SANDY, Utah — Jason Kreis walked out of the tunnel, underneath his retired No. 9 from two seasons as a player and seven as manager of Real Salt Lake, and turned right instead of left. He took his seat on the away bench at Rio Tinto Stadium for the first time and looked across the patch of grass he used to call home.
“It was odd,” he said after the game Saturday. “It was definitely odd to be on the other side of the field. It was odd to look out at all those players and see that they were opponents and not my players, but that was really about it.”
Kreis spoke tersely after a homecoming present only acceptable in sports, a 2-0 loss in which his New York City FC matched RSL’s possession and 12 shots but only put one on target. A stadium record 20,801 announced spectators came out to see the 11 former Salt Lake players, coaches and staff on NYCFC falter.
“It’s something that I thought about from the moment that I announced that I was leaving [and] made my decision to leave. I thought, ‘Gosh, what’s it going to be like to walk into that building as an opposing coach?’” Kreis said in a media roundtable prior to training on Friday, before another poor result rendered him gruff. “What’s interesting is that I haven’t thought about it at all lately. I think that’s due to the fact that I’ve got a lot on my mind right now, and none of that has been focused on coming back to play RSL.”
The team’s winless streak hit 10 in Salt Lake, its only victory coming in the second match to open the season at Yankee Stadium, 2-0, over the New England Revolution. Since then, NYCFC has lost seven times, drawn three and been outscored 15-6.
RSL broke through 25 minutes into Saturday’s game, after one of the team’s former players, goalkeeper Josh Saunders, corralled several loose balls and stopped a couple early one-on-one chances. Captain Kyle Beckerman found John Stertzer behind the back line with a flick, and Stertzer finished neatly inside the far post.
Álvaro Saborío finalized the scoring just after halftime, as Luke Mulholland curled a cross from the right flank right onto the Costa Rican’s forehead. In a continuing trend for NYCFC in its inaugural season, the visitors remained competitive until conceding before slowly losing influence on the match; NYCFC has led in just three games this season and only once since its only win.
It seems like a long time ago that Kreis abruptly retired and took over as manager in Salt Lake following John Ellinger’s firing four games into the 2007 season. Kreis has repeatedly said this year that he didn’t anticipate it being this difficult to build another team up in Major League Soccer.
“Truthfully, I should have known that … but for some reason, I fooled myself into thinking that maybe this won’t be so tough,” he said. “Maybe this will be special. Maybe this will be different. Maybe I’ve learned so much that I’m just such a great coach that it will be easy—and that’s certainly not been the case.”
A seventh loss of the season sinks NYCFC to bottom of the league after the Montreal Impact’s 2-1 win against FC Dallas earlier Saturday. It’s the first time Kreis has been in a similar position since a rough opening stretch of the 2010 season left RSL at the bottom of the Western Conference. That placement was temporary, though, and it followed an MLS Cup win the previous year.
The task in New York remains similar to the early days at RSL: finding the right players to fit into the right places. Wrestling with the added resources and higher expectations of ownership that includes City Football Group and the New York Yankees adds a different kind of pressure, but one that still doesn’t trump his internal feelings, Kreis said.
“I’ve always been somebody who’s been very self-focused and self-critical, and so that pressure doesn’t change,” he said. “Certainly, the pressure seems to rise when you don’t get the results. To go on the run that we have at the beginning of this season, I’ve been putting more and more pressure on myself and doing everything I can to deal with that the best way I know how.”
It doesn’t help that his star striker, David Villa, has been injured for most of the season. The saga of Frank Lampard’s contract between NYCFC and Manchester City offered an unwelcome off-field distraction and also depleted the squad further.
The unsettled roster makes Kreis’s core group between 2008 and 2013 look that much more appealing. After changing the names in 20 of 23 roster spots between opening day in 2007 and 2008, Kreis made minimal adjustments before leaving after the 2013 MLS Cup final, a shootout loss to Sporting Kansas City.
“I looked at the team here, and I think to myself a lot of times, ‘Boy, that might be really nice to have a lot of familiar faces around you and a lot of guys that know what you’re trying to accomplish and have been there through it with you on a day-in, day-out basis,’” Kreis said.
He picked off two stalwarts, Chris Wingert and Ned Grabavoy, in the 2015 MLS Expansion Draft and hired former RSL assistant coaches Miles Joseph and C.J. Brown. Still, that’s far from a full team, and it’s a group where every player and member of the staff is concurrently dealing with their new professional situation.
For players on MLS expansion teams, everywhere they look is a reminder of that turmoil. Assimilation and adaptation come with time, but the initial period often seems uncomfortable and unlike any other a player will experience in his career.
“We’ve had so much going on just with everything, on and off the field throughout this whole relocation process and building a new club, that it’s been really tough to focus on anything else outside of our inner group,” Grabavoy said. “We certainly haven’t had the start that everyone had hoped for results-wise, so there’s still so many things that we’re working on and building on that are important to us.”
The itch to look back on brighter days in Salt Lake might burn deepest considering a 1-7-4 record and 20th-place standing, but NYCFC’s new group knows reminiscing in the midst of the current milieu wouldn’t be productive.
Besides, with Villa getting stronger, Lampard’s arrival imminent and the resources available to NYCFC in every transfer window, it wouldn’t take much to turn the season around. Even with the team’s atrocious start, it still sits just five points below the playoff places before Sunday’s games.
“We’re excited about that potential, and we would like to be in a better spot than we’re in, but we also feel like we’re pretty close in a lot of respects,” Wingert said. “I think I’ll always look back on my time here [in Utah] as one of the most significant times in my life … but we’re in the middle of a new challenge, so now is not really the time to reflect on that. We want to focus on the task at hand.”