Real Salt Lake coach, GM a functional odd couple
Long history between Kreis, Lagerwey makes “antagonistic” relationship work.
Published: June 23, 2012 04:57PM
Updated: June 22, 2012 11:39PM
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Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis and Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerwey pose for a portrait at Rio Tinto Stadium Wednesday June 13, 2012.

Sandy • Coach Jason Kreis, by all accounts and his own admission, is wound a little tight.

His office is neat and tidy. His wardrobe is impeccable. He keeps many things to himself, speaks carefully and with a studied precision, as if he wants you to remember he went to Duke, and often runs laps with his players to stay trim. The man who manages his public smiles as if they come out of his paycheck even lists oenophilia — the enjoyment of wine — as one of his hobbies in the Real Salt Lake media guide.

All of which is to say, he’s absolutely nothing like his boss.

In the unique partnership that lies at the heart of the RSL success — decades in the making — general manager Garth Lagerway is the messy one.

His office is a disaster.

His appearance?

Just professional enough to get by. His shirttail is as likely to be fighting its way to freedom as staying tucked in its place, and he reputedly complained so much about team president Bill Manning’s office necktie mandate that Manning rescinded it. (Asked whether that was true, Manning simply leaned back in his chair and laughed.)

Since retiring as a goalkeeper, the gregarious Lagerwey has seldom met a meal he didn’t like (or finish), and he doesn’t mind pre-empting any incoming fat jokes with a few of his own. He laughs loudly and often, loves to shoot the breeze and tell stories — he was once a guest columnist for Sports Illustrated, and has worked in broadcasting — and endures the good-natured but relentless abuse of Kreis and his assistant coaches.

Having Kreis answer to this guy, in other words, is like having the chardonnay report to the beer.

“Have you seen him over there?” Kreis says, with mock derision.

And yet two men who could scarcely be any different personally have formed a working relationship based on a long friendship that has delivered both of them — and an entire franchise — to the top of the table, notwithstanding an ugly meltdown at home against the Los Angeles Galaxy the other night.

That was the original intent of team owner Dave Checketts when he hired Lagerwey out of a Washington law firm in 2007, to have a capable counterbalance for the strong-minded Kreis, and the move has paid off handsomely.

Not only did RSL win the 2009 MLS Cup under their direction, but the team is also leading Major League Soccer as the season hits its halfway point with a home game against the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday, and is in good position to win its first Supporters Shield regular-season title.

“That was a very intelligent choice by Dave,” Kreis says. “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.”

Did he say “antagonistic”?

That dynamic is so well known among colleagues that it’s a running joke inside the club; even broadcaster Brian Dunseth — the former RSL defender — made reference to it, upon overhearing Kreis answer a question about Lagerwey after practice.

“When was the last time you actually agreed with Garth?” Dunseth asked.

But that’s the whole point.

“We find that we thoroughly analyze decisions,” Lagerwey says. “He comes at it one way, and I come at it — oftentimes — the exact opposite way. But when we agree, it’s usually a decision that’s been thoroughly vetted, and as a result, we’ve found that those are usually good decisions. Don’t get me wrong. There’s usually some heartache along the way. But we work it out.”

It’s not always easy, though.

In general, Manning says that Lagerwey typically complains that Kreis is a “lunatic” who wants everything his way, while Kreis believes Lagerwey “doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Sometimes, Lagerwey will burst into Manning’s office, close the door behind him and vent about the coaches.

“He comes in here and he goes crazy,” Manning says, laughing. “Oh, these coaches gang up on him and everything else. Right? And I have to calm him down. But I think what they have for each other is a mutual respect. And I think they challenge each other.”

“There’s a natural tension — and there’s clearly tension,” Manning says. “But it’s a healthy tension. And I think that’s what makes us successful.”

But it didn’t develop overnight.

Kreis and Lagerwey have a history that dates back further than many people realize, to when they were teenagers. They wound up at Duke together (and reached the Final Four), often trained together in hopes of turning pro (and both got drafted), played professionally together for the Dallas Burn in MLS (and won a U.S. Open Cup championship), and attended each other’s weddings while growing to know each other’s families.

They even lived with each other, back between years of college when Lagerwey needed to perform an internship to earn his degree. Lagerwey interned for Kreis’ mother’s law firm in New Orleans, and the two played together on the same minor-league team there.

“We literally slept in the same room,” Lagerwey recalls.

Beyond that, Lagerwey remembers starting the 1997 season in the minor leagues, when goalkeeper Jeff Cassar — now an RSL assistant coach — was injured playing for the Burn, leaving the team in need of a replacement. On his way then to becoming the most potent scorer the league had ever seen, Kreis recommended Lagerwey, who wound up enjoying the best stretch of his professional career after landing the job.

“You don’t forget stuff like that,” Lagerwey says.

Which is why the men can be so contentious now, even though Kreis acknowledges that Lagerwey is the boss, who has the final say on most things. “I need to remind myself that that is the way it is,” he says. “And I respect that.”

Both of them say they’re not sure they could work effectively with a colleague with the same opposing personality but without the shared history.

“It’s different than any other professional relationship I’ve had, and I trust Jason,” Lagerwey says. “I know that whatever happens, whatever goes down, whatever he thinks on a given day, that at the end of the day, he’s got my back and I’ve got his.

“When you go through so much together, especially at a young age … I just think we just have a bond,” he says. “And even though we do have different personalities, I think that underpins everything we do. We can tease each other and people don’t take it personally.”

Which is good.

Because Kreis says he doesn’t think Lagerwey really knows how to add.

Asked how they approach things differently, Kreis said that Lagerwey “is very … I don’t want to say ‘numbers-driven,’ because I actually don’t think he’s very good at numbers. I think he’s pretty poor at math. But he actually looks at all the numbers a lot, very statistics-driven. Wants to try to find trends and patterns in the game that will help him make good general-manager decisions. And I’m the exact opposite of that. I like to make decisions based on feeling and guts.”

And behind Kreis are all his assistant coaches, so equally willing to give Lagerwey a hard time that they have nicknamed themselves the “Wolf Pack,” after the band of luckless tourists in the movie “The Hangover.”

All of their meetings, Kreis says, begin with 15 minutes of giving each other the business before the work begins.

“I do think that it certainly helps that at the end of it all,” Kreis says, “we can slap each other in the arm and say ‘We’re still buddies, right?’ ”

mcl@sltrib.com

Twitter: @MCLTribune

San Jose Earthquakes at Real Salt Lake

At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy.

Kickoff • Saturday,7 p.m.

TV • CW30

Radio • 700 AM, 102.3 FM

Records • San Jose 9-3-3, RSL 10-4-2

All-time series • Tied 2-2

Last meeting • San Jose 3-1 (April 21)