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The Salt: In praise of Damir Kreilach

Damir Kreilach continues his goalscoring ways — but when can we call him an all-time great?

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

One of the ongoing narratives about Damir Kreilach is not if he ranks in the annals of great RSL players, but where he ranks. I will attempt to answer that question, but before that, let’s talk about tonight’s match against Vancouver, focusing in particular on Kreilach’s preternatural ability to find the back of the net.

The man has seven goals in just 11 games this season, a record that most strikers in the world would envy. He’s even doing this from a less-advanced position, with Rubio Rubin and Bobby Wood leading the line. The man is enjoying his soccer, and it shows.

After getting home from the match and heating up some dinner, I went straight to the highlights. I’m honestly puzzled by how often Kreilach gets into these goalscoring positions — which is not me complaining — and I’d like to understand it more.

Here’s what I found.

The first goal is weird. Kreilach, who is not a particularly fast player on his best day, matches Vancouver’s defender for pace, then takes a shot that a veteran keeper would probably have been wiser to. Kreilach played the hand he was dealt masterfully here, and it’s really remarkable how good he’s been in doing just that.

The first goal is also weird, because you might expect Bobby Wood to be making that run, but it’s Justin Meram and Kreilach. Wood has actually dropped into space, which I think is reasonable, but this team does some strange things sometimes, and I think this was one of them. But that strangeness is actually one-upped by Vancouver, who are playing a high line with slow defenders when RSL has possession from a goal kick, and we’ve done really well to recognize that fact. (Why they’re playing a high line without playing an offside trap is, quite honestly, beyond me. It’s a massive mistake on their part.)

Kreilach also accidentally shoves Meram to the ground, or he purposefully shoves to the ground. One of those two. It was playful and fun, and I don’t mean to imply otherwise. But it was weird. Less weird was seeing Bobby Wood with an excellent following run that didn’t need to be rewarded, but it might have been if things went differently, and seeing Wood again celebrating excitedly at the goal. Good stuff.

The second goal is typical Kreilach. RSL recycles a corner kick that was cleared out, then sends the ball wide again. There’s a little lapse from a Vancouver defender, and Kreilach is in the process of moving backward when he gets his head to Justin Meram’s cross. I think Brian Dunseth echoes my thoughts on the broadcast perfectly: “How in the world did he get on the end of that one?”

I don’t know how he does it, but Damir Kreilach possesses an unreal ability to read crosses into the box that has benefited him really well. Justin Meram’s cross was good, certainly, and Aaron Herrera has sent some great crosses in this year that were accurate and effective, too. But it’s not that just any player with the requisite heading skill will get to those crosses and score a goal. Damir Kreilach has something special about him. It takes a unique speed of thought to judge those crosses so perfectly.

Where Kreilach ranks

I know this has been a topic we’ve discussed in episodes of Off the Crossbar, but it’s one that I don’t think has a distinct, definite answer.

When we think about all-time greats at Real Salt Lake, the list is a short one: Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales are easily the top three. Those are players that defined Real Salt Lake, and it will take a monumental effort to crack that list. In fact, I don’t think it’s really about ‘top three’ in this case, but about tiers of greatness.

Kreilach’s not in that top tier. He has been an excellent player, and for me, easily the best of players who joined from 2014 forward. He has not defined the club, and in many senses, that’s because he’s either not had the opportunity to, or he defers the definitionalization (which is absolutely, definitely a word, I hope) to others. Could he be that player? Maybe! I actually think he’s got a good chance at it.

From there, I go to the next tier: Players that have made a lasting impact on the club. There are many players in this list. Robbie Findley, for his 2009 heroics. Robbie Russell, also for his 2009 heroics. I think those are all the Robbies, but I recognize I might have forgotten one or two. Beyond that, we’re looking at players that helped transform RSL, even if they didn’t define RSL. Nat Borchers, Jamison Olave, Tony Beltran, Chris Wingert — and that’s just a back line. This tier is much larger than I’d expect at other clubs, and that’s — I think — a relic of the ‘team is the star’ mentality that pervaded RSL for a long time.

Is Kreilach part of the transformative tier? For me, not yet. Again, he’s been great, but he is somewhat a victim of circumstance here. The club has been through massive upheavals since his arrival, and absolutely none of them revolve around him. I would very much like Kreilach to be in that tier, and I think he can be, given the time.

He’s quite easily in the next tier, though — the tier of great players who haven’t transformed the club. I’d put him alongside players like contemporaries like Albert Rusnak, Justen Glad and Aaron Herrera in this category. This whole group could even move up, if things go well under a new owner — or even before then.

I want to make it clear: I want Kreilach to be a transformative player. I want him to be the captain lifting a trophy next year. (Or a vice captain lifting a trophy this year. That would also be great.) Like I said, he’s a victim of circumstance in a lot of ways, and I would love to see him playing with an in-their-primes Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales and Alvaro Saborio.

The best part about this is that Kreilach does have time to do that. He signed a contract that could keep him here through 2023, and I could easily see him retiring here. Time will tell, I suppose.

The other place Kreilach ranks

I was talking with Kyle of Off the Crossbar fame during the match, and he brought up something that I think is really interesting. He talked about how Kreilach is easily one of his favorite RSL players of all-time, even though he didn’t rank him in his top five.

That argument really resonates with me. I suspect for a lot of RSL fans, Kreilach ranks as a favorite player. He is helped in this by being a great goalscorer, of course, but a bigger impact on this is his personality. He’s seen across the fanbase as a kind, genuine person, and certainly one who goes out of his way for people he maybe doesn’t have to.

Here’s a great example.

Nic is far from the only person with a story like that. If you ask for stories about Kreilach among RSL fans, you will undoubtedly get a lot of them. It’s really rare that you get that, and that’s not to cast shade on any other player. It takes a certain personality to feel comfortable doing that in the first place, and it’s a real reminder that professional athletes are, in fact, human.

But beyond just “he’s a good dude,” Kreilach’s goalscoring has come in important matches and important moments. He’s got a knack for scoring big goals. He scores in spectacular fashion, too. He’s an intensely memorable player, and it has hard to remember a player who has been more memorable — in positive ways, at least — from 2014 to now.

In an era that has been dour at best, Kreilach has been a beacon. Could he climb into the top tier of Real Salt Lake greats? Yes — if he can lead us out of the darkness into a new era.