In 2021, Real Salt Lake were a lot of things. One thing they were not? Boring.
RSL have dealt with ownership uncertainty for a year, with the club currently up for sale. They experienced a fairly unprecedented story of their head coach, Freddy Juarez, departing midseason to take an assistant coaching job with the Seattle Sounders. In came Pablo Mastroeni, leading them on an interim basis. Despite those hurdles, they remained in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs race from first kick through Decision Day.
And it took damn near every second available in their 34-game regular season to qualify for the playoffs, thanks to Damir Kreilach’s game-winner deep into stoppage time against Sporting Kansas City in their final match.
“It’s not been a smooth ride, that’s for sure,” star midfielder Albert Rusnak told MLSsoccer.com before their Western Conference Round One game at Seattle on Tuesday evening (10:30 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes).
Throughout the adversity and uncertainty, Rusnak and Kreilach have helped navigate the club down that bumpy road.
Rusnak started all 34 games, one of only five non-goalkeepers in MLS to do so this year. It was his best statistical season as well, with 11g/11a. Meanwhile, Kreilach recorded 16g/9a, including the most important goal of their season (so far). The pair also were each top five in the league in distance covered.
“We know each other, it’s been four seasons together,” Kreilach said. “I only have all the best to say about Albert, he’s a great player. He showed yet again this season how important he is to our team.”
Off the field, the two are very close. Both Europeans (Rusnak represents Slovakia, Krielach is from Croatia), they and their families spend time together often. Just as their on-pitch relationship, it’s been seamless.
Both players are versatile, too. Kreilach was originally signed as a box-to-box midfielder, though has spent most of his time in Utah playing center forward or second striker. Rusnak can feature just about anywhere in attack as well.
“I don’t know why we work so well, to be honest with you,” Rusnak said. “It’s been one of those since the first day he came, we clicked. You see that on the field.”
"It’s playoff time"
This tandem has helped carry RSL to the playoffs, where they're the West's No. 7 seed heading into Lumen Field, home of the No. 2 seed. The Claret & Cobalt missed the expanded postseason in 2020, overcoming expectations to reach this point.
“We want to do something special for the club,” Kreilach said.
This isn’t a new situation for RSL, entering the playoffs on the road as a big underdog. Kreilach, in particular, has a knack for coming up in tense situations away from Rio Tinto Stadium.
There’s the 2018 playoff match against LAFC, where “Karate Kreilach” was born with a stunning acrobatic goal to help RSL eliminate the then-expansion darlings in Los Angeles. More recently, there’s Kreilach’s dramatic game-winning goal at Sporting KC just to qualify for the playoffs.
“It wasn’t an easy year at all. It was a long season, with ups and downs,” Kreilach said. “We found a way to get a playoff spot. It shows how strong mentally the team is, how responsible we are and how much quality we have. It’s playoff time. Anything is possible.”
RSL and Seattle have played two tight games, with each team winning at home. Kreilach and Rusnak both scored against Seattle over those two matches.
“We’re aware of the fact that Seattle is a tough place to go to in a one-off game, but this season we played two good games against them,” Rusnak said. “We won one and lost one. We know what to expect when we go to Seattle.”
"I’d love to stay"
Though all focus internally is on Tuesday, there's some outside speculation surrounding Rusnak's future.
The MLS Players’ Association released a list of players eligible for free agency this winter, with Rusnak being among them. He is out of contract, after previously signing an extension after the 2018 season.
“[My agency and the club have] talked, there’s not a done deal but we still don’t have an owner,” Rusnak said. “I’m not trying to go too deep into that. I’m all there for the games, not the contract. Once the season’s over I’ll get into it more.”
Rusnak continued: “Yes, I want to stay with Real Salt Lake. I’ve told them many times. I spoke with the front office and said I’ve felt really good since day one and I’d love to stay. They’re aware of that, they’ve expressed they want to keep me. The official part [agreeing to terms] hasn’t been done yet.”
Rusnak’s close pal Kreilach certainly agrees.
“From the first day I came to RSL, we hung out together,” Kreilach said. “He helped me a lot, bringing me into the group. We’ve had a great relationship since the first day. I just hope this relationship continues in the future.”