Real Salt Lake beats Chicago Fire 2-1 on Damir Kreilach’s two goals

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake midfielder Damir Kreilach (6) scores at the end of the first half as Real Salt Lake hosts Chicago Fire, MLS soccer at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Saturday Aug. 4, 2018.

Sandy • Real Salt Lake’s front office has drawn a fair share of ire from the fan base recently.

Some of it warranted, some of it typical gripes.

But RSL’s braintrust got one very crucial signing right this offseason. He’s No. 6 in your game-day booklet. The 6-foot-1 Croatian box-to-box midfielder who continually has proved that he’s not only part of RSL’s long-term project, but he’s here to help expedite the process. Sure, there might be a center forward issue for RSL as the transfer window closes next week, but there is no production shortage out of the midfield.

Damir Kreilach has made certain of that.

The 29-year-old put RSL on his shoulders against a scuffling Chicago Fire team that put all three of its superstars on the bench when the lineups were introduced Saturday evening. And more importantly, Kreilach delivered RSL three points for the first time in a month in the 2-1 win over the Fire. The win snapped RSL’s three-game winless streak and extended Chicago’s losing streak to six.

The two-goal performance upped his season total to six — tied for the team lead — to add to his team-high six assists.

“Tonight was a very important one for us,” Kreilach said, “but it was a great performance for the whole team. We deserved to win. In the end, it’s not so important who scored and who played. We are one team.”

Kreilach’s header finally awoke Rio Tinto Stadium from a slumber that lasted nearly every minute of the sloppy, turnover-filled first half. The offseason signing showed, yet again, why the franchise was in hot pursuit of the Croatian. Because he can get up.

In the final minute of stoppage time in the first half, Kreilach freed himself in the box and cooly placed a header into the near post that Chicago goalkeeper Stefan Cleveland had no hopes of saving. The cross played into the box by Jefferson Savarino found the one guy who has proved to be an aerial threat on a weekly starting lineup that doesn’t feature that much height.

Saturday night was Kreilach’s 21st start of the year and his 23rd overall appearance. When your new, highly paid players need to get their feet wet and become acclimatized as soon as possible, it helps that they’re available to make a possible impact in every outing.

“He does it so unselfishly and just goes about his business,” RSL coach Mike Petke said. “But I’m hoping to see more of this, to be honest with you. He’s confident, he better understands where he’s going to fit in this team and hopefully he’s going to get on the end of a lot more of those.”

Kreilach, learning to be that second deep-lying midfielder in RSL’s formation, has done exactly that. Before signing with RSL in February to occupy the spot alongside Kyle Beckerman, he’d spent the past five seasons with Union Berlin in the German second division, where he scored 33 goals.

“It’s so important for self-confidence, but yeah, the guys accepted me very well and it was not so difficult to put myself in the team,” Kreilach said. “We just have to keep going, to fight, to work for one goal.”

Eventually, Chicago’s dude with the gray hair decided to have a say.

It took all of two minutes for him to introduce himself to Rio Tinto Stadium in the sort of fashion synonymous with Bastian Schweinsteiger. A rocket of a right-footed shot that thumped the back of the net, leaving spectators in awe. After entering the game as a halftime substitute, the former German national team star, World Cup winner and Bayern Munich mainstay let loose a shot that fans at Saturday night’s match will get to talk about.

Kreilach, however, would have last say.

A simple tap-in was all he needed to do after Savarino dribbled through several Fire defenders, laying the ball off to Joao Plata, who played a pass across the face of goal, for Kreilach to hit into the net, putting RSL up 2-1 in the 75th minute.

“He’s an honest, hard-working guy,” Petke said, “and he’s fitting in great here and we’re very fortunate to have him.”

Asked to describe both of his goals, Kreilach could only smile: “Perfect assists.”