Damir Kreilach broke Whitecaps hearts. Now he’s here to mend them

Whitecaps’ Damir Kreilach has joined his conference rivals after six productive years with Real Salt Lake, and looks to lift the offence to the next level.

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Damir Kreilach knew immediately what he was looking at, his eyes crinkling in delight.

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Sitting in the stands on Friday at B.C. Place, he watched a replay of the last time he was in the dome — leading Real Salt Lake to a 2-1 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps in the 2023 season-opener. It was Kreilach’s 72nd-minute goal that stood up as the winner, ruining Vancouver’s home-opener.

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The smile on the replay was as broad as the one he wore Friday, but the reaction was just as muted as his celebration in the game. For the longtime RSL star, that goal was more important that the three points it would bring. It was the culmination of a year of hard work, rehab and triumphant return from the back surgery that kept him out most of the season before.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “Basically it was a great moment, not because I scored against the Whitecaps, but just because it was my first professional game after back surgery. I was just overwhelmed. So happy.”

But the 34-year-old, who had been the teeth in RSL’s offensive bite for six seasons, was soon to be relegated to super-sub status for the Claret and Cobalt. He scored four goals in his final season, in which he started 15 games and had signed an extension through 2024, but the club and their icon parted ways when it became clear his role would be much reduced this year.

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But Whitecaps CEO and sporting director Axel Schuster, who knew his agent and Kreilach from his time with the Bundesliga’s Union Berlin, became an option once the decision was made.

“I voted for him as (MLS) MVP three years ago,” he said. “I said, ‘For me, he was the biggest decision-maker in the whole league.’ If they were playing with him, they were clearly a playoff team. If they were playing without him, not.

“I knew what good character he is. And so when (his agent) told me he doesn’t know what he wants to do, I said, ‘I’m not allowed to speak with you in the league rules, but if at some point the situation changes, please let me know before he does something else with Salt Lake.’

“Then he gave me this call. It didn’t take a lot of time — (Caps coach) Vanni (Sartini) also likes him as well — but I was in love with this player a lot.”

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Charlotte FC vs. Vancouver Whitecaps

Saturday, 4:30 p.m., B.C. Place

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While the 34-year-old Croat has accepted he might not be an MVP contender anymore, he still feels he has the ability to be an effective player.

“ … It was one of the hardest decision I ever made in my life,” he said of his exit from RSL, after which he penned a letter to the fans. “I was six years there. I made the friends for the rest of my life. I love the fans, love the club. Love the community. But I just wanted to keep going, to keep proving myself … I’m still hungry even in age 34. I still want to compete.

“My role in Salt Lake (was going to) be a little bit different. Basically, I expected I would play maybe a couple of games this season. All what I wanted is to have healthy competition. From Day 1, when I had the conversation with Axel and with coach Vanni, I saw, ‘OK … that’s the project I want to be in to extend my career, to help especially the young guys with experience I have, on-and-off the field.’

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“I played the last three, four years in multiple positions; as eight, as a 10, as a nine, as a false nine, and I said whatever position basically, when you need me, I’m going to play. I’m just happy to be on the field and help the team as much as I can.”

Of the four goals Kreilach scored last year, two came in one game against St. Louis. Fellow incoming striker Fafa Picault had five. They’re modest totals, but they were brought into Vancouver to be secondary offensive options.

The Caps are expecting Brian White and Ryan Gauld, who accounted for over half of their goals last season, to have the same kind of effect this year. And with their gravitational pull on defenders, it will help open up lanes for veterans Kreilach or Picault to exploit the holes that result.

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It’s why Vancouver hasn’t felt a pressing need to find a player to fill the third Designated Player spot — a “max TAM” player who could only command a US$1.6 million salary because of the U-22 Initiative spots the Caps already have — before the transfer window closes in April.

“We think that if we go through our lineup and we look at how we finished last season with what kind of squad, what players and how they performed, I don’t think that we ever felt the need for a third DP to perform on the same or better level,” said Schuster. “Yes, it’s obviously open. We also know about the rules in the league. There are limitations to that spot.

“So perfect summary; we don’t feel the urgency for tomorrow (against Charlotte), the game against San Jose or Dallas, but we want to bring in the one or the other player that then will have a runway until … the Copa America starts.”

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Kreilach hasn’t had much runway to adjust to his new city, with just 11 days in Vancouver since signing here two months ago, but he feels like he’s meshed quickly with his teammates and the staff. His family has too, with both of his children in school for a month already.

He’s just ready to start out his season Saturday against Charlotte FC — maybe even like he did in 2023. But if he doesn’t, that’s OK too.

“I realize that during the games, during the (practice) sessions, during the season, it’s gonna be tough moments, it’s going to be ups-and-downs,” he said. “But at the end of the day, that’s all about life. Life doesn’t only go one way — it’s a roller-coaster. Because of that, we have to stay calm. We have to stick to our plan. We have to, first of all, work hard to be successful. And that’s what this team is about.”

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reference: theprovince.com

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