When Real Salt Lake hosted New York City FC on May 17, it featured a reunion that may have gone unnoticed by many MLS fans, but it was an important one for Albert Rusnak.
On the opposite side was NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira, who had been Rusnak’s manager when the Slovak midfielder played for the Manchester City under-21 side. Naturally, the Frenchman had a big influence on his career.
“He was my coach for two years and he taught me a lot of stuff and also told me what I needed to work on,” Rusnak told Goal. “When I saw him in the game against NYC, he told me: ‘You finally made a good step in your career,’ with a laughing face. That helped my confidence.”
Vieira may have wished he kept his compliment to himself — Rusnak scored and assisted on the winner in a 2-1 RSL victory.
Rusnak has seven goals and 13 assists with one match remaining in his debut campaign. When it comes to primary assists, there’s been no one better — Rusnak is tied with Michael Barrios of FC Dallas for the league lead with 12.
Add it all up and you’ve got a player who is already one of the best No. 10s in the league, and everything RSL could have hoped for when they brought him in as the heir to Javier Morales’ playmaking throne.
The potential for Rusnak to succeed quickly was apparent early on according to Kyle Beckerman, but the RSL captain did not expect such a polished game from a player so young.
“He definitely surprised me,” Beckerman said. “Just more on being only 22 and how he plays in the ways he’s finishing chances, setting up assists and just making plays like he’s a lot more mature than a 22-year-old.”
Specifically, Beckerman was impressed by Rusnak's decision-making and vision. Neither just happened: Rusnak was molded for success by his time in Europe. After his period with Vieira and the Manchester City youth setup, Rusnak found himself looking for an opportunity to play consistently.
He found that in the Netherlands, where the Eredivisie stood out to him as a place conducive toward youth development.
“There are guys (at age 16) who are regularly playing,” Rusnak said of the Eredivisie. “It’s the whole mentality of the Dutch league and it’s a reason why I went there at 19 — to play in a quality league, to get some experience and prepare for the next level.”
Rusnak had success in the Netherlands, starting on loan to Cambuur before City sold him to Groningen. There Rusnak would continue to develop, scoring 13 Eredivisie goals over two-plus seasons, winning a KNVB Cup trophy and getting a taste of Europa League action.
As a league that prides itself on technical attacking soccer, the Eredivisie was the perfect place for the youngster to develop his game.
“The soccer style of the Dutch league is always to play out from the back,” Rusnak said. “It’s about your first touch and about the vision as an attacking player, the passes you make. It’s not always about just getting the ball from A to B. It’s about picking the right choice. There are a few different choices that a player has when he’s on the ball, he can make several decisions. In Holland it was a school on all of that.”
If the Eredivisie was a school, MLS proved to be the test of everything he’d learned. Rusnak earned a transfer to Real Salt Lake, a designated player contract and the keys to the team’s offense — along with the pressure of having to replace a club legend in Morales.
But instead of wilting, Rusnak has blossomed, posting career highs in goals and assists this season in his debut campaign. In a league where adjustment for newcomers has often taken time, his was quick, though not necessarily painless.
“The start (of the season) was a little bit harder,” Rusnak said. “I was new. There were a couple of other new players. It takes a little while to settle in. Then three games into the season we had (the coaching change) and that played a part as well.”
That coaching change was made early, when the club fired Jeff Cassar and replaced him with former New York Red Bulls boss Mike Petke.
Having been with RSL’s affiliate, Real Monarchs, and worked with the first team in preseason. Petke was familiar with Rusnak upon taking the job. And he was impressed with what he saw.
“The thing that struck me with Albert was his phenomenal attitude, an incredible ability with the ball and his vision as a setup man,” Petke said.
The former MLS defender was also in for another surprise. While players in the No. 10 role generally are not known for their efforts on defense, that isn’t the case with Rusnak.
“I’ll be honest with you, one of the biggest things that maybe goes unnoticed is his defensive ability,” Petke said. “I can remember off the top of my head 10-12 times since I took over that the ball’s turned over and he’s doing a 60-yard sprint back and slowing up the play. That’s very unselfish and also very uncharacteristic of No. 10s in this league.”
That does not mean his game is perfect, however. Petke has tried to communicate his desire for Rusnak to keep the ball at his feet more, rather than play a quick pass all the time. In fact, the coach has encouraged him to be more selfish, wanting him to take advantage of the space around him before playing the ball to a teammate.
For his part, Rusnak, who turned 23 in July, is very receptive to his coach, and credits Petke’s man-management style as why RSL has shaken off a sluggish start to find itself just a point out of the playoffs in the Western Conference with one game to go.
“He knows each and every player needs something else on the training field,” Rusnak said. “Each player needs to be spoken to differently. You’ve got different mentalities and also different personalities in a team. I think his handling of that is outstanding.
“We’ve got one target — that’s to reach the playoffs this year. He's got us focusing just on that.”
That focus goes beyond just words. With RSL needing a strong finish, Rusnak has played his best soccer of the season in the past eight games, scoring twice and adding six of his 13 assists.
But even if this season does not end in a playoff spot, Rusnak has enjoyed his first year in the league. He called Salt Lake City a “special place” and acknowledged being surprised by the passion of soccer fans in the United States.
Next season offers new promise as a young RSL team will look to build on this campaign with a full season of Petke at the helm.
“I’m looking forward to preseason with Albert so I could really have six to eight weeks and have that time without the strain of a game every seven days that we have to focus on to really hammer out those little things,” Petke said.
As for Rusnak, he’ll just be looking to build on his impressive debut campaign, knowing the road will only get tougher.
“Now people in MLS will have a mark on me and the kind player I am. And I’ll be looking myself to do even better next year,” Rusnak said. “That’s something that a winning mentality, a sportsman, should do — always trying to push himself to a better season than the one before. And I’m not saying it will happen, but that’s what I’ll be aiming for, for sure.”