On a recent appearance on Real Salt Lake teammate Nedum Onuoha’s podcast (Kickback on the robust RSL Podcast Network), Albert Rusnák opined on the elite teams in the world.
With talk of Liverpool’s dominant run still hanging in the air, Onuoha asked a pointed question about Rusnák’s potential as a soccer player.
Summarized, is there anything that Liverpool’s midfield does that he couldn’t do?
Rusnák chose the words to his answer carefully, challenged to analyze not only the players on one of the world’s best teams, but also to give a truthful opinion of his own game.
“There’s nothing that I can’t do, but they’re doing things I’m not doing,” Rusnák said.
The nuanced difference between the two lies at the heart of an earlier question that served as an extended theme to the interview. Just how high is Rusnák’s potential? It’s a thought the 25-year-old Slovakian had long pondered internally, but to be asked to give a sincere and genuine answer caused further introspection, knowing that the questioner in front of the other microphone wasn’t going to let him off the hook with vague platitudes or clichés.
It’s also a question that has been asked long before Rusnák arrived in Utah, as the Manchester City Academy product has shown the ability to take over a game at seemingly every level he’s been asked since moving from England to the Dutch Eredivisie in 2014.
Further than casting a gaze towards visions of what could come of the young playmaker, though, Onuoha wanted to know what kept him from grasping that word – potential – and forcing it into a reality on the pitch.
“If I had the answer, I’d do exactly that,” he said.
Fresh off his first cap for Slovakia, Rusnák signed with Real Salt Lake during the offseason prior to the 2017 campaign. A rising talent and still just 22 years old, he came with high expectations and lofty shoes to fill, as “The Maestro” Javier Morales had just departed after 10 seasons pulling the strings for RSL.
From the day of his arrival, there was pressure.
Blessed with the freedom of youth, he embraced it with open arms and helped lead RSL within an eyelash of a playoff appearance in his first season despite a tumultuous start that saw a coaching change within the season’s first month. He went on to be the club’s MVP with seven goals and 14 assists in 30 appearances and fans salivated at just how far the new kid could take them … once he reaches his potential.
The following season in 2018, he notched 10 goals and seven assists and lifted RSL to the playoffs. Then in 2019, it was 10 goals and five assists and not only another postseason berth, but a second consecutive season advancing in the MLS Cup Playoffs. All the while, he was seeing an increased role with the Slovakian National Team, tallying five goals and five assists in 25 caps, helping his country reach a playoff in UEFA Euro 2020 qualifying later this month against Northern Ireland.
His 27 goals and 26 assists over three seasons are comparable to that of his predecessor – during his best three-year stretch, Morales had 25 goals and 32 assists from 2013-2015.
But to Rusnák, there is still much more for him to achieve.
“I don’t think I have hit my prime in my career yet,” he said. “I feel I’m still developing as a player – not just with the way I play, but mentally. I feel that the mental part of the game is probably even more important than the physical part.”
No longer the fresh-faced 22-year-old, Rusnák now occasionally sports a grizzled beard that belies his smooth craft on the ball but tells the tale of the work he continuously puts in to reach that standard.
In his mind, there is constantly work to be done to improve and vie for his goals.
Could he improve on his numbers from previous goals and assists, the markers for success in his position? Could he reach heights where his name is mentioned in the league MVP conversation?
“That goal is inside of my head before every season starts,” he said.
As RSL’s highest-paid player, he knows there is an expectation to reach that standard from fans, from teammates, from pundits and from an owner who expects excellence on the field.
None of those expectations – pressure to some – is greater than the ones he places on himself, though, so the pressure of potential doesn’t faze him.
“I have to be the best player because that will help my team and that’s what I want to do. It’s not because of wages or anything like that. I know that there is pressure and there will be pressure this year as well,” he said. “Sometimes when there is more pressure on me, it actually got more out of me. When you are comfortable, you won’t try and go for more.”
Now, with RSL poised to make the next steps in the club’s development around a young core of players, Rusnák’s growth as a player and leader is central to that success.
Real Salt Lake opens its home slate on Saturday with a noon kickoff against the New York Red Bulls at Rio Tinto Stadium. Could this be the year that Rusnák realizes that potential or sets a new bar for the heights his career can reach?
Rusnák thinks so.
“I haven’t shown the best of me yet since I’ve been here.”
To hear the full podcast, click here.