From RSL to NYCFC: Kreis the Redeemer

After much speculation concerning his future over the past few months, news finally broke late last Tuesday that Jason Kreis had officially been hired by New York City FC as the team’s first ever head coach, bringing an end to the club’s long courtship, as well as to Kreis’ nine-year association with Real Salt Lake.

NYCFC will begin playing in its inaugural season in 2015, having been announced in May as MLS’ 20th franchise, as a joint venture between Manchester City and MLB’s New York Yankees, who together paid a reported $100 million for the team’s expansion rights.

Set to formally take up his role in January, Kreis will now spend part of 2014 in England, in order to work closely with Manchester City figures Manuel Pellegrini, Patrick Vieira and Txiki Bergiristain, while observing the way the sister club operates.

Out of contract with Salt Lake, Kreis was first linked to the job back in September, after SI’s Brian Straus reported that NYCFC had received permission from RSL to speak to the coach, who flew to England that month to meet with the club leadership.

Despite those rumours being rife, Kreis himself had always remained mum over his future, even moving to quash comments by Straus early last week that the deal with NYCFC was “almost 100%” done. The overriding sentiment during the week of MLS Cup however was that the game against Sporting Kansas City would likely be his last in charge of RSL – a belief which ultimately proved true.

Expectations will undoubtedly be high in New York, but one can easily imagine why Kreis would have been convinced to take the reins of this supposed ‘super club’. He will likely have one or two Manchester City-tested veterans at his disposal eventually, as well as a few of the club’s youngsters on loan, with many millions to spend on DP signings and an academy that will surely rival the best in North America. While the Vancouver Whitecaps were also reportedly in the running for his signature, it’s clear to see why he would choose this opportunity over other proposals.

It’ll certainly be a big change going from the regularly overachieving Utah club to the pressure and media spotlight of ‘The Big Apple’, but Kreis has always made it known he’s one for a challenge. That much was clear when he first took the RSL job in May 2007, becoming the youngest active head coach in MLS history at 34 years of age.

A former US international and the league’s all-time leading-scorer with 108 goals at the time of his retirement to become Salt Lake’s head coach, Kreis’ appointment by then-owner Dave Checketts was admittedly seen as a big gamble. Stuck away in the league’s smallest market, RSL were a mess of a franchise back then, having lost an MLS-worst 35 games over their first two seasons in 2005 and ’06, wasted their first ever draft pick on bust Nik Besagno and broken the bank to trade for the perennially underachieving Freddy Adu. Plans for a new soccer-specific stadium had also temporarily hit a snag and meanwhile Chivas USA, who entered the league the same year as RSL, had made the playoffs in only their second season, thus ruling any excuses of ‘growing pains’ largely feeble.

Kreis was on those teams himself, seeing out the twilight of his career, having been shipped from FC Dallas to Salt Lake following the 2004 season. While he knew he couldn’t make a difference anymore on the pitch, he could at least try to influence things off it.

Replacing the out-going John Ellinger, who piloted the team during those first two dismal seasons, not many believed such an inexperienced candidate had the ability to turn around the mess before him but Kreis was motivated to prove the doubters wrong.

Together with general manager Garth Lagerwey, who arrived later during that first year, Kreis oversaw one of the largest roster overhauls MLS has ever seen, even trading his best friend and captain Chris Klein to the LA Galaxy – a move which saw his wife not speak to him for a week.

2007 was a struggle, as the team would win only six games, but things soon improved as Kreis instilled his vision of what the club’s identity should be – a steady, well-drilled outfit, whose trademark diamond midfield would be a template for systematic continuity over the following years.

Adding club stalwarts like Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando, Nat Borchers, Chris Wingert, Fabián Espíndola, Will Johnson, Robbie Findley and Jámison Olave in the meantime, RSL advanced to the playoffs for the first time in 2008, falling in the Western Conference final to the New York Red Bulls.

The next season however they would shock the league after scraping into the postseason, defeating the LA Galaxy on penalties at Qwest Field in Seattle to win the 2009 MLS Cup. If people hadn’t realised the work Kreis was doing in Salt Lake up to that point, they certainly had no option but to sit up and take notice now.

Over the next few years, RSL would establish themselves as perennial title-contenders, finishing second in the Western Conference every season bar 2011 (when they came third), while being the most feared and aesthetically-pleasing side to watch in the league, backed by newfound raucous support at home. They would also become the first MLS club to ever reach the CONCACAF Champions League finals in 2011, narrowly losing to Mexican club Monterrey 3–2 on aggregate.

However, Kreis’ greatest achievement in charge of RSL may just have been this past season. Forced to part with starters Espíndola, Olave and Johnson due to salary cap restraints, many had pegged 2013 as a ‘rebuilding year’ for the team, yet Kreis slotted in some youngsters and bit-part players and proceeded to do as he always does – lead the club to a 50-point-plus campaign.

Salt Lake may have fallen at the final hurdle on Saturday in their attempt to land their second MLS Cup in franchise history, but that should certainly not take away from the remarkable success Kreis has achieved during his seven-year tenure. There’s really no way of sugar-coating it – he will be hugely missed in Utah and, with attention now turning to find his successor, RSL will have an extremely tough time finding a replacement who can match Kreis’ obsessive, savant-like approach to the game. He is after all a man so single-mindedly focused on soccer that, upon meeting BYU star Jimmer Fredette, had to ask his players who he was.

It’s the end of an era in Salt Lake but, though supporters are rightly upset to see Kreis go, they can certainly not begrudge him for his decision. Whoever comes in to replace him clearly has a tough act to follow but at least they know they’re inheriting a side built and coached by one of the best minds in US soccer.

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