Herriman • The bus was nearly full and waiting to leave, ready to pull out of the parking lot in downtown Los Angeles after a loss on the road, but inside the visitor’s locker room, one player needed to break a sweat. Mike Petke sat in a chair inside LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium on August 15 watching Damir Kreilach get through push-ups and planks on the floor.
“He had to get through his business to feel like he could accomplish something,” Petke said.
Petke has yet to inform Kreilach that everyone else was ready to roll. He’s afraid if he does, Kreilach will spend the ensuing day apologizing to the rest of the team and staff for putting himself first. Real Salt Lake’s head coach instead marveled at the 29-year-old in his first year with the club. He’s done that quite a lot in 2018. This was another feather-in-the-cap moment. One of the club’s highest-paid players not pouting over being rested during a nationally-televised match, instead just trying to show his worth — to himself, and to the club.
Kreilach has done so. Repeatedly. So much so, in fact, he’s immediately become a long-term building block alongside RSL’s young corps, a first-year player in Major League Soccer now being deployed all over the field, scoring goals, notching assists, flaking off a bit of the Damir Kreilach glow that radiates.
“Humble dude,” said defender Justen Glad.
REAL SALT LAKE’S DAMIR KREILACH
Height » 6-foot-1
Position » Midfielder/forward
Age » 29
Hometown » Vukovar, Croatia
Getting it done » In his first year at RSL, Kreilach is tied for a team-high in goals with 10 and has six assists after being deployed all over the formation by RSL coach Mike Petke. ... Kreilach signed with RSL in February after spending the last five seasons in the German second division with Union Berlin where he scored 33 goals in 147 matches.
There might not be a more eloquent way of defining Kreilach, the 6-foot-1 Croatian. He is, essentially, everything RSL needed in a signing this offseason. A player who can take the pressure off RSL’s dynamic front line of attackers, who can win the ball in the air, who can score in the air, who can split apart a defense with a pass. A guy his coaches and teammates say helps out by simply being himself. The humble dude who smiles a lot, who doesn’t have to get that far off the ground to celebrate another goal with a leaping Joao Plata, all 5-foot-3 of him.
After scoring a hat-trick in RSL’s 6-2 rout of the L.A. Galaxy, Kreilach declined to be the player featured in the postgame press conference. Politely, of course. Instead, he sent in RSL’s two young center backs, Glad and Nick Besler, who kept the game’s giant, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, from scoring career goal No. 500 at Rio Tinto Stadium. Kreilach had splintered apart the high-priced Galaxy, upped his goal tally to 10 in 2018, but went right to sit down at his locker instead of left toward the media room.
Surprising? Come on.
“From Damir? No,” Glad said. “That’s just who he is as a person.”
The first offer to move to RSL and MLS came in the summer of 2017, as RSL caught fire, soaring up the Western Conference standings after an abysmal start. General manager Craig Waibel and his staff identified Kreilach as two-way midfielder who could be a missing link on a roster stocked with youthful talent.
But he couldn’t leave. Not yet. Kreilach had one last wish, to help his former club, Union Berlin of the second division in the German Bundesliga, earn promotion to the top tier. Six more months, he told himself. The previous five seasons he’d spent hoping to get Union Berlin somewhere it’s never been. Berlin came close, finishing as high as fourth in 2017, but eventually Kreilach, a co-captain, found his minutes dwindling.
Talks with RSL re-opened. Kreilach said another pitch from Waibel and RSL technical director Dane Murphy was enough to get him to leave Europe. Outside RSL’s new training complex in Herriman, he points to the building as a selling point. There’s pride, he said, in being one of the few MLS clubs whose blueprint mimics what he grew up around overseas.
“It was one of the best decisions of my life,” he said, “because I’m so satisfied.”
Kreilach left Berlin in tears. The club gave him a farewell in February, after it was announced he was moving to the U.S. to play with RSL. The stadium in Berlin cheered his name over and over one last time, as Kreilach, in street clothes and a club scarf around his neck applauded the supporters who saw him score 33 goals in 149 appearances during his five seasons there. Instead of trying to stave off the moment, he let it hit him, a tribute to the club and all they accomplished together.
“It’s life,” he said of soccer in Europe. “It’s the first, most important thing in the world.”
Kreilach consulted an American while in Germany to see what the scene is like across the pond. U.S. men’s national team forward Bobby Wood played alongside Kreilach for two seasons at Berlin. They each had their most successful seasons together in 2015-16 as Wood scored 18 goals, while Kreilach poured in 12. Wood gave him advice that, one day, Kreilach might enjoy it, that it’s growing here and he could star on a contender.
And here he is.
“These moments,” he said, “are unforgettable.”
For as much as he wants to avoid the spotlight, as much as he enjoys seeing his teammates get the plaudits and the acclaim, Kreilach can’t really avoid it. Not anymore. His versatility has played a direct role in RSL’s rise during this latest three-game win streak. Ten goals and six assists from a player who came in as a projected holding midfielder is, well, unusual. But Kreilach’s ability forced Petke and the coaching staff to get their best lineup on the field.
That means Kreilach up top. Petke doesn’t call him a forward, even though he’s up there linking up with RSL’s attackers. He’s in an undefinable position alongside midfielder Albert Rusnák that is pestering opposing teams still trying to find out what, exactly, RSL is up to.
“The experience is there,” Rusnák said, “so he’s been through different clubs and he knows how to settle in. It’s great that he could adapt so quick.”
Adapting is Kreilach’s forte in Year 1 at RSL, and it’s paying off remarkably so far. Now he’s not splitting apart defenses from a deeper position on the field, he’s making tricky runs that are resulting in goals, finding a way into those important spots where he can play off Rusnák, Plata or Jefferson Savarino, and be the benefactor. The Galaxy match showed precisely what Petke and the staff envisioned for him.
“We have to give the best of ourselves,” Kreilach said of RSL’s playoff push.
The Croatian midfielder-turned-sorta-forward is, no doubt. He’s relishing this rookie year at RSL and is ushering in this new era at the franchise with increased style. No matter where he lines up the remainder of the season, RSL’s long-view has brightened significantly. The postseason is within reach. And like everyone else, Kreilach wants a real taste.
“He’s such an honest player,” captain Kyle Beckerman said.
He’s everything RSL needed, this humble dude.
MINNESOTA UNITED AT REAL SALT LAKE
At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy
Kickoff » Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
TV » KMYU
Radio » 700 AM
Records » RSL 13-10-5, Minnesota 9-16-2
Last meeting » Minnesota 3-2 win at home (July 14)
About Minnesota » After falling 2-1 at D.C. United Wednesday, Minnesota is now a league-worst 1-12-1 on the road in 2018. ... Minnesota traded longtime forward Christian Ramirez to LAFC before the closing of the summer transfer window in August. ... Star winger Darwin Quintero leads the team in goals scored (10) and assists (9) this year.
About RSL » Riding a three-game win streak, RSL sits in fourth place in the West at 44 points. ... RSL is the only team in MLS history to score six goals in back-to-back outings. ... RSL is 10-1-3 at home in 2018. ... Albert Rusnák and Damir Kreilach lead the team in goals (10) while winger Jefferson Savarino leads the team in assists with 10.