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A brief history of RSL’s coaches

We’re taking a look back at the three men who have led Real Salt Lake.

MLS: D.C. United at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Well, that was fast. Real Salt Lake’s firing of Jeff Cassar after only three days is the quickest firing in the history of Major League Soccer, and it’s the end of a three year and three game administration that saw RSL go from MLS Cup runner up to a squad that is winless in their past ten games.

Opinions always abound when a coach or manager is let go in such a way, and recency bias can run amok. To put Cassar’s reign in perspective, here is a quick look at the history of Real Salt Lake head coaches.

John Ellinger

Record: 16-39-16 (33.8%)

Playoffs: 0 in 2 seasons

Trophies/Finals: None

Once in elementary school I went on a field trip to a place where they had once mined gold. There was a museum there, and behind the museum was a small stream where you could take a pan and sift for small flakes of AU. I sifted for a solid hour, sometimes jumping to my feet when I saw a glimmer only to have it be a piece of aluminum or something equally disappointing. I found zero gold. Also when I was done, I realized that in my haste I’d sat too close to the stream and had to ride home on the bus with wet pants (from the stream, guys).

Searching for bright spots during Ellinger’s tenure was a very similar experience to the field trip described above, minus the soggy pants (hopefully). There just wasn’t a lot of gold in those first few years of RSL’s existence. There were flashes of something, and the groundwork was being laid, but 16 wins and 0 playoff appearances is nothing to get too excited about. Ellinger was fired four games into the 2007 season, tied for the second fastest firing in MLS history.

To be fair to Ellinger, coaching an expansion team is notoriously difficult (ask Adrian Heath) especially when there is nothing in place prior to that, a problem a few of the more recent expansion teams like Seattle, Orlando, and Minnesota haven’t had to deal with. Ellinger was in charge of creating something out of nothing, and while he didn’t hit the motherlode during his time in charge, RSL struck it rich with some of the same pieces he’d helped develop.

Jason Kreis

Record: 112-85-64 (55.2%)

Playoffs: 6 in 7 seasons

Trophies/Finals: MLS Cup, MLS Cup Runner Up, Open Cup Runner Up, CCL Runner Up

Several unknown facts about Jason Kreis:

  • He rivals Master Yoda as a swordsman
  • He has done everything Jack Bauer has done, but in 12 hours.
  • He once delivered a live baby while coaching a game. He also scored a hat trick in said game.

The thing about myths is, they only grow. Although Jason Kreis has gone for over three seasons, his shadow will still hang over whichever coach is tabbed to pace the sidelines of the RioT, and for good reason. Though Kreis may not be the king of Arthurian legend, he took a team that had achieved little to nothing and raised it to the highest level. No other manager has won an MLS Cup and gone to the final of the modern CCL. He never missed the playoffs when he started the season as coach.

More defining of Kreis’ legacy than wins will be the style that the team played while he was in charge. The glory years of RSL included the most aesthetically pleasing brand of soccer the league had seen up to that point, and they won big while doing it. They were heralded by legends like Thierry Henry and derided by enemies like Sporting Kansas City. They played in big games, and brought an MLS title to the smallest market in the league.

The mists of nostalgia have mostly obscured any imperfections in Kreis’ coaching record, but a few do exist. Though they did win the title in 2009, RSL did not win any other piece of hardware (other than a few Rocky Mountain Cups) in the next four years of Kreis’ time in charge. The former player was also not very trusting of his youth contingent and failed to provide much of a path from the academy to the first team. Though faults exist, they are minor, and it will take someone truly special to dethrone Jason Kreis as the Claret and Cobalt’s all time greatest coach.

Jeff Cassar

Record: 45-43-33 (50.8%)

Playoffs: 2 in 3 seasons


Cassar reminds me a lot of former Utah Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin:

  • All anecdotes I’ve heard about both lead me to believe they are really nice guys who are pleasant to be around
  • Both received their coaching torches from all time legends in Kreis and Jerry Sloan, which is a little like receiving the sky from Atlas
  • Neither seemed to be particularly great at telling their players how to sport and having those players be successful in that sport

FWIW I think I’d give Cassar the nod over Corbin in overall coaching chops. He only missed the playoffs once in 3 years and won more than half of his games, something to be applauded. Although opinions are fairly polarized right now, in time I expect Cassar will be listed as an “adequate” coach in the annals of Real Salt Lake history. He wasn’t terrible, but his failures to develop an on field identity, and reluctance to trust youth until it was too late will be his legacy.