Everywhere that Damir Kreilach has played football, a total of three clubs, he has left a legend in the hearts of fans.
With Rijeka, the club Kreilach started at as a youth player, he went on to help guide the team to playing in Europa League while in his teens and early twenties. Despite his young age, he wore the captain’s armband for the club, a mainstay in the top flight of Croatian soccer.
At Union Berlin, he went on to become not only a club captain, but an icon. Having only played for the team while in 2. Bundesliga, supporters of the club still hold him in the highest regard. Just weeks ago, Damir went to watch Union play against Real Madrid in a Champions League game; he was there to listen to 90,000 fans sing songs referencing his name — something they do every single week.
With Real Salt Lake, well, we all know the story. An iconic player, a captain, and a legend as he departs Salt Lake, just as he did with Rijeka and Berlin.
The signing of Damir was something of a shock to fans on both sides of the Atlantic. For RSL, it was an unlikely acquisition of not just one of 2. Bundesliga’s best players, but one that had recently been knocking on the door of promotion to the Bundesliga proper. For fans in Berlin, it was a shocking loss of not just a talented player, but one with a deep connection to their fans.
The move helped come about in part thanks to scouting from Andy Williams, a recommendation from Albert Rusnak, and a dream of one day living in the United States. This combination of things made the move possible, a perfect storm that delivered RSL a player better than anything the fan base at the time could’ve dreamed of.
From a 2018 report from MLS Soccer: "I've played for two clubs in my 10 professional years so far, [Croatian side HNK] Rijeka and Union. Now I have the chance to make a dream come true and to go to America with my family. That is why I am very grateful to Union for allowing me to take advantage of this opportunity. I know that's not a matter of course.”
Originally a defensive midfielder by trade from his former European clubs, Damir ended up settling in mostly as a striker during his time with the Claret and Cobalt. Despite that, at one point or another, it feels like Kreilach played most every potion for RSL – something he took pride in many times. Damir was always a player that valued helping the team over anything else, and whatever position let him do that, he was eager to play.
Still, no matter where RSL deployed the “Kreilach Kid” on the field, it was his moments of goal-scoring that naturally left the best moments. His most famous moment, and really one of the more famous in club history, came from his playoff goal against LAFC.
Of course, those of us who watched the game know that his first of that match was a gem as well. If there is anyone that is excited to see Damir depart the Wasatch valley, there are strong odds LAFC fans are among the top of that group.
The other obvious moment that comes to mind was his 95th minute goal against SKC to qualify RSL for the playoffs in the last seconds of the regular season.
Damir had a habit of scoring in critical moments, but supplied RSL plenty during his time here - leaving the team as a top 3 goal scorer in club history with his name alongside Alvaro Saborio and Javier Morales. His best season statistically came in 2021 where he managed to find the net 16 times, along with supplying 9 assists as well. Which without looking back, certainly feels like the highest in a long, long time.
While on the field achievements certainly keep a player in high regard with the club and supporters, it was Damir’s sincere love of Salt Lake that really cemented his favor in the Beehive State.
Even 'til the very end, Damir never gave up on his goal of trying to achieve something for the fans in Salt Lake. Even leading back to his exit interview on November 24th of this year he said, “I really think I’m going to be playing in RSL (next season), you know how much RSL means to me, and how many great memories I have with RSL.”
While the deal likely didn’t work out either in terms of an agreeable salary figure or any promise of playing time, Kreilach was clearly committed to the cause until forced to make a decision on what was best for himself and his family.
For a player who was reaching his peak in Europe playing for an extremely dedicated and passionate fan base that adored him, it’s almost a surreal thought to think Damir chose to give his best remaining years as a professional to an MLS team in Salt Lake City. Despite watching his former team rise into Bundesliga and go onto playing in Europe’s best tournaments, never once did he express regret or doubt for his decision. In fact, throughout his time in the shadows of the Wasatch Mountains, Kreilach routinely cherished his decision to come play for RSL.
“Salt Lake is my second home. Me and my family here have found a special way, we’ve enjoyed our time here… It was the best decision of my career. I’m over-satisfied with how things have went so far. Before I finish my career, I want to lift MLS Cup with RSL. I’m going to give my best to help the team.”
Regardless of which path Kreilach takes next, whether it be in MLS, overseas, or into a well-deserved retirement. There is sincerely hope, and belief, that all fans will support Dami no matter where his road leads.
To fans of Rejika, and certainly to fans of Union Berlin, family is a concept that rallies the club and supporters together. RSL is no different, and to Damir, it was clear from the beginning how much he valued those things as well. From finding a country and salary to support his family, to finding fans who shared his same core beliefs, all the way to Kreilach’s corner and giving back to the community. It was this that transcended Damir from just a quality player and into a club icon for more than half a decade.
For a player that took a risk to come to MLS, and gave this fan base 6 years of nothing but their best on and off the field – so many memories that will live long in the hearts of RSL fans – the most the club and supporters can do, is return that most sincere dedication in the same measure he gave to this community.
Now a new challenge awaits me.
However, I will always worry and support this club. You will forever remain in my heart.
Even as the RSL community bids farewell to an iconic player, a captain, a legend of this club — it does not lose a member of the RSL family.