Real Salt Lake on new path as Jason Kreis returns to Rio Tinto Stadium

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SANDY, Utah — The first thing Real Salt Lake players see when they walk out of the locker room at Rio Tinto Stadium is a Latin expression scrawled in swooping gold letters on the opposite wall: Audentes Fortuna Juvat. It’s a mindset Jason Kreis instilled in his RSL teams after taking over as head coach in 2007, that “fortune favors the bold.”

When he left to take over Major League Soccer expansion side New York City FC after losing in the 2013 MLS Cup final, it certainly seemed like a bold move. It took Kreis out of his small-market comfort zone and into a franchise owned by Manchester City and the New York Yankees, two brands associated with big-time spending and expectations of success.

The team Kreis left behind moves forward to the tune of another phrase on the wall at Rio Tinto, in the same font. This one leads RSL players on the path to the field and reads, “Onwards and Upwards.”

“We’re trying to go a different route this year,” captain Kyle Beckerman said after training on Tuesday, facing the Latin script outside the locker room. “We’ve been so similar for eight years, and we’re choosing a different path this year.”

At 3-3-5, RSL currently sits in eighth place in the Western Conference, tied on points for the final playoff spot. A 4-1 loss to the Montreal Impact last weekend, though, personifies some of the struggles Salt Lake has had as a team in transition.

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Second-year manager Jeff Cassar, Kreis’s right-hand man when he was at the club, began the season with a new 4-3-3-style system that broke away from the 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield that Kreis implemented and Cassar continued in his first season.

The 2015 season began with a five-game unbeaten run. Three of those matches were draws, and it wasn’t quite the 12-game streak with which RSL opened 2014, but it looked to be a tenuously promising track.

Then suddenly, two losses—including a heavy 4-0 defeat to the New England Revolution—shifted the conversation. Two draws followed, and instead of an unbeaten streak, it became five games without a win and talk of a team in the midst of an identity crisis.

“It’s taken some time to make it right and tinker with things. Of course, we’d want it to happen as quick as possible, but sometimes, that doesn’t happen,” said Beckerman, who has frequently spoken about the team’s need to find its way. “We’re just trying to keep pushing on and get back to winning ways as soon as possible.”

Everything seemed fine in the wake of Kreis’s departure in 2014, as the team finished third in the West before crashing out in the first round of the playoffs with a 5-0 second-leg loss to the LA Galaxy. RSL matched the previous season’s point total in the standings while winning just one fewer game.

However, expectations for the team in the league’s smallest market have been high since Kreis led it to an improbable MLS Cup win in 2009 and the CONCACAF Champions League final in 2011. From then on, it became known as a team that often punched above its weight and hardly ever lost at home.

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Salt Lake sports fans hadn’t seen such success since the Utah Jazz lost two NBA final series in a row to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. Rio Tinto Stadium started selling out regularly, with a section of fans playing the drums nonstop underneath a sign that reads La Mormonera, creating a true home atmosphere for the team.

In Utah, teams are expected to play with a chip on their shoulders and beat opponents—especially from Los Angeles—that spend more money.

Kreis’s competitiveness and fiery attitude meshed perfectly with that mentality.

Cassar’s contrasting personality, still undeniably competitive but in a quieter way, made them a perfect team.

Kreis’s departure only became harder to stomach when he took his other assistants, Miles Joseph and C.J. Brown (after a season with the Chicago Fire), with him and poached Ned Grabavoy and Chris Wingert from RSL in the 2015 MLS Expansion Draft (not to mention trading with RSL for Sebastian Velasquez and Kwame Watson-Siriboe and signing former RSLers Josh Saunders and Mehdi Ballouchy).

Center back Nat Borchers also left for the Portland Timbers, and general manager Garth Lagerwey took a similar position with the Seattle Sounders. Another offseason of change left just four players who have been a part of each of RSL’s seven postseason appearances: Beckerman, Nick Rimando, Javier Morales and Tony Beltrán.

New York City FC faces RSL for the first time Saturday, marking its former Salt Lake men’s return to the site of their previous conquests. The home team emphasized that it would focus on the task at hand, while conceding that Kreis’s legacy wouldn’t be forgotten.

“I think it’s going to be hyped up, for sure, because Jason’s coming back. Deservedly so, because he meant so much to this club, but we’ve got to focus on ourselves and getting three points,” Rimando said. “There’s always going to be headlines, and it’s our job to pay attention to our job and do what’s required from us.”

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​Cassar, fully embroiled with wrestling his team back to its accustomed heights, said he hopes the story lines surrounding NYCFC’s first game in Salt Lake will motivate his players.

“I think the added excitement … makes it easy for a coach because it’s already built up,” he said. “Now, we shouldn’t have to worry about that; we’ve got to worry about how we’re playing.”

In light of injuries that have rendered nearly half of the team’s salary cap unavailable, Cassar tweaked the team’s tactical set-up again. Now, it resembles the diamond midfield Kreis used, although Cassar is quick to point out that it’s not exactly a diamond—call it a 4-1-3-2, with Beckerman sitting a little deeper than the other midfielders.

Even with a depleted squad and younger players shouldering the burden, RSL seems to have improved in its matchday process. The results haven’t followed yet, but playing six of eight league matches at home in June and July offers a chance to build momentum, especially if RSL can find results against NYCFC and at LA and the Vancouver Whitecaps to close out May.

Kreis hasn’t had any easier a time at NYCFC, where his team has won just once so far this season. Regardless, City also sits on the cusp of the playoff picture in the East, just three points out of sixth place.

Distractions aside, Saturday’s game offers a crucial chance for both teams to get back on track.

“It’s another game that we want to get three points, plain and simple,” Rimando said. “We’re not too far out of where we need to be, and two or three games in a row will get you right back at [the] top. This league is so up and down that anybody can beat anybody, and we’ve just got to get rolling.”

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