After 115 appearances for EFL Championship side Middlesbrough, Matt Crooks leaves the English Teesside for the mountainsides of the Salt Lake Valley.
The versatile midfielder has 56 career goals and 22 career assists to his name after playing for 11 different Clubs across the UK over the last decade. Honors include being named in the 2015-16 League Two PFA Team of the Year while with Accrington Stanley, and 2019-2020 League One PFA Team of the Year while with Rotherham United.
Crooks was born in Leeds, but his family’s roots are in Manchester where he was raised. Affectionately nicknamed “Tree” while he was a scholar in the Huddersfield Town Academy due to his 6 '2 frame and large bushy hair at the time, the nickname has stuck and followed him wherever he’s gone.
On the pitch, the Mancunian has been deployed as a classic box-to-box #8, a playmaking #10 and even up top as a target man #9. Most recently at Middlesbrough, Crooks has been playing as a #10.
Off the pitch, Crooks has been noted for his work in the community, winning Middlesbrough Community Player of the Year in 2022-23. The midfielder has his own charity set up in memory of close friend Jordan Sinnott, which he hopes to continue stateside upon his move to Utah. Crooks is also diagnosed with epilepsy and has worked with the Peter Doody Foundation to destigmatize and normalize the condition.
“Real Salt Lake is a tight-knit club,” Crooks said.
“Really close together, which is similar to what I've had in the past. I've been at smaller clubs in big leagues with maybe bigger names, but the togetherness of the players and the teamwork that you put out there can sometimes contribute to more than singular talents. Which is probably something that's been a big part of my resume in the past.
“MLS is getting a bigger name and a better reputation. Obviously with the likes of Messi and what have you coming over, that's really enhanced the sport over there. I'm just looking forward to it.
“I wouldn't say I'm a Salt Lake, or a Real Salt Lake professor yet, but I'm looking forward to getting to know more. That’s what I’m coming over for.”
📚 Deep Dive:
Middlesbrough Manager and former Manchester United legend Michael Carrick was effusive with his praise for Crooks when speaking about him last fall. He told the Northern Echo:
"I think first and foremost Crooksy is a terrific player," Carrick said.
"When you get talked about as a great character and person and great around the group, it can take away from the quality that you bring on the pitch.
"Crooksy brings both sides to it and that's why he's so important. He leads by example with how he trains every single day and the impact he has when he's on the pitch in terms of being such a threat and the work that he does for the team with and without the ball is really important for us, as is his threat and combination play in and around the box.
"He brings an awful lot. Being a stable character, for me, a lot of it is about people as well and having good people around the place. Good people and good players. He goes about things the right way."
It’s the kind of a praise any young Manchester United fan would dream of hearing from one of their players.
Funnily enough, Crooks - who was in the Manchester United Academy until the age of 14, part of the same Academy class as Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Michael Keane and Ravel Morrison - has been a United fan his entire life. His family are 40+ year season ticket holders at Old Trafford, and of course were there when Crooks scored the vital equalizer for Middlesborough, when Boro famously stunned United in the 2021-22 FA Cup fourth round, winning 1-1 in penalties.
Carrick was named Middlesborough Manager in 2022, and has been full of praise for Crooks since, using the versatile player across the pitch.
“The first couple weeks were bizarre for me. I was almost starstruck in a stupid way at 29 years old to be kind of playing under him,” Crooks said.
“He was one of my favorite players when I was watching United. I was a season ticket holder as well, so I’d watched him quite a lot. I've got a huge amount of respect for him more as a person and obviously as my manager. I have nothing but good things to say about him.
“I've literally just gone off the phone with him there and he's just wishing me the best [at RSL], so they say don't meet your heroes, don't they, but it's been good for me.”
This type of praise is nothing new for Crooks, as it seems across the Clubs he's been at, the term “fan favorite” and “leader in the dressing room” follow him around as much as his nickname, “Tree”.
Carrick mentioned Crook’s work inside the box, and when watching the midfielders goals and assists during his time at Boro, his looming impact inside the opponents 18-yard box can’t be denied.
Reminiscent of the also tall and famously bushy-haired Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini, Crooks thrives on creating space for himself in the box and using his large frame to get shots on goal, whether with his head or feet. Whether it’s a late run into the box or his combination play at the top of it, the former Boro man will be set to be another attacking threat on the Wasatch Range joining Chicho Arango, Diego Luna, Andrés Gomez, Anderson Julio and company in RSL’s attacking ranks.
“The size was certainly the most obvious attribute,” RSL Sporting Director Kurt Schmid said.
“He's also got pretty good feet. His positioning is roughly where we want guys to position themselves. Middlesbrough have played at least at times a system very similar to how we want to play. His willingness and awareness of the types of runs to make out of that space in terms of stretching defense and creating space are kind of exactly what we had been looking for.
“Then just lastly what kind of popped up just watching the video was he looked like someone that was always in and around the final third, and whether it was assists or goals or shots or just any of that stuff, he was kind of always in the mix. We did some research and it seemed like he had shown up in terms of his production at a good enough level that we thought he would help our group and provide another threat in the box when we got into the final third.”
Additionally, besides making himself known to opposing defenders, Crooks looks forward to making himself known to Utah and Real Salt Lake family upon his arrival next week.
“Being involved in the community is going to be good for me,” Crooks said.
“I have a lot of spare time on my hands, especially at the start, because my family aren't coming over straight away. So I may as well just throw myself straight in. Get involved with the community, find out more about the place and the people that live there. I have my own charity that I've set up in memory of my best friend.
“Maybe we could bring that stateside as well. I'll try my best to try and get that going.”
On and off the America First Field pitch, Real Salt Lake’s newest number 25 will be working hard to endear himself to the RSL faithful, if it’s anything like his favorable reputation or nickname, there’s a good chance that’s bound to stick as well.
⚽ Tactical Breakdown:
Real Salt Lake this year aim to play with two number 10’s while in possession in a 3-2-4-1, with fullbacks providing the width while the two attacking midfielders can tuck inside or play combinations. Crooks is expected to compete for one of those attacking midfield places along with Luna, Pablo Ruiz, and youngster Fidel Barajas.
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Pablo Mastroeni recently spoke with Sirius FM about what he looks for in attacking midfielders and Crooks certainly seems to fit the bill.
“If as one of the most talented attacking players on the team can commit to defending as a group, it’s amazing how the game of football will give you the opportunity to score goals,” Mastroeni said.
“Then, you’re gonna always be in great position for the transition, you’re gonna be involved, you’re gonna be engaged, you’re not gonna be just walking and then going from walking to sprinting, you’re gonna be always on the move and a moving player is always more dangerous in transition.”
Mastroeni credit’s Luna’s scorching end to the 2023 MLS Season to his defensive output and Crooks excels at defending from an attacking players perspective.
When deployed as a #9 or #10 in 2022-23 under Carrick, Crooks thrived by pressing hard, winning the ball back for his team and making progressive passes and carries which helped him finish 6th in the EFL Championship in assists that year.
“Another thing that impressed us about him early on in our scouting was his defensive work rate,” Schmid said.
“When he first came up, we looked at him more of an 8/10 more than just like a 10 and we know he's played a bit deeper in the field at times and coming from that deeper type of role, I think that is where his defensive work rate and his progressive passing comes from. Diego was one of our best ball progressors at times last year both visually and statistically, and I think Matt can certainly add to that.”
When looking at the potential of Luna and Crooks playing together as #10’s in RSL’s in-possession system this year, you can see how on paper, the two seem to complement each other.
While Luna thrives in creating shots, creating actions, and key passes while breaking down defenses in possession. Crooks can help unlock defenses with his ability to play through balls and progressive passes in transition, adding just another attacking threat to RSL’s arsenal.
“I think they're totally different types of profiles and so from that standpoint, the balance of the two kinds of playing underneath Chicho is a good one,” RSL Sporting Director Kurt Schmid said.
“Diego is someone that likes to dribble and combine and get a lot of touches on the ball. I think Matt can combine, but doesn't require it and can do a lot of work without the ball as well.
Matt I think likes or knows when to get in the box. And so I think they're a little bit different. But I think the pairing will be a good one. The complimentary pieces will be good in that role.”
When Crooks joins up with the rest of his RSL teammates as they get ready for the season opener against Inter Miami on Wednesday, February 21, another storyline to watch in preseason is the chemistry between the two Claret-and-Cobalt #10’s and how Mastreoni deploys them.
On paper, the RSL duo could together create even more opportunities to threaten opposing backlines while playing to the strengths of their teammates. For example, Crooks playing through balls to Gómez, Julio, Brody or Alex Katranis in transition, or Luna playing intricate one-twos or crosses in possession with Crooks and Arango.
It’s always good to have options, and as Mastroeni says, football rewards you offensively when you commit to the defensive side of the ball - it keeps you involved in the game and puts you in better positions.. Real Salt Lake hopes their latest signing will do just that.