Real Salt Lake limped into the playoffs like a kid whose knee had been swept by a member of Cobra Kai. First, there was the home draw against a Minnesota team that had nothing to play for. A few weeks later their win against New England was sandwiched between two blowout losses to the Portland Timbers. Then, in their opening playoff game, they fell behind 2-1 to a Los Angeles FC team that had previously beat them 7-1 across two regular season matchups.
Enter the Crane.
After a series of failed clearances by the LAFC defense, the ball floated towards the top of the 18, where Damir Kreilach rose through the air like an avian god and struck a volley to the inside of the far post. The crowd erupted and momentum swung. Salt Lake snatched the lead 11 minutes later and held on to win their first playoff game since 2014.
The unorthodox goal was a microcosm of Kreilach’s entire first season with RSL, a year that saw him play in a variety of positions and roles. There is no question that Kreilach will remain a key cog again for RSL in 2019, but which position on the field best suits his unusual skill set? And what domino effect will that have on the rest of the roster?
When Kreilach signed earlier this year from Union Berlin, the legendary Matt Montgomery indicated that we should expect goals, though I don’t think even the most Kreil-optimistic among us expected he’d be the club’s golden boot winner. After a 12 goal, 8 assist campaign Kreilach has won the hearts and minds of the RSL fan base, with some even advocating he be made captain when Kyle Beckerman retires (probably 30 years from now).
Not only are the stats surprising, but the manner in which he accumulated them may have come as a surprise to even Kreilach himself. When Kreilach signed, it was mostly assumed that he’d play as a box to box midfielder, which he did for 19 of his 31 starts. As the season progressed, so did Kreilach’s on field positioning, as he eventually tallied 12 starts at either the attacking midfielder or as the central striker. It was in these roles that Kreilach excelled, leading RSL on a renaissance that culminated with back to back wins of 6-0 and 6-2 over the cRapids and LA Galaxy, respectively.
The statistical splits between his starts are pretty significant: in the 19 games he started as a central midfielder, RSL was 7-8-4 (W-L-D) for 1.32 PPG whereas they were 6-4-2 for 1.67 PPG in games where he started in the attack. The goal differential between the two is even more shocking: +11 in games where he played in attack versus -13 when he played more reserved.
The Denver Broncos defense in 2015 and 2016 was known as the “No Fly Zone.” The Real Salt Lake defense of 2018, led by the Beckerman-Kreilach pairing, was more of a “feel free to drive right in, set up a tent in zone 14, and take your kids to see any of our famous national parks zone.” When Kreilach started in a defensive role, the team gave up 40 goals in 19 games. When he played higher up, the team gave up only 16 in 12 games.
One potential fix could be signing a TAM level defensive midfielder, someone who can cover a lot of ground and make up for Kreilach defensive lapses. Players like that don’t grow on trees, but having one is almost a prerequisite for any type of sustained success in MLS. Adding a player with that price tag would of course would require Kyle Beckerman to make the shift from an every game starter to a rotational player. That move may need to happen regardless, but for a locker room that has struggled with chemistry, the way the transition is handled will be crucial. A new partner also isn’t a guarantee that the midfield would improve defensively, Kreilach may continue to struggle.
Keeping Kreilach higher up in an attacking midfield role would require some creativity. If Joao Plata is sold in the offseason (I have no indications that this will happen, but it seems like a possibility) Kreilach could play the #10 role while Albert Rusnak shifts to the left flank. Rusnak has played the role before and putting him closer to goal could result in an uptick in his goal scoring. It could also limit his effectiveness and ability to control games.
The final option, and maybe most promising from what we’ve seen, would be playing Kreilach as a full time “false 9”, a creative player who lines up as a forward but has freedom to drop back and serve at times as a pseudo midfielder. Combining this way with Rusnak led to some of RSL’s best attacking games. Is there a possibility that Kreilach is permanently moved up top, and Waibel abandons his so far fruitless attempts to sign a top of the line forward? How would the fan base react?
Solving Real Salt Lake’s striker issues by bringing in a 29 year old central midfielder and converting him to forward would be a wacky narrative, even by MLS standards, but RSL’s future success may just depend on it. One season has shown Kreilach has a penchant for success with the unorthodox, let’s hope the Crane returns in 2019.
Where would you like to see Kreilach play in 2019? Let us know in the comments below!