Kragthorpe: RSL strong enough to succeed without Jason Kreis
Considering his starting point, Jason Kreis' impact in his seven seasons as Real Salt Lake's coach compares favorably to the work of any coach in Utah sports history in a similar time frame.
Kreis built a championship-level team basically out of nothing, became a star in the profession and moved on to bigger ambitions, joining the New York City FC expansion team in Major League Soccer.
In my continual search for comparisons, Kreis' story sounds a lot like Gary Andersen's. And that should be reassuring to RSL followers. Much like Utah State's football program, RSL's franchise seemingly is bigger than any coach. This team's culture and structure should enable the next coach to succeed, as is happening in Logan with Matt Wells, recently named the Mountain West coach of the year.
That's not to diminish Kreis' work in any way. This guy proved to be an amazing discovery, and he just kept getting better at his job.
RSL retired Kreis' No. 9 two years ago in an unconventional honor for a soccer player, and I endorsed the move with this qualifier: Right guy, wrong time.
What if, I wondered, Kreis' coaching career gradually crumbled and RSL was stuck with his name on the facade of Rio Tinto Stadium?
Wow. The prophecy of doom obviously was a stretch, even by my standards. Dave Checketts, then the team's owner, countered that argument by saying, "I don't think I've ever been as confident that a coach I've hired is a long-term hire for this franchise."
Well, yes and no. Kreis continued to prove himself as a worthy coach in MLS and potentially beyond that level, stemming from his new job and the possibilities attached to it.
After he took over a team that had gone 15-37-3 in two-plus seasons (with Kreis as the best player), his 90-71-58 record in MLS regular-season games is remarkable. So are his four appearances in conference finals, with two MLS Cup berths and one championship.
So who's comparable in recent Utah history? Kreis is like Frank Layden and Ron McBride as a program builder and like Urban Meyer as a rising star. He mostly closely resembles Andersen, having turned a seemingly hopeless operation into a respected program. And he had help. That's the hopeful comparison for RSL, going forward.
Observing the work of Kreis and Andersen has been very instructive, when it comes to evaluating coaches. They're exceptional when it comes to motivating players and creating a system, but they can't do it all by themselves.
Andersen benefited from USU's strong leadership of president Stan Albrecht and athletic director Scott Barnes. Checketts' other brilliant hires, president Bill Manning and general manager Garth Lagerwey, definitely played into Kreis' success.
That's why Kreis' replacement, as supported by owner Dell Loy Hansen, should do well. It's possible that a convergence of his work in New York and what happens with RSL will further distinguish him, and that the Kreis Era in Sandy never will be matched. But USU's example, based on a one-season sample, is a heartening sign. The Aggies haven't collapsed with Andersen in Wisconsin, and nor should RSL with Kreis in New York.
This team is being shrewdly managed, with Lagerwey's three-year plan that went into effect in 2013 producing ahead-of-schedule results. There's a locker-room culture that works for RSL, and Kreis' absence shouldn't change that.
If anything, I believe the players will do more to advance and enforce RSL's way of doing things, wanting to prove that Kreis was not the only driving force. If the franchise mantra of "the team is the star" is true, RSL can keep performing at this level without a coaching star.
The odds would say that RSL's next coach won't become another Jason Kreis. But the team is at a point now where that may not be necessary, anyway.
Tale of two turnarounds
Gary Andersen record at Utah State:
Jason Kreis' RSL record*:
*MLS regular season games
**Took over in fifth game of season.