From England to Sandy, Matt Crooks is the calming presence RSL needs

The 30-year-old joined Major League Soccer from Middlesbrough in the English Championship.

(Kin Cheung | AP) Matt Crooks, right, challenges Chelsea’s Thiago Silva during the English League Cup semi final second leg soccer match between Chelsea and Middlesbrough at the Stamford Bridge stadium in London, England, on Jan. 23, 2024. Crooks has joined Real Salt Lake this season.

As the snow piled up on the field, Matt Crooks looked down.

“I couldn’t see my feet,” the new Real Salt Lake midfielder said.

And as a result of those miserable, wintry conditions last week at America First Field, most fans probably couldn’t see Crooks’ full potential.

But RSL expects big things from the 30-year-old, who came to Major League Soccer from Middlesbrough in the English Championship league.

“I don’t think it was as evident … as it’s been in training,” RSL coach Pablo Mastroeni said after his team’s 3-0 win over LAFC in last weekend’s blizzard. “But he’s a real difference maker for our group. He creates space for his teammates. He’s got a great weighted pass. He adds that calm that’s necessary when the bullets are flying in the middle of the game and it’s heated. He makes great decisions.

“For me, he’s instrumental to everything that we’re going to do going forward.”

Crooks hasn’t yet shown off his full arsenal (though to be clear, the Englishman is a diehard Manchester United supporter) but he’s carrying high expectations for himself as well.

Asked what he’s thought of the level of play in MLS so far, the 6-foot-4 Crooks said, “Coming over, to be fair, I had no expectations of what it would be like. I had very limited coverage of it myself, watching it. It’s difficult because I’ve played half an hour in St. Louis and today on the mountains. It’s kind of hard to judge. But I’m here for myself. Regardless of the level I’m playing against … I want to perform for myself and my team.”

Crooks started his pro career at Huddersfield Town in 2010 and bounced around on multiple loans before finding his footing. As part of Rotherham United, Crooks scored 18 goals and helped the club get promoted from League One.

In 2021, he joined Middlesbrough, where he scored 56 goals and had 22 assists in 115 total appearances.

Crooks made the move to the U.S. last month, scratching an itch he’d had since he considered playing college soccer in America as a teenager.

“I’ve always mentioned to my agent I’d want to come over when the time is right,” he said. “I felt like I wanted a new challenge. I’ve done a lot of years in England. I wanted a fresh challenge and fresh start and try something completely new.”

Crooks made his RSL debut two weeks ago in St. Louis, assisting striker Chicho Arango on a goal in the 1-1 draw.

“It’s going to take a while. It’s not going to be a quick fix,” Crooks said of building chemistry with his new teammates. “The more time we spend on the pitch together in training, the better it’s going to get. To get to tow the lads and how they play and what runs they make and me trying to tell them in my broken Spanish what I want them to do as well. It’ll be a challenge but it’s one I’m looking forward to.”

The midfielder said he’d already been taking Spanish lessons twice a week from a tutor in England, but may have to increase his lessons after hearing his new teammates speak at full speed.

Crooks said he’s been also impressed by his new team’s talent and speed on the field.

“I’m a bit of seniority to the side. I’m 30 years old now. I still feel 18 at heart,” he said. “But it’s my job to get to know the young guys and pass on some experience I’ve got from maybe a different country, a different league to try to help them progress. There’s a lot of young talent here. If I can help them take this club forward, then brilliant.”

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