Monson: Real Salt Lake's Jason Kreis deserves Coach of the Year for team-first mantra
David Beckham had a bit of a misunderstanding with Jason Kreis last month, and that misunderstanding nearly turned into a fistfight. Oh, baby. If only Kreis had whacked Beckham upside the bean, now that would have been a good time and it would have resulted in worldwide headlines.
It didn't happen. But mayhem was close.
In the middle of a Real Salt Lake-L.A. Galaxy game, Kreis argued with a referee for what he perceived to be a blown call. Beckham turned to Kreis, initially to commiserate with him, because he, too, thought the ref was less than stellar. Kreis, though, didn't want to hear anything from an opposing player. It mattered to the RSL coach not at all that the player involved happened to be one of the most famous, most marketable, most notable players on the planet.
In Kreis' world, principles are principles, and he couldn't recall a single time in his own playing career when he ever talked to an opposing coach during a game. He was offended that any player was chatting him up while he was shin-deep in doing his coaching business. He thought it was disrespectful. He yelled, in so many words, "Don't talk to me."
Beckham was equally offended back, and he thought Kreis' reaction was just as disrespectful.
After telling each other to â¦ um, how you say? â¦ f- off, they continued their battle on the field in the postgame. They eventually had to be separated. Later, Beckham called Kreis "an insufferable pr-." Kreis never said it aloud, but he looked at Beckham as a guy who too often was all about himself, mostly about his name, rather than the team. The fading British star, in fact, is the antithesis of what Kreis wants in his own players game, not name and what he preaches to them, every day, every season selflessness.
That's pretty much all you need to know about Jason Kreis.
That â¦ and the fact that he should be Major League Soccer's Coach of the Year.
Kreis has not only become the face of RSL and the push behind the success of the franchise, having formed the current team, alongside general manager Garth Lagerwey, into one of the best in MLS. He's also affecting an entire league, whose clubs are turning their eyes toward a young coach here who has built a consistently contending team around his unique vision, and trying to replicate it for themselves.
"Teams are going after talented guys, instead of experienced coaches," Lagerwey says. "Jason was hired at 34."
When club owner Dave Checketts named Kreis, who was a Real player, as head coach in 2007, a lot of people thought Checketts had taken a stroll straight into Nutville. Kreis had never coached before, and the owner simply handed the helm over to him.
It was a remarkably smart, shrewd stroke.
Since that time, what had been a struggling franchise turned into a force. Kreis led RSL to the MLS Cup in 2009, beating Beckham and the Galaxy. Last season, it won 15 games. This season it won another 15, before eliminating Seattle in the Western Conference semifinals on Wednesday. Now, symmetrically enough, Real faces Beckham and the Galaxy, again, on Sunday for entrance to the MLS final.
The Kreis-Beckham confrontation is more than a stupid little spat. It illustrates the consistent principle-driven orientation of Kreis, who isn't perfect, but who is forever fastidious he once called himself "borderline obsessive-compulsive" in his adherence to the things in which he believes.
He believes in a simple, but often neglected, pro platform: "Put together a bunch of guys based on how hard they work and how good of people they are," he says. "Find guys who care about each other, who are willing to fight. It's my firm belief that that works."
He believes in possession soccer, in a 4-4-2 setup, with a diamond in the midfield, and in team-oriented soccer in which the individual parts, even stars, conform to the boundaries set for the betterment of the whole. "I'm going to always want a team that sets the rhythm and is the aggressor and possesses the ball for long stretches," he says. What Kreis does not believe in is luring in satisfied, disinterested superstars and coddling them.
"You can spend a bunch of money on guys with the biggest names, and, surely, you're going to win, right?" he says. "I don't know. I want great guys who care about and fight for each other."
Lagerwey says Kreis creates "an environment where players have to compete in practice every day, and if they don't, they're not going to play."
RSL players laugh now, but not in a ha-ha sort of way, at the worn team-is-the-star mantra that Kreis has crammed into their consciousness over and over and over again.
"It's not something he just says," veteran defender Nat Borchers says. "Before guys are allowed to be on this team, they're interviewed to find out if they buy into it. In the end, it's Jason's call. He's old-school. You come to work everyday. You put on your hard hat. You don't half-ass it."
Conversely, Borchers says Kreis gives his players freedom to make decisions about certain team policies: "We don't have a fine system, or anything like that. We police each other. That kind of treatment gets the extra 10 percent out of guys."
That's been particularly important during this year of swirling fortunes and wild undulations. RSL started with its run through CONCACAF Champions League play, during which it came within one goal of a continental championship, a whole new frontier for an MLS team.
After the heart-cracking loss to Monterrey in that final, once in league play, Kreis lost his best player and team MVP to a brutal ankle injury when Javier Morales was chopped down by a Chivas USA player and out for the bulk of the season.
Kreis also yielded several key players to international call-ups throughout the year including Kyle Beckerman to the U.S. National team, Alvaro Saborio to Costa Rico, and Will Johnson to Canada. In fact, Beckerman and Johnson may yet lose preparation time in the run-up to the MLS Championship, if Real makes it that far, on account of having to play in World Cup qualifying. Beckerman, for instance, has to travel to Paris to play against France on Nov. 11.
RSL, at times, also fought through some difficult refereeing decisions, such as Saborio being suspended for diving in a game. Beckerman also was suspended.
The series of injuries, call-ups and suspensions caused Kreis to plug in various combinations of substitutes, using and nurturing 17-year-old Luis Gil in Morales' spot, and sending in Cuban defector Yordany Alvarez to replace Beckerman. Chris Schuler, a second-year pro, slipped into the center-back position, starting 20-plus games.
Beyond the players, Kreis also lost longtime assistant Robin Fraser just before the start of the season when Fraser was hired as Chivas' head coach.
"We've taken a lot of knocks that have really stretched our guys to help us find out who we really are," he says.
As the club took those knocks, the constant was Kreis. He managed RSL to a No. 3 overall finish in the league, despite a payroll differential that, by comparison, is about one-third of Seattle's and one-fifth of the Galaxy's.
Real is in its third conference final in the past four years, all under Kreis. Through the turbulence of 2011, the intense, persnickety coach steadily motored and steered his club to the precipice of another impressive conclusion.
He should be MLS Coach of the Year.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Gordon Monson Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
RSL at L.A. Galaxy
P Western Conference finals, Sunday, 7 p.m. TV • ESPN