In just 28 matches since joining Real Salt Lake over the winter, Damir Kreilach has already had several memorable matches.
There was his first goal in a 3-0 win over the Colorado Rapids that saw all three RSL goals come in the final 10 minutes of the match, setting the tone for RSL hoisting its 10th Rocky Mountain Cup in the last 12 seasons.
Or his two-goal performance with his father in the crowd as Salt Lake outlasted the Chicago Fire.
And even his first career hat trick in a rout of the LA Galaxy.
Now with goals in three consecutive matches garnering attention from around the league, he is adding moments to his memory bank each week.
However, the one that he hangs his hat on most came when RSL visited the Houston Dynamo last month on the tail end of a two-game road trip. With Kyle Beckerman resting on the bench after a grueling week and Nick Rimando sidelined with an injury, Head Coach Mike Petke looked up and down his roster in deciding who would serve as captain that match. Between them, Beckerman and Rimando have combined for over 640 MLS regular season games for RSL and over 900 games in the league since they both came to the Miami Fusion in 2000. They are clear leaders of the club and faces of the organization over the last 12 years.
So when neither was in the starting 11, Petke turned to another emerging club leader in Kreilach and it was a moment he won’t soon forget.
“Against Houston, when I was captain, it was one of the biggest moments of my career. Coach supported me and every one of my teammates,” he said. “It means much more than soccer.”
That is indicative of many things about the 29-year-old Croatian, not the least of which is how quickly he has adapted to a new country, a new league and a new club.
Growing up in Croatia, Kreilach felt most at home on the pitch. Amidst war throughout his native country, he found sanctity with a ball at his feet between the white lines and from an early age – seven by his memory – he served as captain of every team he played with at the youth level.
He was again captain in his final seasons with Union Berlin and the feeling of responsibility and the respect shown by teammates and coaches was one that he doesn’t take lightly.
So when Petke gave him the armband in that match, it was with great honor and privilege that he represented the club, his teammates and the coaches as captain. To him, it was a signal from the staff and players of how far he’d come in his short time with the club.
And maybe more, how well he had not only assimilated to the club culture amidst a life-changing move to the United States after spending 11 seasons in the comforts of Europe in Croatia and Germany, but also put his own stamp on that culture.
“He’s an experienced player who played at a good level in Europe. He knows how to settle in,” said midfielder Albert Rusnák, who similarly adapted quickly after his move to RSL in 2017. “It’s great that he could adapt so quickly.”
Added Petke, “We have many leaders in this team in different ways. Damir is a leader in every aspect. But Damir is also extremely respectful. He knows the history of Kyle and Nick … and Damir is leading not by only his play this year, but the little things he does after the game. That’s something that you can’t teach.”
Just before he wore the armband, Kreilach was on the bench and did not make it onto the field as RSL played LAFC three days earlier. After the match, he spent time in the locker room doing a brief workout before boarding the bus to get back to the team hotel.
“That should be a video made for every young professional coming into a professional environment saying what it’s going to take to make it to the top,” Petke said. “I don’t even look at the goals he’s scored. I look at the professional that he’s been and the standard that he sets in training.”
That’s just one of many examples of the way in which he shows leadership and professionalism.
Later, after scoring three goals against the LA Galaxy, he was in high demand among members of the media but instead shifted attention toward Justen Glad and Nick Besler – two defenders who had kept in check the always challenging Zlatan Ibrahimovic from scoring his 500th career goal for club and country.
For a new player looking to make his impact on the club, it was a shining moment and a sign of his willingness – almost eagerness – to step out of the spotlight and make sure that each of his teammates gets their due.
“It doesn’t matter who is captain or who scores,” he said. “We are one team and everyone has one goal. This is the most important thing. Alone you can do nothing.”
One of the challenges of moving to MLS was learning a new language. While he did speak English upon his arrival, it was never to the level that he felt confident doing extensive interviews. He would still do his best to do his part in helping to promote the team through the media.
Even while his own grasp of the language improves week-to-week and he is better able to express himself on and off the field, he still marvels at how well his wife and young daughter – who is nearing her second birthday – have been adapting to the new environment in Utah.
“Before the move to MLS, I spoke a lot with my wife and we spoke with our families and in the end we decided to come here because we wanted to learn new culture, to improve our language,” he said. “It’s great for us. We are satisfied with everything here. It’s so fun and so interesting.”
For Real Salt Lake fans, his recent run of goal-scoring has been equally fun and interesting.
He now leads the team with 11 goals and is part of a tandem with Rusnák to be the first RSL duo to reach double-digits in scoring since Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola did it in 2011.
His goal-scoring has served to shine the spotlight again on his willingness to adapt to a new set of teammates and show his ability to contribute in so many different ways and in a vast array of roles up the middle of the field for RSL.
“What he’s doing now is not something new,” Petke said. “It’s just that he’s bringing it out at the right moments.”
Echoed Beckerman, “He’s such an honest player. He works his tail off in any position he plays in. He does the defensive work. He does the offensive work. It’s a credit to him that he can do all of those things.”
While lately he has garnered so much deserved credit for keeping RSL in the playoff chase, he remains focused on doing whatever it takes to propel the club to greater heights.
“I’m very happy because the move to MLS for me was great. The team accepted me very well. I’m glad to be here to play for Real Salt Lake,” he said. “I have to keep going. We have to keep going. This is the most important thing for me.”