Tony Beltran earned his share of praise in his 12 seasons as a player with Real Salt Lake for everything he did on and off the field to help bring the club to the forefront in Major League Soccer and the Salt Lake City community he now calls home. A two-time MLS All-Star, MLS Cup champion and capped U.S. National Team defender, he gained a reputation as a fierce competitor on the field and overall great human being off the field.
Real Salt Lake again struck proverbial gold when the club signed Damir Kreilach prior to the 2018 season, introducing a player into the locker room that carried the same admirable personal qualities exemplified by Beltran.
The 31-year-old Croatian midfielder is in the midst of his third season with Real Salt Lake – the final year of a contract he signed prior to the 2018 season. Since his arrival, he has been a versatile veteran that has led the team in scoring despite playing a large amount of his 76 matches out of his natural position. In the locker room, he is among a group of players that has held the team together through difficult times to lead RSL to the Western Conference Semifinals in consecutive seasons while setting an example for professionalism throughout the organization.
Naturally, Beltran, who was a teammate of Kreilach’s for two seasons before taking the role of Assistant General Manager upon his retirement last year, is left to marvel at Kreilach. Pride and joy pour out of his words when describing a player that Real Salt Lake signed to a contract extension through the 2022 season with a club option for 2023.
“I hesitate to characterize my praise through words, for the true appreciation of Damir Kreilach can only be found in observing the man that he is, the way he lives and the way in which he is dedicated to his craft,” Beltran said. “Knowing he will be staying with the organization should give hope to all those who care for RSL, as his class and courage inspire a shared direction – and this direction is where we need to go.”
In signing Kreilach to a contract extension, RSL secured a player who is as lethal and competitive on the field as he is caring, jovial and gentle off of it. He has the innate ability to score an iconic goal in an MLS Cup Playoff match and the giving nature to share in the celebration with every player and coach on the bench. To him, goals came through not only his own hard work, but through the hard work of everyone around him who help put him in the position to succeed.
It’s a rare combination that has made Kreilach a cherished player for RSL.
“Damir is that guy that you hear in all of the stories that knows the custodians and knows the cooks,” RSL Head Coach Freddy Juarez said. “He’s a good footballer, but when you find a player like that, it’s a blessing. We have a few of them. You bring guys for what they can do on the field, but those are the type of players that keep the team together.”
FROM DAY ONE
From the day he arrived at RSL’s preseason training camp in Orlando, Florida, in 2018, Kreilach made an instant impression on his new teammates.
Fresh off an international flight, the jet-lagged newcomer met with his new club at a team dinner. He had all the credentials and the travel-heavy excuse to make a brief appearance before retiring for the evening and getting a fresh start at the next morning’s training session.
With a CV that includes captaining both of his previous clubs – Rejika in his native Croatia and Union Berlin in Germany – Kreilach could easily expect that everyone in the room would know his name upon his arrival.
However, knowing that he would need to ingratiate himself to a vast international locker room with stars and rising young talent, he instead went around the room and to the shock of his new teammates, knew seemingly every player and coach’s name.
“He clearly did his research and was really friendly,” said Justen Glad, whose eyes still dazzle with astonishment nearly three years later. “He took the first step forward to initiate himself into the group. He fit in right away because of the type of person he is. He’s always bringing good vibes. He’s a very happy person.”
This wasn’t a new player putting on an act to gain the good graces of his new team, though. It was a gesture that came as naturally as breathing and was a big step toward gaining the trust and companionship of a locker room he hoped to call home for years to come.
“That’s how it should be. To put yourself in the team, it’s easier to do some research and show respect to them and make my adaptation easier,” Kreilach said. “Every player, every coach and everyone at the club was welcoming to me.”
He has since become part of the welcoming committee for new players, whether they come up from the RSL Academy or Real Monarchs, or have lengthy resumés from careers in MLS or abroad.
“He helped me transition as a European player on American turf. He’s not the loudest person in the world, but he always leads by example so I was right on him from the get-go,” said defender Nedum Onuoha, who played for such storied clubs as Manchester City, Sunderland and Queen’s Park Rangers before arriving at RSL. “If you ever want to find success you need to have a lot of people just like that. He’s been a huge part of the club since I’ve been here.”
The niceties aren’t just reserved for the players and soccer staff though. Kreilach makes a point to personally thank people in the organization for what they do, offering sincere recognition that it takes more than the players on the field to run a successful soccer club.
“The soccer experience is great, but the person that he is makes Damir ‘Damir’. The glue he is. The compassion he has. The passion he has for the teammates, for the club, for the staff,” Juarez said. “He’s probably the most unselfish person I’ve ever met. He gets along with every teammate and all the staff. He’s such a big part of what we’re doing.”
BIG GAME PERFORMER
If he’s a big part of what Real Salt Lake is doing off the field, his on-field exploits lift him exponentially.
He led RSL in scoring with 12 goals in his first season and currently tops the club scoring charts with five goals through 11 matches in 2020, also notching a goal in the Round of 16 in the MLS Is Back Tournament. Consistent with his personality, he also was among club leaders in assists in his first two seasons and has 14 in his MLS career to complement his 23 goals.
In the postseason, he rises to a new level with four goals and one assist in five MLS Cup Playoff matches.
It’s hard to mention the name of Damir Kreilach without visions of his karate kick goal against LAFC in the 2018 Playoffs, the second of two goals on the night as heavy underdogs RSL blasted past the league darlings and into the Western Conference Semifinals.
With RSL pressing for an equalizer in the 58th minute, the ball pinballed around the box before being knocked clear by Danilo Silva. The clearance only went as far as Kreilach 22 yards from goal. The ball floated in the air and Kreilach lept in the air to meet the volley with a move reminiscent of Daniel LaRusso’s finishing maneuver in the movie ‘Karate Kid’ 34 years earlier. With the sudden strike, the ball rocketed past the stunned LA defense and into the goal to level the match. After the huge momentum shift, RSL would go on to win and advance to the next round.
“It was massive,” Glad said of the goal. “Going into that game, the only people who thought we were going to win that game were in our locker room. To make a statement like that and beat the higher seed, it was huge for our group to show that we can compete.”
What made that moment particularly memorable for Juarez was in Kreilach’s reaction.
While LAFC players looked to pick themselves up off the grass of Banc of California Stadium and his RSL teammates chased him down to swarm him, he turned and ran to the RSL bench on the opposite side of the field.
That moment wasn’t for him alone, but for the whole team to celebrate.
“That’s Damir summed up,” Juarez said. “It’s about us. It’s always about the team. This goal is what we’ve done together. His first reaction is to celebrate with the group. For me, it gives me goosebumps.”
Recalling that goal, which launched him into the MLS consciousness faster than the ball left his foot, brings a smile to Kreilach’s face.
His recollection takes Juarez’s and ratchets it up one more notch. Not only was that goal important for the team and his teammates, but also the fans.
“It’s really special,” he smiles, as if remembering it as a fan of RSL. “Of course you are happy when you score, but I’m even more happy when the team has good results. Those games will stay memorable for every fan, for every player and for employees of the club. It’s special and it feels great, but at the end of the day, it’s how the team performs. That’s what people will remember for years to come.”
And of his celebration with the bench? Again, Kreilach defers to his teammates.
“It’s all about the team,” he said, suddenly serious. “Those guys are very important. They help create the mood in the team and they are pushing you to do better. I want to celebrate goals with the bench because everyone deserves it because of all of our work. It’s never about one player. It’s all about the team and that’s how it should be. To have everyone in the group is such a beautiful thing.”
THE PERFECT TEAMMATE
That type of humility has been ubiquitous with Kreilach throughout his time with RSL.
After scoring two goals against Chicago in a 2-1 victory at Rio Tinto Stadium, he was asked to describe his goals.
“Perfect assists,” he quipped to media.
Later, he scored a hat-trick in a 6-2 win against the LA Galaxy – the first three-goal game from an RSL player in four years. Rather than accepting the plaudits for his achievement, he shifted the attention to RSL’s center back pair of Glad and Nick Besler, who kept Zlatan Ibrahimovic off the board in the match.
During one road trip, he was brought into the coaches’ office prior to the match and was handed the captain’s armband for the match. Taken aback by the honor and privilege, he instead offered a suggestion. After showing his appreciation, he suggested Albert Rusnàk wear the armband instead.
“He knows the feeling of the team and who needs what. Sometimes in the heat of the moment, you don’t remember those things,” Juarez said. “It’s organic. That’s just the type of guy he is.”
Added Beckerman, who was unavailable for the match, “It’s just who he is. He doesn’t need the armband. He doesn’t need the recognition. He’s just a top person and we’re really lucky to have him on our team.”
When Real Salt Lake brought back the players and coaches from the 2009 MLS Cup championship-winning team to honor the 10-year anniversary of the state’s first major professional sports title, club legend Javier Morales quietly watched RSL’s training session the day before the match.
He shared a few moments with some former teammates as they departed the field at the end of the session and while waiting for Beckerman and Nick Rimando, Kreilach took the opportunity to introduce himself and say a few words to the author of many memorable moments in RSL’s history.
Kreilach had no way of knowing Morales - he had moved on to FC Dallas and retired before Kreilach joined the league. But he still wanted to take a moment to recognize a player of such import to the club and its fans.
“I know Javier Morales was a big player for RSL and he achieved a lot here,” he said. “Everyone who steps on the field wants to be memorable for the RSL family and give their best to make the fans happy.”
The following day, the 2009 team was honored at the match and Morales had his name and jersey number emblazoned in the rafters at Rio Tinto Stadium, overlooking the field where so many of his highlight moments occurred. That moment spoke volumes for Kreilach to the culture that the team shares with its fans and staff.
He also saw the reverence held for the 2009 team first-hand and could envision him sharing a similar moment with his teammates.
“I’ve been lucky to play for three family clubs. It was my first club in Croatia, my second club in Germany and my third club, RSL. In all clubs it was the same situation and the same mood that it’s all about family. That’s why I thought RSL was such an interesting project and such a great organization and that’s all I’ve seen in the two-and-a-half years,” Kreilach said. “At the end of the day, the club is at a high level. We’ve just missed winning something. I’m looking forward to that. And everyone in the locker room is giving everything to win MLS Cup because that is what this club and the fans here deserve.”