Damir Kreilach saved Real Salt Lake’s season on Sunday. Literally.
Staring down elimination from Audi MLS Cup Playoffs contention, Kreilach supplied the most dramatic moment of 2021’s final regular-season matchnight – knocking home a Justin Meram bicycle kick attempt in the 95th minute to sink Sporting Kansas City, 1-0, at Children’s Mercy Park.
With that play, RSL climbed up into the Western Conference’s seventh and final postseason spot, while the LA Galaxy were dropped after their 3-3 home draw with Minnesota United FC. A Decision Day moment for the ages rang through social media and beyond.
“As you can imagine it was pandemonium in there,” interim head coach Pablo Mastroeni said to describe RSL’s locker room. “There are a lot of adult beverages being thrown about and sprayed. It’s the culmination of a really interesting year, an exciting year at times with a lot of ups and downs. What was never lost throughout the year was the belief that we could achieve something as a group.”
GOAL: Damir Kreilach, Real Salt Lake - 95th minute
Mastroeni was, in part, referring to previous head coach Freddy Juarez departing midseason to become a Seattle Sounders assistant coach. That put the former Colorado Rapids boss in charge of the Claret-and-Cobalt, who used their last regular-season kick to book a Round One match against the Sounders.
It was Kreilach’s 16th goal of the season, combined with nine assists, reaffirming why he featured against the Liga MX All-Stars at this past summer’s MLS All-Star Game presented by Target.
“It was a great assist from Justin,” Kreilach said. “I don’t know if he wanted to shoot or not, but at the end of the day it couldn’t be better. I thought I might be in an offside position, but I looked to the ref and didn’t see the flag up so I just went to celebrate with my teammates and then I crossed my fingers that they wouldn’t check VAR and call offsides. At the end of the day it was perfect, it was a great moment.”
Kreilach, alongside midfielder Albert Rusnak, is a clear leader for RSL. His game-winner also ended a two-game losing skid when their playoff hopes looked to be fizzling away, unable to inch closer in recent setbacks against San Jose and Portland.
But the Croatian jack-of-all-trades stepped up, bringing the 2009 MLS Cup champions back to the postseason after missing out last year.
“It’s almost ironic because he is one of the biggest team players,” Mastroeni said of Kreilach. “In my conversation with him earlier this week he said, ‘Pablo, wherever you need me. If you need me at center back, I’ve played there before. If you need me at the six, I’ve played six before.’ He is so unselfish in his commitment to the group.”
Kreilach’s memorable winner at SKC placed him sixth in this year’s Golden Boot presented by Audi standings. But he cares little about those accolades, instead reveling in three crucial points that also kept SKC from getting the West’s top spot, sinking to the No. 3 seed and a Round One game against Vancouver.
“I will say just one word – team,” Kreilach said about the performance. “We followed the plan, we did what we wanted to do today. It would be great to go into halftime one or two up, but we knew who we were playing. KC is a great team, especially at home with a lot of ball possession.
“We were so disciplined, we were responsible as a unit defensively and offensively at the end too. This is how we view ourselves. There are so many people that didn’t believe in us, but a big thank you to those who did.”