The Kreis Effect
Jason Kreis did not invent coaching. His tactics are not new to the world of footballing. Jason Kreis is not ready to take over the helm of the United States Men’s National Team…yet. He is not the first coach to be labled as having fire. Jason Kreis is not the first coach to play mind games with other teams through the media. He is not the first player –possibly even great player– to be a succesful coach. But Jason Kreis has rewritten the book on how to be a succesful MLS coach, and other teams are taking notice.
Kreis was the quintisential MLS star of the early years. While never being able to translate his succesful club run into a prominent spot on the National Team, nor a career in Europe, Kreis was always a big-time MLS player. Upon his retirement, he was MLS’s all-time goals leader –a record which has since been broken three times by Jeff Cunningham, Jaime Moreno, and Landon Donovan. Kreis was an MLS MVP, the first American to win the award. When he was traded from Dallas to Salt Lake towards the end of his pro career, it was almost shocking. But the fact that Kreis has now become more associated with Real Salt Lake than with the Dallas Burn –where he scored 91 goals– is further proof of his impact on MLS coaching.
Legend has it that when Kreis was traded to Salt Lake, David Checketts knew he was bringing in his club’s next manager. When Kreis came aboard he brought with him a single-minded desire to win. He also brought Garth Lagerwey, a plan, and a “my way or the highway” attitude. This is how Kreis began the alteration of the MLS coaching landscape.
Firstly, Kreis knew what it was like to be an MLS player. He knew what MLS players could and couldn’t do, but being a star MLS player he knew how to get players to do what they needed to do. Secondly, Kreis knew that tactics could outdo talent. Unlike several earlier coaches, who upon finding MLS players weren’t as good as the top players in Europe just hoofed the ball up the pitch and hoped for the best, Kreis used actual posession in RSL’s game plans. Thirdly, Kreis knew he needed a long range goal. He told Checketts early on that he had a plan, the plan might take awhile, but it will work. He told his boss that he had to give him and Lagerwey the control they want, or he was not going to be willing to take the job. Luckily for Kreis this worked and RSL almost immediately won MLS Cup. Lastly, Kreis knew that while MLS competitions were great, it was the international competitions that mattered. Suddenly, RSL was competing in CONCACAF Champions League and the league realized it was important. Kreis said international competitions were the clubs top goal, and this altered all of MLS’s views on US Open Cup, and Champions League.
Yet to alter a landscape there needs to be other coaches, and teams, following Kreis’s lead.
Enter Ben Olsen. Perhaps if Olsen had come along a few years later he would have been Clint Dempsey. Olsen, like Kreis, was a star in MLS. He even went out on a relatively succesful loan with Nottingham Forrest in England’s second division, and was an intregal part of the USMNT. However, his career, like that of Kreis, was made in MLS. Upon his retirement he was hired by DC United as an assistant for Curt Onalfo.
After Onalfo notched a 3-12-3 record for DC he was released, and Ben Olsen replaced him on an interim basis. While he lead DC to a record of 3-8-1 as its interim head coach, the team still finished a league worst 6-20-4, but he also lead them to the US Open Cup Finals. With the good, the bad, and the interim label, no one knew what was going to happen next. Would DC go full steam after Caleb Porter? They did, but didn’t get him. Then what? Should they go with the former face of their franchise, in Olsen, in hopes of a return to glory days? He was so young, he hadn’t had a year of coaching experience, he was fiery, he was a passionate player in his prime, an all-time American MLS great if you will. Could he handle the pressures of leading MLS’s most succesful franchise?
William Chang and Kevin Payne must have looked towards the West and Dave Checketts, because the route of Ben Olsen may not have existed without the path formerly taken by Jason Kreis. A young, former star player, came in was given a huge amount of rope, and the keys to the car.
Players like Andy Najar wanted to play for Olsen, Olsen lucked into Charlie Davies, but he was willing to play Bill Hamid. He was willing to move Perry Kitchen through several positions before finding that RB was his best. And most importantly he was given the power to go after Dwayne De Rosario, by trading away the former team captain Dax McCarty. And while DC United fell just short of the playoffs, the team went from earining only 22 points with a -47 goal differential in 2010, to earning 34 points with a -3 goal differential in 2011. Olsen may not have had the exact success of Kreis, but his door was opened by him. So while two former stars makes a coincidence, three makes a trend.
In the past, the MLS coaching carousel has been just that, a repetition of the same faces over and over again. MLS teams have not chased after new coaches, they played it much safer and recycled old ones. The most succesful MLS coaches (Sigi Schmid, Bruce Arena, Bob Bradley) have all coached two, three, or four teams. Even some of the less stellar coaches (Curt Onalfo) have been given chances over and over again. The top up and coming coaches, just like the top up and coming players, always ended up in the bigger foreign leagues. If you were to try something new it would be to give it the old college try with a college coach. But no one would want to give an MLS star a shot at managing, because there was not track record of success. Dave Checketts chance and Jason Kreis’s achievements have started to change this.
This is why when Steve Nicol was fired –or let go, or just decided not to resign, based on which report you believe– by the New England Revolution, most people assumed that the eyes would search for Onalfo, or Sampson, or Bradley, or Preki. But instead the New England FO’s eyes turned towards Houston. Where, perhaps, another future coach made of the same mold that has bred success in Salt Lake City, and relative success in DC, sits waiting.
Steve Ralston is a former New England Revolution star. Check. He is a former MLS all-star. Check. He is the MLS all-time leader in minutes and assists. Check. He was a regular on the USMNT 1997-2007. Check. And he has been training for a year and a half under Dominic Kinnear, one of MLS’s best managers. This gives him a year and a half more experience managing than Jason Kreis, and a full year more than Ben Olsen.
Will Ralston get the job in New England? The fans want him there badly (there’s also a contingent who look towards another former star player in Jay Heaps). But why? Why go after an unproven head coach? This again can be traced back to the path laid in Sandy, Utah by what is looking more and more of a genius decision by Dave Checketts. If Jason Kreis had came to Utah and failed there never would have been a Ben Olsen. If Ben Olsen laid an egg in DC, Steve Ralston may not be getting an interview in New England. Yet Kreis was great, Olsen was good, and now Ralston just might get his shot, with the shadow of Kreis (and to a lesser extent Olsen) hanging over him. If he succeeds, what could be next? Landon Donovan taking over in LA? Kasey Keller in Seattle? Brian McBride in Chicago?
Real Salt Lake has spent the better part of the last four years rewriting how things are done in MLS. Winning in MLS, winning in the Champions League, competing in US Open Cup, and asserting that international competitions are more important than local ones were all new thoughts for MLS teams. They were, if you will, invented by RSL –not Seattle. The hiring of Jason Kreis, the young, brash, driven, former star was also one. Jason Kreis the player altered the way we look at MLS players, and Jason Kreis the coach has altered the MLS coaching landscape. And this is the next step in the evolution of MLS.
They say the way you coach and manage Americans is different than the way you coach and manage players in the rest of the world. In these two men –hopefully three if Ralston gets the job– we have great soccer minds, who happen to be American. Perhaps the great American players turned coach (Kreis, Olsen, and if we’re lucky Ralston) will be what is needed to create the next (some might say first) American world-class players. If you’re looking for proof, peer over at the improvement of Chris Pontius under Olsen, or the lack of complaints about Luis Gil -a player who could have gone to Arsenal- developing with Kreis.
Maybe the coach, and not the player is what has needed to be changed all along. And we would never know this if it hadn’t been for Kreis.