The chill in the air that surrounded downtown Vancouver infiltrated B.C. Place as Real Salt Lake took the field for the Club’s first Major League Soccer match of 2023. Even indoors, RSL couldn’t escape the cold for their first match of the season. The British Columbia winter still in midseason form as Whitecap fans filtered down the steps and into their seats to witness their home opener. For many in the stadium, it was just the start of another MLS Season, but for RSL Captain Damir Kreilach, it felt like a second chance to continue his entire career. It had been 314 days since the Croatian led his Claret-and-Cobalt team out of the tunnel for a professional match. Those days in-between filled with spouts of anxiety, frustration, and fear caused by an injury that threatened his ability to do what he loves most.
But this is Damir Kreilach after all. Real Salt Lake Captain, Damir Kreilach. Despite the doubts, and the worry, there was always an overwhelming resilience to make it back on the pitch, and to lead his team out of the tunnel to start the 2023 MLS Season. Out of the cold and into the warm embrace of a feeling you can only capture in your heart when you return to something you truly love. Warm feelings shared by all those wearing Claret-and-Cobalt in the stands or streaming the match through Apple TV. As he crossed the touchline, took his position and the first whistle of the 2023 RSL season was blown, it finally marked the end of a long journey back for the king of America First Field. King Kreilach has returned. Long Live the King.
For all the frustrations that the 2022 season brought Kreilach, the 2021 season was one for the memory books. He set the Club record for most goals scored in consecutive games with five, doing so in the midst of a magical playoff run. A run which was capped off by none other than the “Damiracle” goal in extra time against Sporting Kansas City on Decision Day that secured RSL’s spot in the postseason.
In his fourth year with the Club, Kreilach scored 16 goals and assisted nine times, barely missing out on being named to the MLS 2021 Best XI. His play on the field was exemplary, but his work in the locker room and off the field was what made him so beloved to his teammates and the RSL Faithful. He was named Club MVP and entered the 2022 season with the captain’s armband wrapped around his bicep. An honor he’s since taken with the utmost sincerity since.
“I'm grateful and honored to be named Captain of RSL,” Kreilach said.
“At the end of the day, it’s a huge responsibility and I'm just trying to give my best on and off the field and to help my teammates give their best on and off the field as well.”
Kreilach also started the “Kreilach Corner'' initiative, purchasing 100 RSL season tickets to be distributed each match to underserved children.
2022 had the makings of a career year for the captain. After reaching the Western Conference Finals the season prior, expectations were Rocky Mountain high and who better to lead the team than their spiritual, emotional and ever-present leader.
The team started the season 3W-1L-3D, and were heading to the Bronx to take on reigning MLS Champions, NYCFC. Kreilach had appeared in four matches so far, and had just played his first full 90 minutes at home against Toronto FC since returning from a minor injury, scoring his first goal of the season in the process. The match in Yankee Stadium proved to be a disaster in more ways than one. The team boarded the plane at Newark International Airport to return to Salt Lake City after suffering an 0-6 defeat, one that could’ve been even worse if not for the heroics from goalkeeper Zac MacMath. Back on the plane, Sr. Director of Athlete Health and Performance, Theron Enns was one of the first to notice something wrong.
“He started to feel something on the plane ride home,” said Enns. “He knew he kind of twisted it in the game and it felt odd. Didn't think anything of it. And then after the flight, his back started to bug him.”
After receiving imaging, Damir and the Club learned he had suffered a disc rupture which caused a bulging in the disc that was putting pressure onto a nerve. This nerve goes all the way down his leg. After first experiencing pain, Kreilach then began to feel numbness, tingling and weakness in his leg due to the disc bulge and injury to the nerve itself.
“There's different ways to handle it, there's conservative therapy, which we tried at first because that's usually the shortest route to getting back if it works,” said Enns. “Unfortunately in this case it didn't work for him. We always try to be as conservative as we can. The last thing you wanna do is rush into a surgery that you could maybe avoid. Damir was okay with trying that. It didn't work. And so then we had to pivot and move towards a surgical intervention.”
Kreilach and the Club did their research and found a physician that specializes in athletes’ spines in Los Angeles. Damir was evaluated and then underwent a surgery that would take pressure off of the nerve. It was a surgery and an injury that can be serious and long-term. The medical staff was prepared for Kreilach to be out for 3-6 months and maybe even more if the nerve was impacted.
Unfortunately, the nerve was damaged and for Kreilach, this meant his season was over.
“Whenever you're dealing with a nerve, it's very unpredictable,” said Jacob Joachim, RSL’s Head Athletic Trainer.
“And that was part of the frustration for Damir, not knowing why he was still getting these symptoms and these feelings of numbness, weakness in his hamstring. That is scary for an athlete. Totally scary for anybody. I think the takeaway was to keep re-emphasizing that it can be a little bit unpredictable, but that you're just gradually getting better.”
Gradually, Kreilach did get better. Throughout rehab, the medical team slowly began increasing the work of his strength, functionality, and motion work until he reached a point toward the end of the season where he was able to rejoin the team in partial training while still feeling some residual effects.
“I always had confidence in Damir because Damir is one of the best professionals we've ever had in this Club," said RSL General Manager Elliot Fall.
“We knew he suffered a tough injury, but he's not a guy who's injury prone, and when you look up a good professional in the dictionary, Damir's picture is on the page. He's as good as they come and he's as good a leader as they come. We also knew that even if it took him some time to find his form, he offers immense value to our club regardless.”
As the Club made a run toward their second consecutive playoff appearance, Kreilach was there to cheer on his teammates. While RSL’s season finally came to an end following a first round defeat to Austin FC, the end of the season marked another landmark for Kreilach as he worked toward getting back to full fitness.
“When I started to train again in November with the Monarchs, I just felt grateful,” Kreilach said. “Grateful for all the guys there doing this with me.”
“I had this feeling that God gave me another chance to play soccer. I just tried to enjoy every single moment, even to just play Rondo, or play six a side.”
As his road to recovery continued into the offseason, Damir was omnipresent at Zion’s Bank Real Academy. There he’d be with whoever was still in Herriman at the time, going through shooting drills and giving younger players advice, greatly encouraging them when they’d slot one past the keeper.
“Damir was always here,” RSL midfielder Diego Luna said. “He was always a friendly face to talk to in the morning. Always someone you can walk in knowing that he's there to totally put a smile on your face.”
As preseason rolled around, it proved to be another test in Kreilach’s journey to return. Luckily, it was one that inspired hope in both the RSL midfielder and the Club. Kreilach started a majority of the preseason matches, scoring once and assisting twice. RSL went undefeated throughout their preseason matches and entered the 2023 season with that same hope that exuded from the Club in 2022.
“To have all preseason to make me even mentally stronger, be back with the boys, to go all through the preseason and then have the final moment, to finally play an official game against Vancouver that was something special,” said Kreilach.
RSL’s 2023 season opener had not gone to plan. Real Salt Lake was caught on the backfoot in the first half, and Vancouver took an early 1-0. Fortunes finally changed in the 70’ when Justen Glad found the end of a Maikel Chang inswinger to bring the Claret-and-Cobalt level.
As the temperature in the stadium continued to drop, the heat of the action rose. The game was for the taking and it would take someone cold-blooded to separate the two.
As the two teams battled back and forth, RSL winger Jefferson Savarino strode into the opposing penalty area and cut back a pass between two Whitecaps defenders. The first to meet it, however, was the Captain.
Taking it for the first time, Kreilach struck the ball true and the net burst with the force of 314 days of anxiety, pain and struggle. Finally redemption and jubilation. On his return, the king delivered.
“I'm proud and honored to continue to be part of the RSL organization and to play under Pablo who is an unbelievable human being and an unbelievable coach.” Kreilach said.
“I would like to say thank you to all those who supported me during my injury for all the support. The ownership group, Ryan, David, Scott, Chris, and all the people that were involved. They gave me unbelievable support as well as the coaching staff, medical staff, teammates and of course the people behind it all, the fans. Because of that, I'm so happy to continue on this path with RSL and really looking forward to a healthy and successful season.”
An immense full-circle moment, one that Kreilach wanted to share with everyone who helped him reach it.
“Damir came up and personally thanked every member of the medical staff after that first game,” said Enns. “He told us, ’I didn't wanna say anything after preseason games because it wasn't a real game’, but once he played that first MLS game, he came around to everybody and personally thanked everybody for everything that they had done.”
The warm feeling had returned, out of the cold, back in the promised land.
“I had a feeling of a young kid starting to play soccer again,” said Kreilach. “I’m just looking forward to creating more of these moments as a team to celebrate these dreams, especially in front of our fans.”