From the moment Jason Kreis arrived as Real Salt Lake’s first player nine years ago, to the final days of his coaching tenure, he defined an ethos that resonates through the club: The team is the star.
Kreis announced on Tuesday his departure to MLS expansion side New York City FC, a club that doesn’t begin play until 2015. It is an opportunity that puts him squarely in the spotlight and the hot seat, and one where his signature approach comes laden with risk.
In a market not renowned for patience, and at a club flush with cash, Kreis will likely be handed the difficult task of building a team not without stars, but with them firmly in mind.
As Kreis leaves the club that gave him his chance to move from the field to the sidelines, he leaves behind a Real Salt Lake tenure rooted in his resilience, stubbornness, and confidence in approach — attributes he permanently inscribed on the team, both as a coach and as a player.
In November 2004, Jason Kreis was the league's all-time leading goalscorer, a striker who started his career at Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas), where he was known for his extravagant backflip goal celebration. He had been expected to remain in Dallas for the duration of his playing career,
When he signed him, Real Salt Lake founder and then-owner Dave Checketts certainly knew he was signing a fierce competitor, and he may have even seen him as vital to the future of the club he'd only just begun.
John Ellinger, then head coach of Real Salt Lake, perhaps didn't know that Kreis would be replacing him in less than three years time. In a press release issued after the signing, Ellinger unknowingly foreshadowed Kreis' future at the club: "I will depend heavily on Jason to help me build the character and spirit of this team."
Nobody could have predicted the impact Kreis would have on the club and that, nine years later, he'd be departing for a club co-owned by Manchester City FC and the New York Yankees. (For starters, Manchester City was a club struggling to stay in the English Premier League in 2004, and the presence of another club in New York City wasn't even a nascent pipe dream.)
Kreis had never been a player eager to branch out, to leave his home — he's said as much time and time again. In a 2004 interview with the Dallas Morning News, Kreis described his reluctance to leave FC Dallas: "I definitely have some mixed emotions. Dallas has become my home. A lot of me wanted to stay and play in one uniform for my entire career. That’s what makes it difficult for me to leave." (Dallas Morning News, Nov 18. 2004)
But Kreis, Real Salt Lake's first player and an MLS great, wasn't destined to stay on the pitch for long. His playing days were winding to a close in 2007 — and he can't have expected what came next.
May 3, 2007: At the behest of then-owner Dave Checketts, Jason Kreis took the reins of Real Salt Lake. Kreis, then 34, stepped into the coaching role after then-manager John Ellinger, a former United States youth national team coach, was removed as coach and given a technical role with the club.
With that move, Jason Kreis became the youngest active coach in MLS at the time. Checketts showed a tremendous amount of faith in the man, and over dinner at his home one night, he offered Kreis the position five games into the 2007 season.
It wasn't an easy decision for Kreis. It certainly wasn't an easy decision for Checketts, but it was a decision made with the future of Real Salt Lake in mind.
Checketts, in an MLS press release at that time: "This signals a new beginning for our franchise. Jason fits the profile of every great leader I have worked with throughout my career. He is a hard-working, dedicated over-achiever who refuses to accept anything less than maximum effort from everyone around him."
It wasn't as if Kreis came into the job with everyone behind him. He was untested as a coach, and his only preparation came in the short time between his accepting the offer to training days later. His first offseason wouldn't come for months — after RSL unsurprisingly failed to make the playoffs. It was an unadulterated instance of learning on the job.
In an Associated Press story, Checketts "It is that will, that very strong will to win, that qualifies him to be the head coach of Real Salt Lake," Checketts said. "And I think it is that strong will, that energy, that dedication, that will turn him into one of the great head coaches in history."
In an interview with USA Today, Kreis told reporter Beau Dure of the uncertainty Checketts had about the decision.
"We had had previous talks about how much longer I was planning on playing and the direction I was going when I retired. We were on the same page — one year, two year, then joining the coaching staff. He knew I had interest but wasn't sure if I'd want to do it right away."
In a September 2007 interview with Salt Lake City newspaper Deseret News, Checketts described the realization that hiring Kreis meant yet more work. The 2005 entrance into the league had seen John Ellinger roundly criticized for his coaching and management decisions. There was no way to repair that overnight, especially with Kreis, for a time, without a general manager alongside him.
It's difficult to imagine that first season being easy for Kreis. In a press conference announcing his new role with the club, he emphasized his desire to win: "There's nothing else more important to me. Nothing else even comes close to motivating me, and nothing else consumes me the way that a disappointing loss can."
In that same USA Today article, Kreis described the move as "volatile — but no more risky than the life of a player. In the end, it's exactly what I'm all about. It's a success-driven business. I think if you're successful and do the right things and get the results that you need, I could be here a long time."
But the impact Kreis made on the team in those early days was about far more than the weekend's match results. He instilled in the club a tradition that's carried through to this day, in which he met players face-to-face before signing. One of those players he signed in 2007 was Javier Morales, whose impact has been eminently visible on the club. Morales was signed alongside fellow Argentines Fabian Espindola and Matias Mantilla, and Jason Kreis flew to Argentina to meet the three.
Dave Checketts, again in the Deseret News question-and-answer: "The day after the Kansas City game he flew to Argentina, he wanted to look these three kids in the eye, he wanted to watch film, he wanted to meet them face to face before we made a decision like that. I really admire that."
That approach rapidly defined Real Salt Lake, with a strategy that became a more than just a slogan: The team is the star.
"This is a guy who's written me five- and six-page e-mails about strategy, player strategy, and managing the cap, and I've tried to tell him eventually he was going to have an ally in doing that, but he was going to have to give me some time to find the right general manager," Checketts, told the Deseret News.
Sept. 19, 2007: It wasn't long until Kreis was joined by Garth Lagerwey, and the two formed a famous partnership that saw Real Salt Lake's staff the envy of clubs across the league. Lagerwey was, at that point, an attorney in Washington D.C., which certainly was a more lucrative position in the long-term for the former MLS goalkeeper.
Lagerwey was brought in as Kreis' boss, but the two formed a partnership that hardly resembles a typical managerial hierarchy. Checketts, to James Edward, Deseret News reporter: "He'll be totally devoted to player development, player drafting and player trades. He'll be Jason's boss, and that's going to be really clear."
Kreis and Lagerwey set about defining a club that in its early days was more amorphous than anything. Then playing in a university football stadium (Rice Eccles Coliseum at University of Utah), Real Salt Lake was a club with a name that provoked chuckles (that hasn't changed), a stadium striped with American football lines and dreadful turf, and a playing squad that simply wasn't up to snuff.
The 2008 season started with Real Salt Lake with more than a few changes since Kreis's hire: 20 of 28 players on the roster at the start of the campaign had been acquired since Kreis was made coach.
It wasn't if the two always got along. In a 2012 Tribune piece focusing on the "functional odd couple," Kreis described their relationship as both friendly and antagonistic. That relationship developed over many years, with the two having been friends since they were teenagers, and with Kreis recommending Lagerwey to Dallas Burn coaching when another familiar name, then-Burn goalkeeper and now RSL assistant coach Jeff Cassar took to injury.
On Lagerwey's addition: "That was a very intelligent choice by Dave. I think he saw two people who are very different, but still had some history together and can work together in a very friendly way and also be very antagonistic of each other."
The two together developed the mantra that today defines Real Salt Lake on and off the field: "The team is the star." On the road to their first trophy, a scant two years and change after Kreis's shift, that started to take shape.
In a 2009 Goal.com piece penned by Real Salt Lake blogger Randy Davis (who currently writes Keepin' It Real Soccer), then-RSL assistant coach Robin Fraser espoused the qualities of the system the two crafted: "A lot of what we have done is not guess work. It’s really believing, and having a lot of conviction in our beliefs as to how a team should be put together."
Fraser, from the same piece: "We take into consideration very highly every person’s character that we bring into the team and these decisions are not easy. That’s essential and I think maybe people often overlook the importance of it."
Entering a fourth year, Real Salt Lake was clearly on the up, even if things weren't always looking entirely positive. Kreis and Lagerwey had taken their mantra to the very core of the team, and there were reflections of that across the squad. The group had grown stronger, fitness was less of an issue, skill had improved, and importantly, the players the two scouted together and the squad they developed was finding genuine success. It wasn't immediate, and it wasn't scintillating, but things started looking up.
In November, that rebuilding process culminated in the biggest victory in the club's history. After grinding through a match against Chicago Fire to win the Eastern Conference Championship (at a time the lowest qualifying seed played a wildcard match against the top seed), Real Salt Lake was set to face LA Galaxy — a matchup that's not been the same since.
In two and a half years as a head coach, Kreis took Real Salt Lake from a laughing stock to the league's champions. Five years and five days after joining the club as its first acquisition, he was the man who turned the club around, who established an identity for a team that would go on to find continued success, even if trophies were in short order.
Kreis did none of this alone. He'd be the first to tell you as much. As a man, he is quick to shift credit to others when there is success, and he is equally quick to accept responsibility when things go astray.
In a Yahoo Sports piece from the win, Dave Checketts laid ownership of the win directly on Kreis, praising not just his coaching, but his competitive drive.
"I spent a lot of time over the last five years trying to figure out why I even did this. The credit really goes to Jason, who put this team together in less than three years. … He is the most competitive guy I have ever met. He drives himself, he drives this club [and] he has a way of backing off when it is appropriate. He is going to be a very good coach for a long time."
With that victory, Jason Kreis became the youngest manager to win an MLS Cup.
In April 2011, Real Salt Lake had transformed once again. At the end of 2009, they were champions but not overwhelmingly so; in 2011, they were not only excelling in the CONCACAF Champions League, but in a two-legged final -- and not as just underdogs, but as competitors.
Chris Wingert, who joined Real Salt Lake in 2007 after Kreis took charge, told Big Apple Soccer about the team's success not only in developing a style, but in continuing to develop that approach to team building.
"Jason had a vision of what he wanted to do, the goals that he wanted for the team and how he wanted to achieve them. … They did a great job of going through that process, not just learning about who these guys are as players, but we they are as people and whether they were going to throw their egos aside and buy into the system that he was going to put into place. You could tell by being in our locker room, being around these guys that these different players were picked for a reason. It was no accident that they are here."
In a press conference before the Champions League Final, Kreis, as usual, was adamant about the importance of maintaining approach. His unrepentant attitude defined his coaching, his decision-making, and his tactics. "I am a big believer that in the game of soccer, if you attack well enough, you will limit the amount of times that you have to defend. We're not going to change our philosophy now that we're in the finals."
It comes as no surprise that in the days before the final, Dave Checketts, in an interview with Goal.com, espoused the value of the approach Kreis developed.
"We just began adding pieces, all under the banner that there weren't superstars, or anyone way above the others. There's a tremendous team chemistry and you see it in the way they play, in the way they move the ball, the way they attack and the way they endure adversity."
The first half of the final — an away match in Monterrey, Mexico — saw the two-legged affair swing in Real Salt Lake's favor. Kreis's promise to attack, and to set his team out to approach the game in the same way no matter the opponent, is another defining mark he has left on Real Salt Lake. Kreis possesses a rare confidence, and if it wasn't enough to take an MLS expansion side to its first trophy through that approach, taking it to the precipice of the region's highest honor surely leaves no question of the efficacy of Kreis's way.
It would have taken only a goalless draw to secure one of the biggest wins for an American team in the history of American soccer. But at home, Real Salt Lake couldn't find the irrevocable success they'd come so close to. But the historic nature of it all, the resilience on display, and the dedication to style and commitment is exactly the sort of impact that Jason Kreis had on the club. This, taking into account that Jason Kreis, who had been a professional coach for fewer than four years.
This season, the sixth year of Kreis' coaching career, started with the coach himself predicting a poor record for Real Salt Lake after a difficult offseason. Kreis has been open since the beginning of his coaching career that he finds the trading of his players, with whom he has grown familially close, a painful, heart-wrenching task.
Kreis, who professes to wear his emotions on his sleeves, traded three players to whom he'd grown very close since bringing them to Real Salt Lake. Fabian Espindola, the fiery striker, and Jamison Olave, the steely center back, were both gone to New York Red Bulls; Will Johnson, a tremendously two-way midfielder, was traded to Portland Timbers. Kreis' approach to bringing in good people who were also good players did not make his job an easy one.
But the departures, which could have destabilized the club, didn't: Instead, the club was galvanized in what some variously called a "rebuilding year," or a "reloading year," but rarely was it described as a year in which any broad success was expected.
Real Salt Lake was handed another chance to pick up a second trophy under Kreis' leadership when they faced the league's lowest-placed team, DC United, in a U.S. Open Cup Final. But that match ended in equal measures of frustration and heartbreak, with D.C. United scoring a scrappy goal and RSL unable to recover, to surmount the challenge of scoring against a side that put every ounce of effort into defense.
In his press conference following the loss, Kreis again displayed his dedication to a distinctive style of play — one he remains convinced is the right one.
"I don’t think I’ve ever stood here and said that my team got completely outplayed, out shot, out possessed, out-everythinged, but we walk away with a trophy. I don’t know that I ever will be. I don’t know that I’ll be willing to sacrifice that for that."
Perhaps the most heartbreaking way for Jason Kreis to leave Real Salt Lake was to end his reign so nearly on the top. By a margin of mere inches, the club he led for five-and-a-half years failed to secure a second trophy. Facing Sporting Kansas City was never going to be an easy road, but with temperatures well below freezing, the affair was a tense one. With the match going to penalties, and with RSL — the away side — losing on the 10th penalty taker, the match and the atmosphere around it was deflated.
It certainly wasn't made any less so by the very public knowledge that there was a very real possibility that Kreis would be leaving in short order.
After his final press conference as Real Salt Lake coach, Jason Kreis set about making a decision: Would he stay with Real Salt Lake, which many considered a safe decision? Or would he instead accept an offer that would see him intimately involved in the development of a new, attractive club?
Kreis, in the last year of his contract, wasn't actively looking for a way out of Real Salt Lake. By most accounts, he was happy, and new RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen — once a minority owner before becoming a majority owner in 2012 — eventually tendered a lucrative contract offer to Kreis. This was not before reportedly making a low offer for the continuation of Kreis's services, with Kreis deciding to wait until the end of the season to resume contract negotiations.
Distractions were aplenty, with MLS clubs lining up to inquire about Jason Kreis's services. Only one club was given a pass to speak with him — a club that won't enter MLS until 2015. New York City FC, co-owned by the Abu Dhabi-based United Group, who control English Premier League side Manchester City FC, and the New York Yankees, wanted to speak to Kreis. Of all those who approached, NYCFC was the one most attractive to Kreis, and in the end, he expressed that it was the only club for which he was willing to leave Real Salt Lake.
To that end, Kreis traveled during a small gap in the season to Manchester, where he met with their leadership.
It was only three days after the loss that Kreis was announced as the new head coach of New York City FC. He spent the preceding days telling players, some of whom grew into seasoned professionals under Kreis's tutelage, the staff, those he was close to at the club — and that is a list which is undoubtedly long, such was his rapport — that he had decided to accept New York City FC's offer.
Financial considerations may have played some role in the early going, but the defining factor became the challenge for Jason Kreis. The player who had left his playing career behind to guide Real Salt Lake to a trophy and vaunted success saw an opportunity to correct what he saw as a fundamental mistake in his playing career.
In an interview with Bill Riley, ESPN 700 analyst and commentator, Kreis spoke to that fact, describing the opportunity as "another big mountain to climb."
"My history in this career in this career is that every time an opportunity has presented itself, where there may be a chance I could be out of contract, or I could go somewhere on a trial, the decision literally always came down to 'stay where things are comfortable, make a decision that everybody says is an easy decision, to keep your family where they've been for a while, to stay where things are comfortable, to stay where you know how everything is, to be in a place that you're well compensated' — my wife and I always chose the safe route. We have some angst in that through my playing career, looking back at that and saying, 'what if?'"