Herriman • Craig Waibel called it an eerie suspicion.
Real Salt Lake officials had a hunch about the young, playmaking midfielder they were scouting. Turns out, the evaluation was quite spot-on, and this is what stood out the most: The 22-year-old Manchester City academy product, the son of a European soccer scout, was a youngster who was comfortable being uncomfortable at times.
Trying something new, something different, that never bothered Albert Rusnák. RSL’s homework showed that the midfielder could be a seamless fit, a long-term linchpin in what was an ongoing rebuild of the club. His personality, those close to him said, isn’t bombastic or flashy, not out for attention. Which made him a perfect fit.
“Let’s be honest,” Waibel said reflecting on the process of acquiring Rusnák, “that’s what Salt Lake is.”
But when needed, RSL’s attacking midfielder has swiftly immersed himself into a leadership role essential for the club, Rusnák faces the cameras when things go south as much as when RSL storms past an opponent. He represents the gap between the last remnants of the RSL glory days, of Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando, and the now.
So on a muggy late-summer night in Houston, Rusnák, who found himself on the bench in RSL’s third game in eight days, delivered the sort of message during a halftime TV interview after subbing on that showed why he might be the heir apparent to Beckerman. He might someday be the guy with the armband.
Take a breath, he pleaded with his teammates.
Be less selfish in front of the net, he added.
Have the confidence to punish the opposition that allowed six clear-cut chances on goal in the first 45 minutes.
“To come out with zero goals after the first 45 minutes was unacceptable,” Rusnák said, “so that’s why I was, yeah, not happy.”
In the locker room, RSL coach Mike Petke — himself no stranger to motivational rants — said it was clear he wasn’t needed. They were doing everything right up until that point, except for putting the ball in.
“Didn’t feel like the moment for me to unleash a usual thing of yelling and screaming,” Petke said.
Instead, it was Rusnák. Even looking back on it Petke said, “it fired him up.” That, he said, was awesome. Because RSL and the Dynamo saw the result of what happens when Rusnák can get fired up. His two stoppage-time goals lifted RSL to a 2-1 win, only its second win of the year away from Rio Tinto Stadium. As RSL finds itself buried in the thick of this Western Conference playoff chase, it needed a star to take hold of a match as much as the three points itself.
“I want to see him continue to take over a game like he did late in the second half,” Petke said. “He’s a big player. Big players are capable of big moments. … It’s not that I need more out of Albert. It’s that I’d like to see his true talents be more recognized throughout a game.”
So far in 2018, Rusnák has seven goals and six assists. He’s already matched his 2017 goal total and there are eight matches remaining. But in his first year with RSL in MLS, his assist totals showed that he was, when on, one of the top playmakers in the league. He had 14 assists in 2017. Beckerman said part of it is the league adjusting to a new player. He’s not sneaking up on anyone anymore. Rusnák goes as RSL does.
On the ball, he’s the primary threat. But as Beckerman puts it, Rusnák is needed to spur on the group. His position can both shoulder the load and inspire. It helps, too, that he speaks up and doesn’t quell his emotions.
“Good teams don’t have just one — you have a bunch of leaders out there,” Beckerman said. “Albert, he’s young, but he’s a lot more mature than his age would tell you. He has that ability to be your leader. Being your No. 10, those things that we saw on Saturday, that’s what it’s all about.”
Since his arrival last January, he’s been endorsed by the pillars of the club. That’s a major plus.
“He has to be a captain in the future,” Waibel said. “It’s his personality. The worst thing you could do to a player is stunt their personality, or in some way, prevent them from being who they are. Albert’s a leader. He’s a leader on the field by example, but he’s also a vocal leader. He has the ability.”
RSL has its young star on the books for two more years. But at 24, a regular on the Slovakian national team, clubs in Europe will continue to show interest. That’s the reality facing Rusnák and RSL. The organization wants to keep him around for as long as possible. Because ask around and you get the sense that he can be the face of the franchise for a good long while. And the voice of it, too.
REAL SALT LAKE AT COLORADO RAPIDS
At Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, Commerce City, Colo.
Kickoff » Saturday, 7 p.m.
TV » KMYU
Radio » 700 AM
Records » RSL 11-10-5, Colorado 6-13-6
Last meeting » 2-2 draw at Rio Tinto Stadium (July 21)
About Colorado » The Rapids are 5-5-3 at home in 2018. … Since the Rapids came back to earn a 2-2 draw in Sandy last month, Colorado traded for former FC Dallas midfielder Kellyn Acosta, who has two goals and two assists in five matches with the Rapids. … The club also recently acquired longtime MLS goal-scorer Giles Barnes who was previously playing in Mexico. … Defender Edgar Castillo has three goals and five assists so far this season.
About RSL » Barring a loss by four goals, RSL will retain the Rocky Mountain Cup. … RSL first topped the Rapids 3-0 in April and later had the draw at home in July. … Goalkeeper Nick Rimando (hamstring) is questionable. … Defender Marcelo Silva (ankle) is doubtful. … Midfielder Albert Rusnák scored two goals in last week’s 2-1 win at Houston. … After the match Saturday, RSL returns for back-to-back home games.