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RSL’s Coaching Carousel: A written history

In 14 seasons as a club, RSL has had 4 coaches at the helm, only 1 of which with previous head coaching experience.

MLS: Orlando City SC at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Updated: The table representing win percentage has been updated since publishing to correct for inconsistencies in calculations. The graph is based off a win/loss/draw calculation where draws are worth 0.5 points towards a win percentage.

What if I told you that of the four coaches to head up RSL, only one had previous top flight head coaching experience?

A combined total of only two years of head coaching experience across 14 years and four head coaches. What if I told you that RSL has never hired a coach externally since its first hiring, with all head coaches being promoted from within? What if I told you that none of them are currently employed as head coaches anywhere, with the exception of our current head coach? What if I told you that Mike Petke is second-to-last in win percentage of any of those coaches? Let’s take a little walk down memory lane and the peculiar history of Real Salt Lake’s coaching decisions.

With the lines being drawn and some jumping aboard the “Petke Out” bus, I thought it was an appropriate time to review the history of coaching decisions at RSL, and how that has ultimately affected the club, its success, and its culture. Despite years of success, RSL has managed to get by since its inception without ever bringing in a well-known, established coach.

If we look at the four coaches since the inaugural season, here is how each of them performed and how their tenure came to an end:

John Ellinger

The honors of being the first head coach in RSL’s time as a club belongs to a gentleman by the name of John Ellinger. For those who have been following the club since day one, they will know that he was a beloved players coach. Some of RSL’s earliest signings, like Brian Dunseth, happened because of relationships that John had and the reputation he carried.

Despite the great reputation, it didn’t come as a byproduct of years of professional head coaching. John coached the US U-17’s national team for 7 years before signing on as the head coach for RSL. That was John’s first professional head coaching experience at the club level when he took over.

With the challenges that come from managing an expansion team, Ellinger’s time at the club only lasted just over 2 seasons. He was fired on May 3, 2007 as his third year was getting underway. With a paltry 16-39-16 (W/L/D) record (33.8% win percentage), he was replaced by one of his very own players, Jason Kreis.

Jason Kreis

Similar to John Ellinger, Jason Kreis had no previous head coaching experience prior to becoming the head coach of Real Salt Lake. In fact, Kreis had no coaching experience at all. What he did have was an owner, president, and GM who were all dedicated and uniquely talented. Jason came at a time when the club moved to its own dedicated stadium and acquired some fantastic pieces in Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, and Nick Rimando to name a few.

Despite Jason’s lack of experience he became the youngest active coach in the MLS (34 years old). However, the support and direction of the club provided an environment where he could learn on the job and find success. To this day Kreis is the most decorated head coach in RSL history, and with some controversy, his retired number still hangs from the walls of Rio Tinto.

In his time with the club Kreis became the youngest coach in MLS history to win the MLS Cup, and went on to guide RSL to 5 consecutive seasons in the playoffs. Culminating in 2013’s loss in MLS Cup to Sporting KC. In his time as coach, Jason Kreis was the most winningest coach for the club with a record of 112-85-64 (W/L/D), good enough for a 55.17% win percentage, the best of any coach in club history.

Jason Kreis could very well still be coaching for RSL if not for a questionable decision by Dell Loy Hansen and the FO at the time. Kreis, believing he was worth a substantial raise felt slighted by the club when Hansen offered him a much lower contract offer than he was expecting at the beginning of 2013. Kreis refused the offer, and as the season progressed was approached by Manchester City and their new MLS investment, New York City Football Club. He jumped on the opportunity to coach the expansion side. Had Hansen been more upfront, and paid the man what the market dictated he was worth at the time, the option to go to New York would never had been on the table.

MLS: Orlando City SC at Vancouver Whitecaps Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Cassar

After the departure of Jason Kreis, the club moved quickly to promote from within, a long term assistant coach, who like Kreis knew the club but had no previous head coaching experience. Cassar had served faithfully as the goalies coach for RSL for 6 of the best years the club had. So while rumors that we would pursue a big signing swirled, there wasn’t too much surprise when the club went internal. Things had been really good for awhile and the goal was to not disrupt that culture by bringing in someone familiar to the culture.

Cassar was at the reigns of the club for 3 full seasons, and a short 3 game stint in his fourth season. During his time he was a lightening rod for displeasure from the fan base. He seemingly lost the locker room and talented players were looking for a way out. Was this Cassar’s doing? I don’t think anyone other than those in the RSL front office know, but for whatever reasons, Cassar became the scapegoat for a lot of what ailed the club. All this, despite having the second best win percentage of the four coaches with a record of 45-43-33 (W/L/D) which is good enough for a 51.47% win percentage.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Petke

That brings us to the only head coach in RSL history with any previous head coaching experience at the top flight of any soccer nation, Mike Petke. Mike took a bit of a different route to his current role with RSL. Unlike Kreis he was not a player for the club, and unlike Cassar he was never an assistant coach for the team. He did manage the New York Red Bulls before coming to RSL.

To his credit, he is the only coach in RSL history with that experience. However, he only had two years of head coaching under his belt before being named the coach here in Sandy.

After a tumultuous and abrupt termination as coach of New York Red Bulls, Petke went two years without a coaching role of any kind. He was eventually offered a role by the RSL front office to head coach our USL side, Real Monarchs. After a very poor start to the 2017 season by Jeff Cassar, Cassar was dismissed and Petke took the reigns. He was everything that Cassar was not. He brought transparency, fire, and passion to post game interviews where Cassar had been coy. He didn’t take crap from any of his players, great or small, whereas Cassar wanted to be every players friend. The change seemed positive and needed at the time.

However, there are still questions around Petke’s abilities and experience as a coach. To his credit, he won the Supporters Shield in 2013 while at NYRB. However, despite that, he always seemed at odds with the club and its star players and was dismissed from the team only a year removed from his Supporters’ Shield. At the time, Petke’s experience and tactical acumen were called into question. It appeared that the New Jersey based club felt that they had success despite Mike, and not because of him. After global star Thierry Henry left the club, it seemingly exposed Mike as a tactician like never before. In January, 2015 shortly after Petke was terminated, The Guardian hinted at some of the underpinnings of his dismissal.

“His appetite for the fight has never been in question and many fans loved him for it. It’s Petke’s aptitude for the fight that was more often in question. And in his own defense, Curtis might point to some of the performances last season, when a Red Bulls side stacked with talent by MLS standards, under-performed for long stretches and were heavily reliant on the supply line of Thierry Henry and goals of Bradley Wright-Phillips to mask some rudimentary tactical deficiencies. Certainly the evidence suggested that Petke was more of a motivator than a nuanced thinker about the game, and it’s telling that his replacement is Jesse Marsch — considered to be one of the most cerebral of the younger breed of MLS players turned coaches.”

You can read the full story here. But it sounds eerily familiar to a 2018 season where RSL has looked like world beaters sometimes, but tactically lost most of the time. It’s also worth noting that despite an appearance in the conference semi-finals this season he has a win percentage below Kreis and Cassar at 48.15%.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

What does it all mean?

I won’t speculate on what I don’t know. What I do know is that RSL has never brought in a well-known, battle tested coach. In 14 seasons we have had four head coaches — not bad, and certainly not a crazy amount. However, only Mike Petke had previous experience as a head coach in MLS or any other top flight league. Even then, his total time at the helm prior to joining RSL was only two years.

Also worth noting is that Kreis is the only coach to survive the cut longer than 3 seasons. Ellinger was gone in two, Cassar in three, and Petke currently sits at almost two full seasons, but not quite. Will he make make it to three like Cassar? Or perhaps find the winning formula and have an extended stay like Kreis? Only time will tell. Petke signed a three-year deal with the club back in October of 2017 and has two years remaining. So unless the club decides to renege on the deal, we will see Petke through 2020.

We still have more questions than answers. Why hasn’t RSL ever looked externally for a coach? How come we haven’t brought someone in with a long history of coaching experience? Can we even attract such a coach when it appears from the outside looking in that the FO isn’t right? So many questions, so few answers.

One thing we do know is that Craig Waibel, RSL’s GM, contract expires at the end of this year. What we don’t know is whether he’ll be offered a new one. All indications are that discussions have broken down and it has been more than 6 months since a renewal was discussed. But, that’s for another day.