There are team leaders, and then there’s King Kreilach.
“When you call on him, he’s there,” said Real Salt Lake coach Pablo Mastroeni about his club’s beating heart – captain Damir Kreilach – a man whose influence goes beyond minutes played and stats amassed. “The exemplary pro. We’re not where we are [in the Open Cup and beyond] without him.”
The nickname ‘King’ is somehow ill-suited to his personality. The 34-year-old Croatian, a 2021 MLS All-Star and RSL top-scorer and MVP, oozes humility. He’s eager, always, to shine the spotlight on his teammates and to do all “the hard work and fight” that success requires.
But he is regal out on the pitch. Has been since he arrived in 2018. After all, Kreilach grew up where the Vuka and Danube rivers meet. He learned all about hard work and the value of versatility as a Croatia youth national teammate of Ivans (Rakitic and Perisic) and Mateo Kovacic too.
Kreilach chuckles when describing all the positions he’s played in his career. “I went from my early days as a six [holding midfielder], then when I went pro in Croatia [as an 18-year-old for NK Rijeka] I was used as a right back. Then as an 8 [farther up in midfield, sometimes in a double-pivot] and a 10 [creator, behind the strikers].”
Wherever He’s Needed
Given the 6foot1 player’s quality around the goal (he’s currently tied with Jefferson Savarino as RSL’s top-scorer for 2023) he was also comfortable as an emergency target man in the 2019 play-offs.
Best in the spaces right behind a forward, Kreilach loves to dictate the patterns of play. He’s a metronome. His ability to provide the balls that unlock defenses is unmatched – and his finishing is as precise as any high-pay DP ace in MLS. “I’m not the guy who’ll take three guys out of the game with a dribble,” he smiled. “But I like to get into those great positions around the 18-yard box.
“That’s how I can help the team,” added the under-the-radar star and talisman at this year’s most surprising MLS success story. “And I’ll do anything to help the team.”
This is Kreilach. It’s not a shtick or pose – a put-on for an interview. He’s the soul of the club. And it made the injury he suffered at the start of 2022 all the more devastating. Tingling in his lower back led to the diagnosis of a mysterious disc rupture. Conservative treatment failed to produce results and a tricky operation – delicate surgery, on his spine – was required.
He spent 314 days out of the team. He was off the field and facing the prospect, at the age of 33, of an end to his playing career. “You look to the family for support,” said Kreilach about that 2022, when he played just five games and spent the rest of his time in a nightmare limbo trying not to ponder the worst outcomes. “You rely on your teammates and the club too.”
Diego Luna, 19-year-old RSL star in the making, remembers Kreilach always around during his rehabilitation. Never letting the negatives take over. Always putting in work. “He was always there,” said Luna. “Always someone you could walk in knowing that he's there to totally put a smile on your face.”
Bow down to King Kreilach 👑 pic.twitter.com/4w2uWk0KnB— Real Salt Lake (@realsaltlake) June 19, 2021
An away day in Vancouver this March was his first game back after nearly eleven months out of the game. “I felt like a young kid when I got the chance to start playing again,” said Kreilach.
Now well past 30, coming off a serious injury with serious implications, the quiet King is back. And it’s no fluke his return coincides with a huge upturn in fortunes at the club. At the time of publication, RSL are tied with LAFC for second place in MLS’ West – just four points off leaders St Louis City SC.
Recent signings like ‘Chicho’ Arango and Nelson Palacio have benefitted from Kreilach’s guidance. And they’ve helped make Real Salt Lake the best road team in Major League Soccer.
Forging Identity in Cup Flames
The Open Cup has been crucial to everything Real have achieved so far this year. Far from grousing about fixture congestion and busy schedules (realities for any MLS player) the RSL men have used every challenge, and the fights on every front, as an opportunity to improve.
“To be honest the Open Cup has helped us a lot to make things work this year – the rotation we’ve been able to use in the tournament,” said Kreilach, who reached a pair of domestic Cup Quarterfinals in his days in his native Croatia and Germany. “Everyone was asked to play and put in performances and contribute in the best way to keep building and keep climbing.”
“We played with heart,” he said of the four-game Open Cup run that’s landed Real Salt Lake in a Semifinal on the road against Houston Dynamo on August 23rd. “Everyone’s grateful to play and be a part of what we’re doing here – and then the results come.”
In addition to contributions in the league and Leagues Cup – which Real Salt Lake exited at the Round of 16 to MLS Western Conference rivals LAFC – Kreilach has been tapped as Mastroeni’s on-field leader in a heavily rotated squad during Open Cup play.
It’s a responsibility he relishes.
Bumps on RSL’s Open Cup Road
“The Open Cup is tricky,” he smiled, thinking back to the opening game in the Third Round out on the road against second-division Las Vegas Lights. “Games against hungry teams from the lower divisions are always tough. You have to respect everyone or else you’re in trouble.”
Kreilach scored twice in extra-time of that game played at Cashman Field, an old converted baseball park in Downtown Vegas. His ability to elevate his game, to find an extra gear and lead when the chips are down, was the difference on the day and kept RSL from an early exit.
“That’s what you need in a Cup,” said Coach Mastroeni, whose side went on to win two more Open Cup games in a row away from home, a 1-0 result over Colorado Rapids and a 4-3 goalfest against Portland Timbers.
“We found ourselves in those games,” said Kreilach, who scored two more in the Quarterfinal win over LA Galaxy at home in Sandy, Utah. “Some of the games were more tense than they should have been, but it’s a Cup and it’s all about getting through. We played with heart and we were there for each other.”
One Win from Home Final
Real Salt Lake are now a single win from a Final and a shot at the U.S. Open Cup trophy. It which would be the first piece of silverware for the club since an MLS Cup won under then-coach Jason Kreis in 2009. But a Semifinal in Houston, Texas – in the reality-bending heat of late August – will be no easy task.
Kreilach, a legend at the club for more than his goals, assists and all-around panache, knows what’s at stake. A win in Texas, regardless of the result in the other Semifinal between FC Cincinnati and Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami, means the 2023 Open Cup Final would be played at RSL’s home field.
“We know our identity as a club,” said the man, back from the brink of career-threatening injury and in love with the responsibilities alive in the Open Cup. “To reach the Semifinals is a great success.
“But we don’t want to stop,” concluded the good King Kreilach, who raised the club standard high in front of RSL’s trophy-hungry fans after the Quarterfinal win. “We know what a Final at home would mean to the people here.”
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.