MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

MLS' most underrated star? Damir Kreilach eyes dreamland with Real Salt Lake

Damir Kreliach is doin’ the thing. Whether neutral fans or pundits are noticing, it doesn’t matter, he just keeps doin’ the damn thing.

In his fourth season with Real Salt Lake, Kreilach is perhaps enjoying a career year. The natural box-to-box or defensive midfielder turned unorthodox attacker extraordinaire in Utah is helping lead his club towards the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. The 32-year-old has 12 goals and six assists, among the most combined goal contributions in the league.

Kreilach continues to thrive, mostly under the radar. And that’s okay by him.

“It’s hard to say [if I get enough recognition], you know? I try to stay humble, as long as the team is happy, I’m happy too,” Kreilach told this week. “This is how I want to go. If it’s about individuals, I’d pick another sport. I’d play tennis. But I like to be around my teammates, there’s no better feeling in the locker room after a win. It’s something special.”

Real Salt Lake have been winning more than most assumed this year.

Coming into the season burdened by an unsettled ownership situation, with the team up for sale for the better part of a year, they weren’t given a huge offseason budget. Most signings came with little or no acquisition costs, joining a squad that finished second-bottom of the Western Conference in 2020. Expectations were low.

There was a midseason head coaching change sprinkled into the mix for good measure as well, when Freddy Juarez departed to become an assistant for the Seattle Sounders, leaving former assistant Pablo Mastroeni in interim charge.

Yet with seven games left, RSL sit in fifth place and are five points ahead of the playoff line thanks to a last-gasp win over the LA Galaxy on Wednesday night. On Saturday, they'll look to further cement that place when they travel to struggling Austin FC (3:30 pm ET | UniMás, TUDN, Twitter).

“A certain amount of people said we’d be fighting for last place before the season,” Kreilach said. “I can’t understand these people. They’re not working with us every day, they don’t see the quality we have and the roster we have.”

It’s not a straw-man argument, nor is it one of those contrived nobody believes in us, we’re the underdogs! narratives that have become en vogue for clubs and locker rooms to spin for motivation. It was real.

This writer was one of the people Kreilach can’t understand. In’s 2021 season preview, 10 “experts” predicted the final standings and six had RSL dead last in the West. Steve Zakuani was the most optimistic among the panel, putting RSL all the way up to 10th, well below the playoff line.

Kreilach has been a leading figure in RSL’s strong season and aims for more to come.

“When you point individually to goals, at this point I can’t be satisfied,” Kreilach said. “I have more space to improve, even at this age. But the team must be in a good spot. If the team’s doing well, we’ll be satisfied. The goal this season was a playoff spot. We’re a playoff team, but it’s all about proving it on the field.”

Both on and off the field, he couldn’t be happier with his time at the club. The former Croatia youth international says he was welcomed here with open arms by everyone – club employees, teammates and fans – while he and his family love the area.

“Salt Lake is my second home,” Kreilach said. “Me and my family here have found a special way, we’ve enjoyed our time here.”

Kreilach joined RSL in 2018 after a strong career in his native Croatia with HNK Rijecka and the German second tier with Union Berlin. Despite being more of a box-to-box midfielder, he’s always had an eye for goal. He had 33 goals and 18 assists in 157 appearances with Berlin, playing all roles in the midfield.

RSL came calling that winter. He pondered the proposal, reached out to former teammates who played in MLS and decided to make the move. He hasn’t looked back.

“It was the best decision of my career,” Kreilach said. ‘I’m over-satisfied with how things have went so far. Before I finish my career, I want to lift MLS Cup with RSL. I’m going to give my best to help the team.”