Sunday was bittersweet for Albert Rusnák. The Real Salt Lake midfielder earned his first start for the Slovakian National Team in a World Cup qualifier against Malta, notching an assist on the third goal as his country sought a return to the World Cup for just the second time.
However, Slovakia finished the UEFA’s First Round of World Cup Qualifying second in its group and last among the nine second-place finishers, leaving it on the outside looking in for the playoff for the final four spots. So while Rusnák had a chance to celebrate a great performance in his first start for his national team, he won’t have a chance to play in the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
“I felt great and honored to start my first game for Slovakia. Overall, I was happy with my performance in that game, but the bigger picture is qualifying and we haven’t done that yet,” he said. “For me as a younger player, I still have some more tournaments ahead of me. But I feel for the older players who could have had their last World Cup this year and it didn’t work. It’s always disappointing and sad when you don’t qualify for such a big tournament as the World Cup.”
Playing internationally is a point of pride for players and coaches alike and Rusnák’s international experience at just 23 years old has proven beneficial for Real Salt Lake, where he brings a swagger and steadiness to the midfield that has brought palpable results on the field. His seven goals equal the team lead along with Yura Movsisyan and Joao Plata while his 13 assists are two shy of the club record held by Javier Morales, who had 15 assists in 2008.
To Head Coach Mike Petke, seeing a tremendous performance from Rusnák on a big stage could only mean more opportunities in the future.
“Albert’s a special player. You always want to see your player go and represent their country. It’s very exciting to see that,” Petke said. “I thought Albert did very well. I know they’re out of the World Cup, but I expect that any future call-ups, he’s going to be a part of because he’s earned that. He deserves it.”
Rusnák now returns to an RSL team that is also facing some important games to determine playoff positions. With two matches left in the season, RSL is entrenched in a battle with the Houston Dynamo, FC Dallas and the San Jose Earthquakes for the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference. Currently in seventh in the West.
“Getting that one start helped my confidence even more. I’m very happy to be back and I’m ready to roll for those last two games,” he said. “We’ve got ourselves in a great position. I’m sure the whole team and I will give 100% to reach that playoff spot.”
RSL will face the Colorado Rapids on Sunday at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park (5:30 p.m. MT) before returning home to meet Sporting Kansas City in the regular season finale on October 22 (2 p.m. MT).