WASHINGTON D.C. -- Real Salt Lake is chasing a treble. The club representing the least populous metropolitan area in MLS -- by far -- is ninety minutes from a U.S. Open Cup title (the final is Tuesday night), one point off the league lead at 15-10-6 and a threat to win its second MLS Cup championship come December.
Coach Jason Kreis has called it a "once in a lifetime opportunity." But six months ago, there was as much apprehension as anticipation. Squeezed by the league's salary budget and coming off a third consecutive playoff elimination, RSL traded away three core players – defender Jámison Olave, midfielder Will Johnson and forward Fabián Espíndola. It quickly became clear that the 2013 season would represent a true test of the system, depth and philosophy installed by Kreis and GM Garth Lagerwey.
Kreis, 40, is accessible to the press but rarely sits down for extended, in-depth interviews. In March, when RSL paid a visit to Washington, I expressed interest in writing a lengthy feature examining Kreis’ methods and his blueprint for the club. He agreed to help and spent more than a half-hour with me at the team hotel ahead of RSL’s game at D.C. United.
Shortly thereafter, however, I was one of 14 staffers let go when my former employer merged with another company. I was between jobs for more than three months. The RSL feature I imagined went unwritten and Kreis’ quotes went unused.
But his insight remains relevant, especially considering Tuesday’s Open Cup final, RSL’s continued success and the news that New York City FC, the MLS expansion club set to kick off in 2015, wants Kreis as its first head coach. Whether he heads east or stays in Salt Lake, Kreis figures to play an increasingly important role in American soccer.
So, instead of a long-winded feature, SI.com now presents Kreis in the raw. The entire interview will be published in two parts. In part one, below, he discusses his team-building philosophy and what he looks for in a player.
Straus: In light of the roster changes you had to make during the offseason, I’m curious about the “small market” label that’s frequently applied to Real Salt Lake. How much of that is a storyline promoted by the club, fans and the press to help establish an identity and how much of it is a reality that actually shapes your decisions?
Kreis: I don’t think we view ourselves so much as a small-market team. We have a particular philosophy that, very much so, the team comes first. As part of that, that lent itself to basically not making the choice to have designated players early on. It lent itself to say, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to see if we can put together a bunch of very good players, -- excellent, excellent character people, men -- and see if we can blend them all together to make an extremely successful team.” To get success through the team, not starting with “Player A, B and C are our DPs [Designated Players] and then we’re going to try to build players around them”
But instead, everything that we do is very much focused on the team-first mentality. That’s how we view ourselves, more of a philosophy that we’re all in this together. This is very much a family atmosphere for all the players and we hope that we include all of our employees, and we’re trying to do a better job of including all of our fans as well, to be part of what we think is the Real Salt Lake family.
Other people can look at that and say, “Well, you have a family atmosphere. That’s really a small-town thing, a small market-minded thing.” That’s fine. I have no grief with it or no hard feelings about being called a small-market team. But that’s not how we look at ourselves.
Straus: Does that view affect the way you spend money?
Kreis: Sure. The philosophy could be that way. But I also think it could be the other way too. I think we could go get designated players. But if we were going to get designated players it would not be at all about the name on the back of the shirt. We’re not going to try to go sign the next David Beckham because he’s David Beckham, because we can sell uniforms or do anything else. I don’t own all those decisions but in my philosophy it would only be about what kind of player we’re adding and what kind of person we’re adding.
Note: RSL currently fields two DPs, Javier Morales and Álvaro Saborío. Neither was a DP when first acquired by the club. They both subsequently signed DP contracts. According to the MLS Players Union, Morales earns $300,000 per season in guaranteed compensation and Saborío earns $453,333.33.
Straus: Can you talk a bit about how you evaluate a player, beyond the soccer skills? As you’re talking to a prospective player, what sort of traits, characteristics or habits are you looking for?
Kreis: One of the main questions we ask is, “Are you afraid to work hard?” Typically, nobody’s going to say, “Yes.” But if you read body language and you ask them about their training habits that they’re currently in, what training sessions look like for them right now, and if you do real homework and actually watch them train in their environment, you’ll see it.
Straus: And that’s something you do regularly?
Kreis: Yeah, absolutely. When we signed Sabo, it wasn’t just going down [to Costa Rica] to meet him. I actually got to watch him train. For us, I think for every team, it’s beginning to be where every team is talking about that they talk to their players, this that and the other. For us it’s not just about talking to them. It’s actually evaluating what we’re talking to them about. That’s really important for us. The level of importance I think for us I hope is still a little bit higher than some of the other teams about what kind of quality person we’re adding to the group.
Straus: Purely on a soccer side, are there decisions and tendencies you see during the course of a game that suggest that a given player would be a fit, or not, at RSL?
Kreis: Not necessarily decisions that are made in the game, because I believe you can still teach players what kind of decisions you want. If I go watch a game and I see a player that’s always trying to make the longest pass on the field, always trying to pick out the spectacular ball that people are going to write about, always trying to make that special play, I walk away a little bit uninterested.
I’m more about somebody that wants to combine with players around him, that wants to be very dynamic in his movement, covers a lot of ground on the field. With a bit of simplicity. I don’t think we have room for a player that wants to be the center of the show all the time.
Note: No team in MLS attempts more passes per possession than RSL’s 3.51, according to Tempo-Free Soccer.
Straus: But you’ve had players who are probably good enough to do that.
Kreis: Yeah, well, I think so. We have players with that talent. But the guys who have that ability can also understand, “Well, that’s not really what’s wanted here. I’m not going to be successful if I’m going to try to do that.” Frankly, if someone’s doing that on our field on a continual basis, the way I’m looking at it is, they’re not only making the wrong decisions, they’re putting themselves before the team. They’re saying, “I’m more important than the team because I can make this 40-yard pass and put it on somebody ‘s shoe one out of 10 times and everybody’s going to write about that one time.” Well what about the other nine times and what will that mean for the rest of the group and how hard they have to work to get the ball back?
Straus: Would you build a team according to this guiding principal if you were the coach of the Galaxy or the Red Bulls? If you had all the money in the world to spend, would you still have the same priorities?
Kreis: Absolutely. Look at Barcelona. Read their interviews. They’re always talking bout the success of the team. They’re not talking about, “I did this or I did that.” From the small knowledge that I gain just listening to [Lionel] Messi, he’s not talking about himself. He’s talking about all the players around him and how they helped make him successful. Watch them play. It’s not about who can hit the 40-yard ball across the field to pick out somebody. It’s about combining and moving and “We’re all going to change positions and when we lose the ball we’re all going to be intent and focused on defending to get it back as quick as we can.”
Ultimately, I don’t think it matters. I think if I were go on to coach a different team, again, it would still be about the character of the person you had on the team. If the club was all about, “We need to sign this name or that name,” then I would be uninterested in the position.
Straus: So how hard it is to part ways with guys like Olave, Espíndola and Johnson who have fulfilled those expectations for you, who became part of that family?
Kreis: By a country mile it’s the worst part of my job. It’s not just me, it’s the entire coaching staff, we literally fall in love with our players. We do. They’re our family. Imagine the number of hours we spend with these guys and the number of conversations we have with them about everything, not just soccer -- their families -- and trying to develop them to be our guys and then have to say goodbye to them over salary cap reasons, its difficult.
Straus: But you have looked for those same traits in younger players, new signings, draft picks. Your heart breaks, but do you have some confidence that the group will be okay because you’ve made sure that the guys coming in possess similar qualities?
Kreis: There’s always this certain amount of excitement you get by bringing in new members, by developing new players to understand and to fit in to your system and to buy this philosophy. Ultimately it’ll be their choice. Every player is presented a choice when they join our team.
It’s very clearly laid out what the philosophy of the team is. “Do you accept it right now?” If the answer is “yes,” than the communication is, “There may be a point where you can’t do this anymore. There may be a point where you can’t put the team first, where you’re so frustrated with a lack of opportunities or a lack of minutes or a lack of playing time with the first team. Where you say, ‘I can’t do it anymore,’ and when that comes, hold your hand up and we’ll move you along.”
Straus: Tell me a little about Luis Gil, Chris Schuler, Sebastián Velásquez. What do you see in them that leads you to believe you can continue to contend with these guys stepping in?
Kreis: The first foundation is, well, it’s two parts really. One is mentality and the other one is, how hard are you willing to work? How much do you want it? Those things kind of go hand in hand. The mentality part -- how much do you want it -- how mentally strong are you when it’s difficult times? The hard work thing, are you are willing to put your body into places that other players aren’t willing to put their body? Are you willing to risk injury because you want to make that play to help stop a goal?
Those three players, through the years, they didn’t all walk in with it. But right now, those three players all have a tremendously high level of both. A strong mental attitude, and they all have varying degrees of both qualities when they came. Schuler had that mental edge that not too many players have right away. He showed up and we just saw this guy who was just confident and had a personality about him that said, “I’m not going to get bothered by anything.” It was pretty incredible.
Sebastián comes in with, I think, more of a naiveté about [him], he’s always smiling and happy to be here and “No show is too big for me.”
Straus: Is he the sort of player who has to tailor his game a bit to fit your style? He’s got the skill, but there’s some flamboyance there that might be more than you need. Do you have to turn the screw on him a little bit?
Kreis: Yeah, you do. It has to happen every day in training. The other players have to be on a player like that. There’s a time and a place for that stuff, absolutely. I love to see that when we’re in the attacking third. Last week against San Jose [a 2-0 RSL win on March 3], he rolls the ball over with his left foot, right foot, he’s by [Ramiro] Corrales and has a shot at goal. That’s the exact right spot for that. Now if he’d done that in our third of the field and given away a ball that ends up with a chance against us, we’re having a different conversation. You’re not saying you don’t like it. You’re just saying there’s a time and place for it. And I believe that’s true for all of our players.
Note: In March, Schuler, Gil and Velásquez were regarded as prime examples of the depth built by Kreis and Lagerwey. With a month remaining in the regular season, that depth has proven to be even more impressive.
While Gil, 19, has lived up to his promise in midfield, Velásquez has been in and out of the lineup and Schuler (injured foot) just returned to the field after nearly five months.
Nineteen-year-old defender Carlos Salcedo filled in for Schuler and has performed well alongside veteran Nat Borchers. On offense, RSL has received contributions from Toronto FC castoff Joao Plata (three goals and eight assists), 20-year-old Colombian Olmes García (five and four) and Devon Sandoval (three goals), a 2013 draft pick out of the University of New Mexico.
RSL has seven players with at least four MLS goals in 2013, tied for most in the league with the New York Red Bulls. New York’s player payroll is nearly three times higher than RSL’s.
Straus: Based on my experience as a pretty limited player, I imagine that it’s probably not easy for many players to focus on the things they’re not as good at or to go against their instincts. You want success and positive feedback. You want to keep doing the stuff you do well. How do you guide a player toward focusing on, and improving on, the things that they’re not as comfortable with?
Kreis: Again, it’s a question of, you ask and you listen to the answer and watch for yourself. Judge for yourself how hungry a player is. Typically when you’re adding, when you’re talking about three -- two college players and one young player that comes straight from the youth national team -- it’s a very true statement, when you’re adding those three players they’ve never experienced not playing. Probably in their entire youth and college careers. They’ve not only played every game, but they’ve been viewed as the ideal in their team. Everybody should look at them. It’s interesting to know or to try to figure out whether those type of players feel that they’ve arrived. That they’re at the top. “I’m at the top already, what do you mean I’ve got to get better?” We hear that from some interviews that we do, that those players think that they’re there, or close to it.