SANDY — Five days after his 29th birthday, Real Salt Lake newcomer Damir Kreilach scored his first MLS goal in Saturday’s 3-0 win over rival Colorado.
His strike was the insurance goal RSL needed in the 89th minute as he curled a shot just around defender Axel Sjoberg and then inches past the outstretched fingertips of keeper Zach MacMath. It could be a sign of things to come.
During Kreilach’s five seasons with Union Berlin in Bundesliga 2 before making the move to MLS, he often played in a more advanced position in the midfield and scored 33 goals in 149 matches. In his five seasons prior to that playing for Rijeka in his native Croatia, he scored 19 goals in 128 matches.
His more natural position is higher up the field, and he’s started to drift that way at times in recent matches.
Two weeks ago in the win over Vancouver, it was Kreilach’s through ball to Corey Baird that ultimately helped set up Jefferson Savarino’s insurance tally. It came from an advanced position.
The same thing happened against the Rapids. Albert Rusnak spotted Kreilach near the edge of the penalty area and he clipped him a perfectly weighted diagonal ball that Kreilach finished for his first goal in an RSL uniform.
“I don’t think we’ve close to the best of Damir. I think Damir has equated himself fine, that’s why he’s been playing every week, but I think the more comfortable he gets in the weeks ahead you’re going to see him more in an advanced position, and more central. It’s going to take a little time,” said RSL coach Mike Petke.
Finding the balance between his defensive responsibilities alongside Kyle Beckerman and then his desire to push forward is the weekly challenge for Kreilach. In the 4-0 loss at New York City FC, like all of his teammates Kreilach struggled with that balance.
Even in the first 20 minutes against Colorado before the Tim Howard red card, RSL’s ability to possess the ball and build out wasn’t great. As Kreilach continues to adjust to where Petke wants him positioned going both ways, it should have a direct impact both offensively and defensively.
“I think Damir is playing fine, but he’s going through what a lot of people coming over from a foreign league go through, which is it takes time to adjust to this league,” said Petke.
Kreilach arrived in Utah the week of RSL’s first game this season, and Petke said adjusting to the culture, the travel in MLS and different styles of play takes time.
During Kreilach’s tenure with Union Berlin in Germany, the longest flight he likely took for a league game would’ve been about 75 to 80 minutes. It’s safe to assume that playing at New York City FC on three days rest after a 4:30 flight was not something he’d ever dealt with professionally in Europe.
Petke believes Kreilach is starting to truly settle in.
“I have noticed a little bit every day in practice he’s getting up to speed more and more and more,” said Petke.
Kreilach’s first MLS goal might be the boost he needs to assume the role he was brought to Real Salt Lake to fulfill.
“Today we played with a lot of passion, and patient also, and self-confidence,” he said.
With four of Real Salt Lake’s next five games on the road, that patience and self-confidence will be necessary to secure more positive results.