Oral History: How the Kreilach Kid was born at Real Salt Lake

Damir Kreilach cemented himself in RSL lore during the 2018 playoffs against LAFC with his crane kick goal

Real Salt Lake's Damir Kreilach, left, celebrates after scoring against Los Angeles FC during the first half of an MLS soccer playoff match Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Damir Kreilach had already scored 12 goals in his first eight months of wearing a Real Salt Lake jersey, after arriving in the U.S. from the German second division in 2018.

But it was when he scored the team’s and his second goal on Nov. 1 of that year — before RSL fans raved about how clutch Kreilach is, before he had proved he was a Major League Soccer All-Star — that Kreilach cemented his name into RSL lore.

And it happened in the most hostile environment, Banc of California Stadium, against one of the league’s best teams that season, Los Angeles FC, on one of the biggest stages, the win-or-go-home knockout round of the MLS Cup Playoffs.

Kreilach and RSL will be back there on Sunday, when they take on LAFC in the teams’ third and final matchup of the regular season.

But that goal in 2018, a crane kick that evoked thoughts of “The Karate Kid”, will forever be on the minds of RSL fans.

“Unforgettable moment for sure for myself,” Kreilach said. “The most beautiful goal I ever scored in my career so far.”

RSL entered the game against LAFC as underdogs. LAFC finished third in the Western Conference in the 2018 regular season, boasted a high payroll and employed the services of Carlos Vela, one of the most high-profile players from the Mexican national team.

L.A. scored a conference-leading 68 goals, and had lost only once on its home field, with nine wins and seven draws. To top it off, 2018 was the club’s inaugural season and that night in November was the organization’s first-ever playoff game.

Meanwhile, RSL nabbed the sixth and final playoff spot in the conference by the skin of their teeth. They had a bye week on the last night of the season, and needed the Houston Dynamo to mount an incredible comeback against the L.A. Galaxy.

The Dynamo went down 2-0 before scoring three unanswered goals to take the win. At that point, RSL, as former midfielder Kyle Beckerman put it, felt like it got “a new lease on the season.”

“We had a barbecue at [former coach] Mike [Petke’s] house and we watched that final game, Galaxy and Houston,” former coach Freddy Juarez said. “And all of a sudden Houston takes a lead and we’re like, ‘Ooh, we’re getting a second chance.’ ”

When Nov. 1 finally came around, no one was picking RSL to advance. But the team thought differently.

“We went in there and everybody had LAFC beating RSL,” sideline reporter Samantha Yarock said. “I think the only people that really felt like RSL had a chance was RSL.”

RSL put away the first goal, which came from none other than Kreilach. But LAFC started to take over the game soon thereafter.

Former LAFC defender Danilo Silva equalized with a headed goal, and Christian Ramirez gave the home team a 2-1 lead in the 54th minute.

It looked like RSL’s ship had sunk. But then it happened.

The sequence that gave rise to the Kreilach Kid started a the 57:42 mark of the second half. It lasted all of 15 seconds.

Delia Maresco, former director of content production: I just remember it all happened super, super fast.

Nick Rimando, former RSL goalkeeper: I think our backline and myself were under it a bit. And then we got this moment where, If I remember correctly, it was a cross to maybe Corey [Baird] or Albert [Rusnák] and there was a little kind of like bouncing around that got cleared by one of the defenders for LAFC.

Tyrone Marshall, former RSL assistant coach: They went up 2-1. I remember things were going on and we were like, “Hey, no problem. Just keep playing, keep playing.” And then the combination where [former RSL winger Jefferson Savarino] played it in and Albert kicked it over and it’s just headed out. And Damir was there.

Kreilach: [LAFC center back Danilo Silva] just wanted to clear the ball and then he cleared directly in the middle of the goal on the 18-yard area. And then I didn’t think too much.

Taylor Twellman, ESPN soccer broadcaster: When he went to do the Karate Kid type of kick, there was part of me that looked and is like, “Really? He’s trying that?”

Samantha Yarock, sideline reporter: He’s a very smart player. So if he’s going to attempt something like that, I think it’s because he knows it’s a good opportunity.

Elliot Fall, RSL general manager: I’m glad he didn’t try to settle it.

Juarez: It did seem like he hit it from a little further away than what he was.

Twellman: When he hit it, I immediately was like, “Oooh.” Like one of those, “Ooh, this has a shot. This has a chance.”

Aaron Herrera, RSL defender: I think from what I remember, I honestly think I thought it was going wide.

Twellman: It looked like the keeper could have maybe gotten a touch, but it never looked wide to me. Ever.

Marshall: As soon as he hits it, you could see it was going right into the corner.

Matt Gaschk, former director of public relations and web content: Every time there’s a shot like that, [former RSL midfielder Kyle Beckerman’s] arms go up like he knows it’s going in. Just that moment of Kyle’s kind of prophetic nature. He knows when a ball’s going in. I think all of us were kind of like, “Wait, did that really just happen?” And Kyle knew right away.

Beckerman: I knew he caught it well and knew it’s going to have a chance. Sometimes I just see it. I guess I must have saw it’s going in before it’s going in and [was] ready to go celebrate.

Rimando: I felt like it was going to be on target and it had a chance. I didn’t know if it was going to go in or not to be honest. I knew it had a chance and it looked like it was going to be on goal from my angle.

Kreilach: At this moment I thought, “Yeah, it’s perfect.”

Beckerman: It was the perfect contact with the ball, perfect timing and there was nothing the goalie could do about it.

Kevin Baxter, L.A. Times soccer writer: That goal was a great goal and it wasn’t a fluke goal or a lucky goal.

Juarez: People will say it’s an amazing goal, which it is. But Damir tries that all the time. So when someone says, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime goal,” it isn’t because I’ve seen him do it multiple times at training.

Maresco: Damir has scored so many of those Karate Kid kind of goals in training.

Herrera: It was a bit wild because I’ve never seen him do that in training before, so it kind of came out of nowhere.

Rimando: I’ve never been in a training session when we practice those kinds of kicks. Usually if I see that, it’s probably in the Mexican league or something where it’s a clearance. You’re not trying to shoot like that.

Kreilach: Most likely the people, they didn’t see me do this in a practice because it was my first year in MLS and they didn’t have the situation in practice to see me do this.

Rimando: I remember talking to Damir after and he was saying, “Yeah, we practiced those in Germany. It’s a kick that we used to practice all the time.” And he made it seem like it was not a big deal hitting those kinds of shots.

Herrera: I was at the perfect angle. I was playing left back and it was kind of on the left side. He just throws that you see it going in and you don’t really believe it at first.

Maresco: It was one of those things where you’re following the ball into the net and you’re like, “What just happened? Did that deflect? Did it hit a head?”

Todd Hoffard, former RSL goalkeeper coach: I don’t think anybody could believe he did it. We certainly couldn’t on the sidelines.

Juarez: I remember turning around to the guys on the bench and everyone’s like, “Can’t believe that.”

Sebastian Saucedo, former RSL forward: We went nuts.

Marshall: Everyone was jumping up and grabbing each other, hugging. Damir came over and chest-bumped us and all of that with the coach[ing] staff.

Hoffard: That was probably the highest they’ve jumped in quite a few years.

Juarez: I just remember I’m the shortest guy on the bunch and people jumping all over and I’m trying to keep my legs so I don’t fall under and get trampled.

Twellman: Stunned. Kind of perplexed at how he pulled it off.

Tyler Gibbons, VP of marketing and game production: [Gaschk] punched me [in the left thigh] harder that he’s ever punched because he was so excited and because we were trying to be as professional as can be in the press box and not yelp with excitement because of what we just witnessed.

Gaschk: Erin Rodgers was our graphic designer and she would sit next to me and every time we’d score, she’d punched me in the arm. So that kind of became my thing, I guess? Not always, but that moment kind of felt like one of those [where] you have to let it out somehow.

Juarez: He came and celebrated with us after the goal.

Hoffard: I didn’t expect him to come running to the bench.

Saucedo: For him to come to us just shows how much he cares about his teammates.

Gaschk: Him going to the bench after the goal is so Dami.

Kreilach: I just wanted to point [out] that we are there as one, that everyone has [a] part of success.

Herrera: Under the circumstances, it has to be a top-three goal for sure. I can’t even think of any other goals better than this, so it might be the best one. But top three for sure.

Maresco: I’d say probably top five.

Twellman: Kreilach is one of those moments that I’ll always remember, especially in Major League Soccer.

Gibbons: The best goal I’ve ever seen live. Hands down.