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Damir Kreilach hitting stride, emerging as a legit scoring threat for Real Salt Lake

Real Salt Lake's Damir Kreilach (6) celebrates after scoring in extra time of the first half against the Chicago Fire at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018. Salt Lake won the match 2-1. James Wooldridge, Deseret News

SANDY — It’s been 3½ months since Damir Kreilach scored his first goal in a Real Salt Lake uniform on April 21 in a win over rival Colorado.

RSL coach Mike Petke praised his new midfielder after that match, but said he was only beginning to scratch the surface of his potential. Petke said little by little he expected Kreilach to become more comfortable playing higher up the field and was hopeful more goals would come as a result.

That’s exactly what has happened in recent weeks. Two weeks ago, he scored against rival Colorado in a 2-2 draw at Rio Tinto Stadium, and then on Saturday night he scored a pair of goals in RSL’s 2-1 win over Chicago.

“He is understanding now when I want him to get higher up on the field and when I need him to be back. In the beginning there was a lot of conversations and a little confusion, but tonight you could see it, the timing of his runs, the goals. He is an honest, hard-working guy, and we are very fortunate to have him,” said Petke.

The two goals increased his season total to six, moving him into a tie with Joao Plata for team lead.

Just as impressive is his ironman mentality, as he’s played in all 23 matches this year and started 21.

“He does it unselfishly and goes about his business,” said Petke.

His first goal against Chicago was a header from a Jefferson Savarino cross, and showed just how clinical he can be in front of goal. In 11 seasons in Europe prior to joining RSL, he scored 52 combined goals.

His professionalism on the field and in the locker room has been incredibly important this season as the team transitions to an incredibly young squad this season. Kreilach started filling that role almost immediately upon joining the team this preseason.

“It’s always difficult to come over from another league, especially from Europe and South America, to Major League Soccer; the travel, the speed and play, the physical aspect. The amount we talk in detail with Damir throughout the week to better have him understand what we expect of him and what we want from him, he has a tough situation because I need him to play both sides of the ball probably more than anybody on this because of his position,” said Petke.

Kreilach said that scoring goals definitely helps with your self-confidence, but that the current squad was very welcoming to him when he joined the team.

He’s also served a key role as Nick Rimando’s target player on goal kicks when undersized striker Corey Baird is the point man in the attack.

With Kreilach’s recent form, it’s not out of the question to think he can score four more goals in the final 11 matches and become RSL’s first double-digit goal scorer since 2014, when Plata scored 13 goals.

His career high is 12 goals scored for Union Berlin during the 2015-16 season in the Bundesliga second division.