By virtually any account, Albert Rusnák was a wide-ranging success story in his first season with Real Salt Lake. In 2017, the Slovakian playmaker earned RSL’s Golden Boot and Most Valuable Player honors, tallying seven goals and 14 assists.
However, when his own critical eye is turned on his first MLS campaign, he doesn’t boast of the five matches that saw him notch a goal and at least one assist. He doesn’t preen about leading MLS in primary assists. Nor does he bring up his first international appearance for Slovakia.
To Rusnák, mature beyond his 23 years, the thing that stands out is that it wasn’t until his sixth match that he scored his first goal and that’s what he’s looking to change in 2018. But that slow start to the season would rankle Rusnák throughout the offseason and now has him focused on building on things from the opening match on Saturday against FC Dallas.
“It took me a while to get going,” said Rusnák. “I’m looking to start from the first game. It’s important for me to score goals and make assists. We should be ready from the first game because last year we started so bad that we were one of the teams after six months and one of the best in the second half. We have to start from the first game.”
The match that saw Rusnák score was current Head Coach Mike Petke’s first game at the helm, a 3-0 win over Vancouver Whitecaps FC in a snowstorm at Rio Tinto Stadium. He had a hand in all three goals, with one scored and two assisted. However, before that breakthrough match RSL was 0-3-2 with just three goals scored through the first five matches.
As a team, RSL wouldn’t find its stride until July, going 8-3-4 after July 4 to come within one point of a playoff berth. That, too, is when Rusnák truly started showing his true colors, according to RSL General Manager Craig Waibel.
A veteran of 12 professional seasons before retiring in 2010, Waibel saw his share of players come into the league with high expectations only to find that making the move to MLS is an adjustment that goes beyond skill on the field. Rusnák, he explained, was no different.
“In the middle of the summer we started to see his comfort level, his movements, his explosiveness take off. Everything turned around for the team, but that’s about the time when if you’re coming here from another league you realize … Montreal is a long ways away and there are different things that come into play on both sides of the game,” Waibel said. “Travel, sleeping in a different bed, dietary needs on the road. All of those things come into play. Psychology is everything and it can take a while to retrain your body and your brain to play at your highest level. That’s when we saw Albert really click. It also took guys around him time to learn how to combine with him and the movements he was going to have. It’s a compliment to Albert, but it’s also a compliment to everyone around him.”
Once he learned how to navigate the rigors of the league and he was able to better gel with his teammates, Rusnák’s output took off. He had four goals and nine assists over the final 15 matches of the season and Salt Lake’s attack shifted into high gear, scoring 32 goals in that stretch. By comparison, Rusnák had three goals and five assists through the club’s first 19 matches and RSL had scored just 17 goals before dropping six on the LA Galaxy on Independence Day.
As his confidence grew, so did his on-field leadership. While RSL has players like Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando to carry the load and guide the ship, others contribute to that direction in the match as well. It’s a role that Rusnák embraces as he takes on greater responsibilities with the team.
“I think that’s what everybody expects from me – fans, the rest of the players, myself. I always try and put higher standards for the season,” he said. “I definitely should be one of the leaders on the field. I’m not a guy who will talk much, but everybody should be a leader in their own way. The more leaders we have on the team, the more success we will have.”
Looking back on Real Salt Lake’s first win of 2017, Rusnák smiles at the memory. It wasn’t like any other match RSL would play. It was his moment to burst onto the scene. It was RSL’s chance to stand tall in support of a new head coach. And they learned how much fun they could have together and still drive toward the goal of winning every time they stepped onto the field. Finding that joy consistently in 2018 will lead to further realization of a youthful core’s potential.
“That game wasn’t just about winning. To win in those conditions it showed that we have the quality and the mentality individually and collectively. That was a big win last year, but it should be automatic in every game. We need to play as a team because not game will be won just by one guy. We need to be together,” he said before inserting a quip to serve as a reminder that as fun-loving as he is by nature, he’s still focused and driven. “That game was fun, but I prefer not to play in snow to be honest.”