With an appreciation for detail that Sherlock Holmes might envy, Jason Kreis this week recalled his initial meeting with Real Salt Lake founder Dave Checketts, who brought the high-scoring forward from FC Dallas to Utah in late 2004.
“From the first second I was in his presence, I knew there was something special about this man, and in turn something special about this club. He was an incredible presence,” Kreis told RSL analyst Brian Dunseth. “The first questions he asked me had nothing to do with soccer or my career. They were about my family, and I could see this was the type of person I wanted to be involved with and work for from minute one.”
Checketts, the owner, and Kreis – first as a player and then as head coach – established RSL as a model MLS club and took it to a title in 2009. Now, on the heels of circumstances neither could have anticipated back then, they will reunite as the common bonds between a small-market club that punched above its weight and MLS’ most ambitious project to date – New York City FC.
Checketts reluctantly sold his majority share in RSL to Utah real estate mogul Dell Loy Hansen in January and returned to New York – where he once presided over Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks – to take over as chairman and CEO at Legends, a sports hospitality, services and consulting company. Four months later, NYCFC was born. The expansion team’s owners, Manchester City and the New York Yankees, are Legends clients. Checketts helped facilitate their partnership, and it wasn’t long before the search for NYCFC’s first head coach turned toward Utah.
“First, the prevailing sentiment, I’m told, in Salt Lake City is that I made this happen and that’s not true,” Checketts said of Kreis’ appointment, which was announced this week. “[Manchester City CEO Ferran Soriano] and I have been good friends for a long time and it’s true that Legends has a very strong relationship with Manchester City … I’m a big admirer of that club and the way they do things and I will say, probably right after they bought the team, Ferran asked me about Jason. He brought it up with me. I didn’t bring it up with him.”
Checketts told SI.com that when considering City’s resources, along with its comfort and connections with European coaches, he expected Soriano to look for his first MLS coach in Manchester.
“But I said, ‘If you want a young American who can really grow in your system, I can’t imagine there’s anybody better.’ I’ve been around a lot of coaches in a lot of different sports – hockey and basketball and now soccer – and Jason, he has all the right characteristics to be a great coach,” Checketts said. “I also knew he was very happy in Salt Lake. I know he’s well settled in Park City. He’s got two boys and his wife, they just don’t come any better than Kim. I gave Ferran all the background and said, ‘It’s in your court. But I can’t be helpful here. I can’t be a part of this.’”
Soriano, along with NYCFC director of football operations Claudio Reyna, went after their man and flew Kreis to England in early September for an interview and to display the resources, technical and otherwise, at City’s disposal. A source (not Checketts) said that Kreis was “blown away” by the possibilities.
Meanwhile, he was awaiting an offer from Hansen. Sources tell SI.com that the new owner’s first effort was a “low ball” that left Kreis feeling somewhat insulted. By the time Hansen opened the purse, his coach already had been tempted by NYCFC.
“I told Dell Loy, ‘Never let a coach, ever, go into the final year of his contract without an extension. If you’re not going to give him an extension, you’ve already decided to fire him.’ If he’s not under contract, he’s going to do and say and act in a way that starts to shift to his best interest and not necessarily the team’s,” Checketts said. “I knew Dell Loy was not going to do it. He just waited too long. He’s a real estate guy. He’s a negotiator. He said, ‘I’m going to let the ball get thrown up and see where it lands.’ He’s very confident he’s going to go find someone else just as good.”
Checketts said that Kreis called him on a couple of occasions to solicit his advice.
“I told him he had to do what was best for him and his family. ‘Even though I feel like I’ve been a mentor to you, this really is a time for you to decide. If you decide to take the money and stay in Utah, I won’t blame you at all. It’s a heck of a lifestyle and you’ve got a great situation,’” Checketts said.
“One of Jason’s favorite sayings is ‘Fortune favors the bold’. He’s got it carved outside the [RSL] locker room in Latin. Everybody knows what it means. He knew when it came to building that expansion franchise and going out on a limb and building the stadium that we did, we were very much tied together in building that club.”
Now they’re tied together again, although more loosely. Kreis’ decision to leave RSL for NYCFC ultimately wasn’t about money – Hansen’s final offer was very generous (a source currently connected to RSL called it “Bruce Arena money.”). It was about ambition, and embracing a new challenge and a future coaching on the game's biggest stages. Whether NYCFC is a springboard to Europe or to the U.S. national team won’t be decided for some time, but the opportunity to build a club from scratch and to succeed in the New York crucible will challenge the diligent and meticulous Kreis in a way he’d never experience at RSL.
In fact, he is so eager, as he said this week, “to immerse myself in the football operations in Manchester observing some of the leading figures in European football,” that he'll move his family to England for the first half of 2014. Kim and the kids will have the adventure of a lifetime while Kreis works to take every ounce of advantage from his new position.
Checketts will remain behind the scenes and continue his work at Legends, which counts FC Barcelona, CONCACAF champion Monterrey, a dozen NFL franchises and multiple MLS, NHL, NBA, MLB and NCAA outfits among its clients. He said he’s confident the Yankees have what it takes to help NYCFC get its new stadium built. A Bronx site located a couple blocks south of Yankee Stadium is the primary target.
“There’s nobody quite like [Yankees president] Randy Levine. I don’t know anyone else who could do it as well as he does it,” Checketts said.
And he’s confident that Kreis has aligned himself with good people. Checketts made the right impression nine years ago. Soriano and Reyna did so this year.
“What I know about Manchester City is that they’re extremely well run, great quality people, people who are experienced, classy,” Checketts said. “I love the Tim Pernetti hire [the former Rutgers AD was named NYCFC’s chief business officer in September]. He’s a world-class executive. And the Jason Kreis hire is just right in that same bailiwick. It’s brilliant.”
Absent two men who have meant so much to the club, RSL will press on. The core that nearly won both the MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup this season remains in place. A new coach is expected to be named next week, and multiple sources indicate that Robin Fraser, the former RSL assistant who left the club in early 2011 to take over Chivas USA, is the likely hire.
“He’s the leader in the clubhouse,” one source said.
General Manager Garth Lagerwey, a college teammate of Kreis’ who’s been a massive part of of RSL’s success, is heading into the last year of his contract and, through several sources, already has been mentioned in the same breath as Toronto FC, the Seattle Sounders and D.C. United. He’ll be in demand. RSL now is Hansen’s team. Things change in pro sports and Checketts, and now Kreis, have moved on to their next challenge.