SANDY — Five weeks ago, Real Salt Lake coach Mike Petke did his best to silence any talk about Brooks Lennon and lineup controversy at right back.
“Do not start writing articles this week about Brooks Lennon and how great he did and he’s the next right back,” said Petke following his team’s win over New York Red Bulls on March 17.
Make no mistake, Petke was pleased with Lennon’s performance in the first defensive start of his professional career, but it was an emergency start necessitated by numerous injuries. Lennon is a natural attacking player, and his ability and potential in those positions is why the 20-year-old has played with youth U.S. National Teams at every level during his development.
Five weeks after Lennon’s defensive debut there’s still not a controversy at right back — but only because of Petke’s about-face.
Lennon has started five straight games at right back, and recently he’s been in the lineup despite healthy defensive options at Petke’s disposal.
Are we witnessing the beginning of a permanent switch in Lennon’s professional career?
“I’m not worried about where I’m going to be playing the whole season, I’m just doing my job and my role whenever and wherever I’m asked,” said Lennon.
At the moment, Petke is asking Lennon to stake his claim to the position.
“I want him to take this position and run with it and he has. If he continues to do that, this could be — I’m not making any promises — this could be the right back of the future for us,” said Petke.
Right back has been Tony Beltran’s position for the better part of a decade, but his ACL tear last October forced the club to go out and sign Adam Henley as the projected starter in 2018. A preseason injury to Henley, however, and then early injuries to other right backs Shawn Berry and Aaron Herrera, created a void that Lennon jumped at the chance to fill.
With Henley and Herrera back to full strength, and Berry nearing a return, if Lennon keeps the position amid the competition it could be the signal of a permanent switch.
It hasn’t exactly been a seamless transition for Lennon. Even though RSL is 3-0 at home in Lennon’s starts, the club is 0-2 away from Rio Tinto Stadium in his two starts with a 3-1 loss at Toronto and a 4-0 loss at New York City FC.
“From the first moment our biggest concern was his defensive ability, and he’s taken to it and he’s getting better every week,” said Petke. “I wouldn’t say big giant leaps (every game), but what I’m seeing is a consistency and definitely an improvement not only every game, but every week of practice. And that’s all you want as a coach.”
When Petke pencils Lennon into the starting 11 he knows he’ll give him energy, intelligence, good defending and the ability to get forward in the attack.
Lennon’s just happy to be on the field and contributing, because those opportunities were sporadic the second half of last season.
In the last 15 games of 2017 when Real Salt Lake evolved into one of the best teams in MLS, Lennon only made four starts, and all were the direct result of injury or suspension. When Luis Silva, Jefferson Savarino and Joao Plata were healthy, Lennon was relegated to the bench — but usually the first sub off the bench.
Prior to RSL’s July 4 turnaround, Lennon made 11 starts with one goal, and over the entire 2017 season he recorded three goals and four assists in 1,525 minutes. Comparatively, Savarino recorded six goals and five assists in 1,673 minutes.
Barring an injury to Savarino this season, Lennon was likely always going to serve a backup role as he continued his development as a player. It’s why he’s happy to get minutes regardless of the position.
“I’m just going to do whatever I can to help the team win and that’s what matters most right now. Wherever I’m playing on the field I’m going to give it my all and do the best I can,” said Lennon.
As Lennon’s defensive understanding gets better each week, so does his comfort level playing behind Savarino. Petke said the interaction and understanding between the two increases every week, and he saw some great things last weekend against Colorado.
With Colorado playing down a man most of the game, RSL played in its attacking half a ton, which gave Lennon and Savarino ample opportunity to work on their chemistry going forward.
“Me and Jefferson this past weekend it was our best game linking up together. I thought offensively we were really good, passing and moving and shifting the defense. We’re getting used to our style of plays,” said Lennon.
Petke said Lennon’s experience at his natural winger position should help expedite the partnership.
“For him to now play behind a right wing, he knows things that he wants from the outside back when he plays there, so I think it’s a bit more easy for him to put those things into play,” said Petke.
Despite his recent claim to the right back position, Lennon said he still prefers to play higher up the field. In Petke’s preferred style he wants his outside backs to push into the attack as often as possible, and for Lennon that presents the best of both worlds — playing time but also the opportunity to show off his creative ability.
Only time will tell if it’s a permanent switch for Lennon.