the 26th minute of last Sunday’s Western Conference semifinal game against Kansas City. He made contact sliding in to win a ball from Graham Zusi and the ref deemed it a dangerous play and showed him a yellow card.
Rusnak was shown a yellow card in RSL’s knockout playoff game three days earlier in LAFC and in the playoffs, back-to-back games with yellow cards result in an automatic one-game suspension.
RSL’s 24-year-old playmaker stayed in the moment and scored the go-ahead goal early in the second half, but after the match he was clearly disappointed that he’d miss Leg 2 of the playoff series this Sunday at Kansas City.
“You see these kinds of tackles all over the world that are not getting booked. But here, for some reason, these kinds of fouls are getting yellow cards. I don’t know whether it’s because its the playoffs, maybe the referees are more careful about these things, I don’t know what,” said Rusnak. “I told the ref after the game that a yellow for a third or a fourth foul, I’ll accept it. But for the first one, and that kind of foul, which means I’m going to miss a game. For me that’s unacceptable. But at the end of the day, referees can make mistakes as well.”
While Rusnak will be helpless to do anything about Sunday’s outcome, his team has no choice but to proceed without him and they’ve been pretty good without him this season.
Real Salt Lake went 3-0 this season in games Rusnak didn’t play at all, and in the two other games he entered as a sub it went 1-0-1. The win was RSL’s dramatic win at Houston in September in which Rusnak came on in the 39th minute and ended up scoring two goals in stoppage time to spearhead the 2-1 win.
The 1-1 tie ironically enough occurred at Sporting Kansas City on Sept. 30. Rusnak didn’t start because he traveled a day late to Kansas City because of a contract dispute. He eventually entered the game in the 61st minute for Damir Kreilach and helped RSL hang on for the critical point.
Real Salt Lake will need another massive Rusnak-less performance to come out on top in Leg 2 this Sunday (1 p.m., ESPN).
“Everybody has to collectively step up, not just because Albert’s not there, because it’s a big game,” said Petke.
The coaching staff has a wide variety of options on how to play without Rusnak.
In that previous game against Kansas City, Kreilach dropped into Rusnak’s attacking midfield position and Corey Baird played up top. Petke might prefer to keep Kreilach up top, in which case Jefferson Savarino could potentially slide into the middle of the field with Baird and Joao Plata starting on the wings.
Petke would opt for a very defensive posture and start Luke Mulholland at attacking midfield in front of Kyle Beckerman and Sunday Stephen.
“We’re going to work on a variety of scenarios, a variety of ways we’re going to approach this game. We know how we want to approach it, but who plays in that position obviously is going to be key,” said Petke.
“No two players are exactly alike. Albert brings certain intangibles that whatever other player we’re going to put in there doesn’t bring as much of, but there’s also things that that player will bring that Albert doesn’t.”
It’s a major line-up decision that Petke would prefer not to be making, but his hands are tied thanks to that dreaded yellow card.