The story of Real Salt Lake (cont.)
To hear Dave Checketts tell the story, his fellow owners and MLS commissioner Don Garber thought the Real Salt Lake owner had lost his mind. In 2007, Checketts called Garber and told him he had decided to move the 34-year-old Kreis straight from the playing field into RSL's head coaching position.
"You did what?" Garber replied.
"I think he has every possible characteristic of a great head coach," Checketts said.
"Dave, we have a whole list of people you could interview for that job."
"I know. This is the guy I want."
Checketts, who had run the NBA's Utah Jazz and New York Knicks, didn't want any of what he called the "recycled" coaches who so often stomp the sidelines in the NBA and MLS. Soon after Kreis had joined RSL from Dallas, a plan was set in which Kreis would play through 2007 or '08, become Ellinger's assistant and move to head coach after a couple years (with Ellinger becoming the GM). But Salt Lake's miserable start in '07 caused Checketts to clean house that May, firing Ellinger and GM Steve Pastorino.
Kreis took over immediately.
"I have been around professional sports long enough to know that great coaches have certain characteristics," says Checketts. "Most are guys who were overachievers. Jason was a star in MLS, but I had watched him play for us. He'd play any position he was ever asked. He had always shown up in phenomenal shape and was an extra hard worker. And he had a will to win and never give up."
Kreis showed a clear eye for making smart acquisitions, even if they were personally excruciating. In June '07, a month after taking over, he traded his best friend, Chris Klein, to Los Angeles for a package that included Findley, who would lead the team in goals in '07 and '08. The next month Kreis acquired Beckerman from Colorado in a trade for Mehdi Ballouchy. "The move to bring in Kyle was the linchpin," says Andy Williams, who has been with the team since its expansion year in '05.
Fullback Chris Wingert came via trade from Colorado that July, and the following month Morales, Espíndola and Movsisyan arrived. The 2008 season brought the acquisitions of Olave, Borchers, Johnson and fullback Robbie Russell.
"Jason made the right choices on the players that he got," says Rimando, who joined RSL before the '07 season. "We don't have the South Americans that don't defend. We have South Americans that defend, want to get back and buy into the whole team concept. That's where it starts."
Checketts made a second risky hire in September 2007, passing over another list of recycled candidates and naming Lagerwey Salt Lake's general manager. Lagerwey and Kreis had known each other for 20 years, played together at Duke and with Dallas and felt comfortable working together. "We trust each other," Lagerwey says. "That allows us to disagree and even argue at times and still reach a consensus [on players] that's pretty thoroughly vetted by two guys looking at it from different angles."
Former assistant coach Robin Fraser left to coach Chivas USA during the offseason, but Salt Lake remains the only MLS staff comprised entirely of former players from the league. These days that includes Kreis, Lagerwey and assistant coaches Jeff Cassar, Miles Joseph and C.J. Brown.
"If you're going to run a bakery you should hire bakers, and if you're going to run a soccer team you should hire soccer players," says Lagerwey. "With everything we do we think: 'One of the five of us has been in this position. What did we do? How did we like it when our coach or GM said this or that to us?' By thinking through how every decision affects our players and our team before we make them, we've tried to be respectful of how we treat our players."
A former MLS MVP who scored 108 league goals in 12 seasons, Kreis likes to scour Amazon for foreign books on soccer coaches -- he has read two biographies of José Mourinho --a nd he freely admits to being "obsessive" about preparation. "Anything I do I want to be the best at," Kreis says. "I don't do things to just have fun, whether it's golf or mountain-biking. I attack things. When I played it was the same thing, and now as a coach it's the same."
To say that Kreis is single-minded about soccer might be an understatement. "I don't think he watches other sports," says Beckerman. "He just met [BYU basketball star] Jimmer Fredette the other day, and he didn't know who he was. All the rest of the guys are like, 'Jimmer!'"
But that doesn't mean Kreis is a robot or a drill sergeant. Most of the interviews for this story were conducted on the Thursday after RSL's semifinal advancement in Champions League, when he decided to give his starters a much-needed day off from training in New England. "He's a players' coach," says Borchers. "He comes to us for advice, asks us our opinion on certain things. There's never the sense that he's a tyrant. It's more of a democracy. We appreciate that respect, and it's a two-way street."
Naturally, Kreis' early success in his first four years of coaching have led to expectations that he'll be a top candidate to coach the U.S. national team someday. Yet he's a bit sensitive about the topic after receiving some static within the coaching community last year for speaking about those ambitions.
"If you ask any young MLS coach, I'd be shocked if any of them said they didn't want to be the national team coach," Kreis says, "so to me it's completely reasonable. What I thought came off a little incorrectly in some of that was that it was portrayed that I wanted to be the national team coach now, which isn't the case. I know I've got a lot of learning to do."
Perhaps, but the prospect is enticing: A young American coach who wins trophies and wants to play an entertaining style. Joseph, Kreis's assistant, maintains that Kreis wants U.S. soccer to be the best in the world, and the only way to do that is by bringing a winning brand of stylish soccer to MLS.
"I played for Bruce Arena, Carlos Queiroz, Carlos Alberto Parreira, Bora Milutinovic and Bob Bradley, and those guys are unbelievable coaches," says Joseph. "Jason's approach is just as good as what those guys are doing, and you can see it in the players and the way they respond to him. When he talks, these players react to it. You can see it in training and in games."
Kreis recently signed a new contract with Salt Lake, and Checketts says he doesn't see his coach leaving for another MLS job. But the owner allows that the U.S. national team job is different. "At some point he will be a candidate for the national team," Checketts says, "and I won't hold him back if that opportunity presents itself, because he's becoming a very, very good coach."
So thankful is Checketts that he has decided to retire Kreis' No. 9 in a ceremony on July 4th before one of Salt Lake's two scheduled games this season on ESPN2. (The relative lack of RSL games on national TV this season is worth an entire other story.) Checketts says he made the decision after an RSL player requested to wear No. 9 this season, and the owner refused.
"I know this is traditionally not something that is done in this sport, but I don't care," says Checketts, who points out that he retired the numbers of Patrick Ewing and Dick McGuire during his days with the Knicks. "This is based on his whole body of work. He's the first player we ever signed. He broke the all-time scoring record in our uniform. He gave us credibility when we were a team that had none. No one is going to wear No. 9 again for our club."