RSL-Colorado coaching matchup illustrates new trend in MLS
Soccer • Tendency is to hire former players with extensive experience in the league.
Published: April 6, 2012 10:18PM
Updated: April 7, 2012 12:05AM

Sandy • Coach Jason Kreis is going to have an interesting view across the field, when his Real Salt Lake team plays host Saturday to the rival Colorado Rapids at Rio Tinto Stadium.

That’s because one of his favorite former teammates — Oscar Pareja — is now the coach of the Rapids, and he’s one of the latest among a new generation of coaches that has been taking over Major League Soccer since just about the time Kreis was hired right off the field five years ago.

“Absolutely,” said Paul Bravo, the technical director for the Rapids who hired Pareja. “There has been a transformation within the league.”

When Kreis became the youngest coach in league history, only four of the other 11 coaches had extensive playing experience in the league.

Now, 13 of the 19 coaches around the league played significantly in MLS before moving into coaching, and they’re getting younger all the time.

While Pareja is actually four years older than Kreis, four others — Ben Olsen at D.C. United, Jay Heaps at New England, Martin Rennie in Vancouver and Jesse Marsch at Montreal — are all younger than the 39-year-old RSL coach. Another seven are 45 or younger, with the average age around the league just 45.9 years old.

Of course, it was hardly unprecedented for former players to become a coaches.

But as the league has grown older and produced more top-flight players who aspire to lead teams, owners clearly have grown more willing to entrust their teams to younger men based largely on their success as players in the league.

Olsen and Marsch had been assistant coaches only briefly when they were hired as head coaches, while Heaps had no previous coaching experience — same as Kreis, who retired as a player to replace the then-55-year-old John Ellinger.

“I do think that it opened the door to trying this,” RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey said, “to getting guys who have the right personality, the right skill set, and had a lot of success in the league, and kind of fast-tracking them.”

Midfielder Kyle Beckerman, who has played for both RSL and the Rapids, and played against both Kreis and Pareja, said having a younger coach not long removed from his accomplished playing career makes it easier for current players to buy what he’s selling.

It’s also easier for coaches who played in MLS to cope with the rules and restrictions — never mind long travel and widely variable climates — that can make it unusual within the world of global soccer.

“If you’re coming from anywhere except MLS,” Beckerman said, “if your team has the most money, well then you just go out and buy any player you want. … Here, it’s different.”

It will be different for Kreis, too, knowing that one of his “top three, for sure” favorite former teammates will be trying to move into a tie atop the MLS Western Conference standings with him.

The men played seven seasons together for FC Dallas — then known as the Dallas Burn — with Kreis scoring most of his 108 career goals and Pareja, a Colombian midfielder, helping set them up.

The coach said he recently told Bravo that “unfortunately” for RSL, the Rapids “made a very, very good decision” to hire Pareja, who had been an assistant at FC Dallas, coaching the reserve team and building what was widely regarded as the best academy system in the league.

“He was a fantastic player to play with, created so many of the goals that I scored,” Kreis said.

“He was an absolute fighter, a guy that worked hard every single day and wanted to win every time he stepped on the field — whether that was for training or games.”

mcl@sltrib.com

Colorado at Real Salt Lake

P At Rio Tinto Stadium

Kickoff • Saturday, 7 p.m.

TV • CW30

Radio • 700 AM, 1600 AM, 102.3 FM

Records • RSL 4-1-0, Colorado 3-1-0

Regular-season series • Colorado leads, 8-7-7

Last meeting • RSL 0, Colorado 0 (Oct. 14, 2011)

About RSL • It’s riding a six-game unbeaten streak against the Rapids, with two wins and four draws. … Forward Fabian Espindola leads the team with two goals, but six others have scored. … Midfielders Javier Morales and Ned Grabavoy are out, after suffering a strained hamstring and dislocated rib, respectively, in a 1-0 home win over Montreal on Wednesday.

About the Rapids • All-time leading scorer Conor Casey is out, still recovering from a torn Achilles tendon suffered last year. … Forward Omar Cummings leads the team with two goals, but five others have scored. … They have not won in four visits (0-2-2) to Rio Tinto Stadium. … Midfielder Pablo Mastroeni is out with concussion symptoms stemming from a collision with RSL’s Jamison Olave late last season.