Stejskal: Rusnak looking to lead "underrated" Real Salt Lake to playoffs

Albert Rusnak - Joao Plata - celebration

Albert Rusnak had hit his breaking point.

After his Real Salt Lake teammates squandered several excellent chances and conceded against the run of play to go into the half of last Saturday’s game at Houston trailing 1-0, Rusnak, who entered in the 39th minute for the injured Pablo Ruiz, went off in a TV interview heading into the break.

Frustrated by Salt Lake’s season-long struggles on the road, the 24-year-old Designated Player vented about their poor finishing in the first-half, getting demonstrative as he drove home how important it was for RSL to start turning their positive away performances into points.

“It wasn’t that I was angry at my teammates, but at the fact that we were losing another game on the road, another game that we shouldn’t have been losing,” Rusnak told on Thursday. “I’m sick and tired of going on the road and actually putting in decent performances and then coming out with zero points.”

Late in the second-half, Rusnak took matters into his own hands. The attacking midfielder scored twice in stoppage time to give RSL a dramatic 2-1 win at the Dynamo, boosting the club to fourth in the Western Conference and improving their rough road record to 2-9-2 this season. The win was cathartic for RSL and for Rusnak, even if he didn’t fully realize his goals came so late in the match.  

“To be honest with you I didn’t realize how late the goals were scored. I was still thinking it’s like in the 80s or something,” he said. “I was in the zone… I didn’t think about the time or how long is left to be played or anything like that all. I was thinking is that we have to win this game no matter what it takes.”

RSL got the win, now they must build on it. Even with the victory, their road record has been dismal this season. In addition to their 2-9-2 away mark, RSL have a miserable road goal differential of -17 in 2018. The numbers are even worse in their road matches against teams currently above the playoff line; RSL are 0-5-1 with just three goals for and 16 goals against in those six contests. None of that portends well for a stretch run that will see RSL make trips to Atlanta, Kansas City and Portland. It’s not a great sign for a potential trip to the postseason, either, which could realistically see Salt Lake open on the road as the lower seed in a Knockout Round match.

“I don’t know what it is. We have at least, I can name you five games right now where we have been the better team in the game on the road and we lost four games out of those five,” said Rusnak. “So, to be honest with you, I can’t tell you what it is. If I knew then I could try to solve it and we’d have some more points on the road, but I don’t know. The performance is there. Maybe we’re not as clinical on the road, but on the other side we tend to concede a lot of goals on the road. All that sets us back from getting many points.”

They have a good opportunity to continue their road momentum on Saturday at Colorado (9 pm ET | TV & streaming info) as part of Heineken Rivalry Week. And while the Rapids have improved since they traded for Kellyn Acosta earlier this summer and held Salt Lake to a 2-2 draw at Rio Tinto Stadium last month, they’re still near the bottom of MLS and are only .500 at home. If RSL want to hold onto a playoff spot in the crowded West, three points would go a long way.

For Rusnak, a postseason run would serve as validation on several levels. After recording seven goals and 14 assists in a stellar first season with RSL in 2017, the Slovakian international has continued his solid play with seven goals and six assists in 24 matches this year. He’s become more of an outspoken leader for RSL, as well, unafraid to pull punches when talking about his team or his own contract, which he’s been attempting to re-negotiate with the club since preseason.

“The issues that were there, nothing has been solved yet. I try to not think about that too much now. It’s been long enough for this to be sorted, so I’m looking at just definitely reaching the playoffs this year. That’s my goal and that’s the team goal, too. And the next one is once you get in the playoffs, it’s not just about who finished first and who was sixth, in the league everybody’s in the party and so it’s just go as far as you can.

“I know probably for the whole league, nobody takes us seriously as a team that could actually win the MLS Cup or anything. I think we’re an underrated team around MLS, and to be honest, I know many teams don’t like us. What’s that from, I don’t know what started it, but there’s a lot of people and a lot of teams against us, so we just have to take it into our advantage and prove people wrong.”