Real Salt Lake fans have been through it over the nine years.
And that’s not supposed to be exaggeration. We’ve lost player after player, we’ve had staff, front office and back office personnel depart acrimoniously, and we’ve dealt with Dell Loy Hansen as an owner.
Albert Rusnak’s departure is just the latest in a long string of eye-rolling moments around the club. His comments about his time in Salt Lake preparing him to play for Seattle? About their fans, and about how he was excited to play for a great team and challenge for trophies? Well, on the back of an extremely middling performance against Portland Timbers in the Western Conference Final, let’s just make clear it didn’t engender much sporting good will toward the departing captain.
So it was that the news emerging yesterday from Pablo Mastroeni’s interview on ESPN 700 was one that has been welcome. The sort of news that makes you feel good about the person it discusses. And obviously, if you’ve read the headline (I’m guessing you had to click something to get here, right?), you know exactly what this references.
It’s Damir Kreilach, Real Salt Lake’s new captain.
Now, I know it’s tempting to go back to a “he was always our captain, and Rusnak never was,” and while I get what you’re saying (Rusnak lacks the one-two-punch of effusiveness and kindness that Kreilach has made his personal brand), I don’t think that’s entirely fair. See, no matter what you wanted to see out of Real Salt Lake, Rusnak was actually the captain, and there was no getting around that. Kreilach may have been the second-in-command (though “command” is a tricky word for a role that’s largely symbolic), and he may have been captain at Union Berlin, but the club made Rusnak the captain.
We were treated to months of “the captain on the field doesn’t really matter,” which is sort of true, I think it’s only true in a very literal sense. In a symbolic sense, the captain is someone that spectators look toward to represent the club, for better or worse. For a club that had Kyle Beckerman as captain for over a decade, and who called him “Captain Kyle” at every opportunity, it was jarring to hear some voices describe the role as illusory at best.
I do get it. There is no one-to-one correlation between captaincy and leadership, and a successful team has many leaders on the field — but only one captain. If the role of a captain is often largely a symbolic one, it should also carry with it the mantle of leadership.
Let’s imagine for a moment that the captain is a symbolic role. Let us not forget the importance of symbols. We can find symbols everywhere in our lives, and they often matter deeply. Perhaps the captaincy matters, too.
Let’s also wonder what the captaincy should symbolize. We’re not going to have a fully enumerated list that every captain should embody, so instead, we’re likely to have a non-exclusive set of traits. I don’t actually want to answer this here — I want you to think about it, reflect on it. Think of it as your homework for the day.
Whatever you see as “captain material,” the void in the captaincy was obvious, the need was obvious, and especially, the need to have somebody in the role who doesn’t seem likely to leave for a rival. (That’s not to begrudge Rusnak for moving on in his career in the way that felt best for him — but talking about how you’re excited to move to a bigger club after you make a Western Conference Final is unpleasant at best.)
I think there’s a real truth to “Kreilach has always been our captain,” despite my complaints above — but only when we think about what happens now. If Kreilach were skipped over again to provide external motivation for a player that could take the “next step” in their career (though hopefully not elsewhere on a free, right?), we’d have to rethink — well — a lot. Kreilach is an important player, a passionate player, a dedicated figure at a chaotic club, and incredibly good with people.
Those things matter.