Gordon Monson: Can Real Salt Lake keep Albert Rusnak?

RSL faces Seattle Sounders FC in a first-round playoff matchup Tuesday night

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake midfielder Albert Rusnak (11) celebrates after scoring a goal, in MLS soccer action between Real Salt Lake and LA Galaxy II at Rio Tinto Stadium on Wednesday, July 21, 2021.

Albert Rusnák (pronounced Roos-nock, for the uninitiated and impure out there) is his own man, nobody else’s. His father, Albert Rusnák, also a footballer, shares the same diacritical mark over the “a,” the same name, but not the same fame, game or aim.

That last one for the 27-year-old son — who his dad, now a coach back in the home country, can say with pride is a better player than he ever was — is to lift Real Salt Lake to winning an MLS Cup.

“That’s the thing I want,” he says.

Rusnák is a driven, technically gifted soccer player, a keystone that has transformed himself into Real’s boss on the field. An athlete even Utah sports fans who typically live for college football and the NFL, for college basketball and the NBA, for college baseball and MLB … all you soccer infidels … should go out of their … your … way to watch and to acknowledge and admire.

“Albert’s mentality and his determination, his upbringing, have afforded him a well-rounded skill set,” says Elliot Fall, RSL’s general manager. “He’s a fantastic player, all around. He’s a player you don’t appreciate unless you watch him — a lot. And he’s a leader.”

There is a little detail tangled up in the laudatory mix, though: His Real contract is about to end. There is tempered optimism on both sides of that negotiation, but a bit of an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it stance on Rusnák’s end … and we’ll get to more of that in a minute.

The Slovakian international has been with RSL since 2017, when he arrived all fresh-faced from a topflight professional team in the Netherlands — the name of which most of you, at least the non-purists, wouldn’t recognize and don’t care about (OK, it’s FC Groningen) — and his realized intention here is still a ways off.

RSL heads into Major League Soccer’s playoffs on Tuesday night in Seattle, looking as a No. 7 seed to beat the No. 2 Sounders and keep hope and their eligibility alive after an undulating regular season that, not unlike Rusnák himself, saw Real dancing on the edges — suffering and relishing moments of difficulty and exhilaration. They dropped and dipped and sailed and soared.

And Rusnák was in the middle of all of it.

Through 2021, RSL sought an owner, hired a coach, replaced that coach with a different coach and seeks an owner, still — no big deal, right? Life on the pitch. Life is a pitch. Play on.

“We, as players, just said to ourselves, we just have to stay together on the field,” he says. Come what may.

At one low juncture — “I started slow,” he says — in an early-season Real slump, critics started growling and barking at Rusnák, not only RSL’s Designated Player and its highest-paid athlete, but its team captain, its leader, its frontman, having taken that role after the retirement of longtime RSL star Kyle Beckerman.

“There’s always ups and downs,” he says. “I put the work in and things turned around.”

Wearing the armband? “It’s a massive honor,” he says.

It wasn’t as though Rusnák had no clue about facing that kind of privilege and pressure.

He’d done that before, not just here in Salt Lake, when he replaced team legend Javier Morales in the attacking midfield a few years back, but all the way back from the beginning, when Rusnák was a football prodigy in his homeland, a boy wonder that wowed soccer enthusiasts in that nation, but also soccer scouts in countries where the beautiful game is king.

England, specifically.

That’s where Rusnák arrived as a 13-year-old, at no less an establishment than Manchester City’s academy, where youngsters are brought in from all corners of the planet to become superstars. His prospects were regarded that highly, as a kid who might be headed to soccer’s most elite and esteemed reaches.

“At the time, that was the best academy in the world,” he says. And for a young lad, moving away from home, away from family, and facing that level of competition was … intense. “I was crying in my room. But I grew up.”

Rusnák plowed around during those adolescent years, working hard to find his form, all as powerful futbolheads watched and waited for him to blossom, waited for him to huff and puff air into his young career, to whatever levels of buoyancy to which he could float.

He did have game, an ability to score goals, to do so spectacularly at times, and to set up teammates to do likewise, with decent accuracy and a deft touch on the ball.

At 5-foot-9 and weighing in south of a buck-fifty, strength was a bit of a concern.

“I was always one of the smallest ones,” he says, adding that he’s actually “5-9-and-a-half.”

The size never emerged, but the strength came, in cupfuls, as did savvy. But not to the standard of launching straight to the Premier League and staying there.

Instead, he found his success in more modest pro realms. He played for an assortment of teams in Europe, all highlighted by concurrent stints with the Slovakia national team, for which he played in matches around the globe.

That play eventually steered him to Real Salt Lake, where he has been a steady presence since his arrival before that 2017 season. Although, one of his great disappointments was being left off his country’s national team this summer during European Championship play. He was called back to that squad for World Cup qualifying earlier this month.

He knew from the beginning that replacing Morales was a lusty chore, considering Javi’s long and substantial success with the club and a demeanor that made him an RSL and MLS favorite.

“He was a legend,” Rusnák says. “But I didn’t see [replacing him] as a challenge. These things happen in sports. Someone leaves, someone takes the spot.”

Fall says Rusnák has done an adequate job of connecting with teammates, utilizing both his demeanor and his disposition: “But he’s willing to drive the guys, to push them to do more.”

All those years ago, when Morales first showed up here, the soon-to-be-beloved Argentinian said: “RSL is a young club. There’s a lot of history yet to be written. There are the playoffs to make and a championship to win. I like it here. It’s a good place to be.”

Some of that history has now been written, including many playoff appearances and a hoisted MLS Cup in 2009, among subsequent CONCACAF wins. But Rusnák believes there are more chapters to write, and just like the attacking midfielder who preceded him, he is convinced Salt Lake City is a place he likes, a good place to be.

It has been for him, where he’s regularly performed and finished as one of RSL’s most significant players. In total, since arriving, he’s scored 41 goals and tallied 39 assists in 140 matches. This season, Rusnák’s garnered 11 goals and 11 assists, leading the club in games and minutes played, getting more and more effective as those minutes stacked up. He recently broke the team record for minutes played in a single season (3,045), working all but 15 available minutes.

He is the captain, the leader, the boss, after all.

“I see myself as a leader by how I train, how I play the game,” he says. “How you train is how you play.”

How you train. How you play. How you are paid.

Rusnák’s contract runs out when this season does, and while he has options to go elsewhere, a lot of places, as he enters what should be the prime of his career, he wants to stay right where he is — playing for Real Salt Lake.

RSL says they want him, too.

“Obviously, the uncertainty surrounding our ownership situation makes it more difficult,” says Fall. “But I’m optimistic he’ll be here for the long term.”

Says an anxious Rusnák: “Until you put the pen to the paper, you never know.”

He wants the pen put to the paper, and if it doesn’t happen, it would mess over what Utahns love — a story of amor and ardor shared between a home, a fan base and a gifted athlete who could go somewhere else, but who loves Utah back and wants to stay and be here, not hither, not thither. He wants to be … theirs.

He’s already traveled the world, playing, as mentioned, in England and the Netherlands, but also in those diverse places for his national team, from Thailand to … who knows, Timbuktu.

“I’ve enjoyed my time here so much,” he says. “My family loves it here.”

Either way, the tattoo on his left hand he sported the day he arrived in Utah, the one in his view every minute of every day, the one that reads, “Always be grateful for what you have,” remains.

And that, Albert Roos-nock is.