New York City FC intended to prove its U.S. bona fides to a skeptical American soccer public with the May 2013 appointment of former national team captain Claudio Reyna as sporting director and then the decision seven months later to name Jason Kreis—who’d worked wonders at small-market Real Salt Lake—as head coach.
NYCFC’s owners are from the United Arab Emirates and the team name and uniform reflect that of the parent club back in Manchester. But the men tasked with constructing and coaching the squad were American. Intimately familiar with the peculiar domestic landscape and MLS’s Byzantine structure, Reyna and Kreis were asked to buck the trend. Only one expansion team since 2000, the 2009 Seattle Sounders, had qualified for the MLS Cup playoffs. But Reyna’s technical expertise and connections, Kreis’ know-how and City Football Group’s limitless wealth were supposed to produce a star-studded team with the tools and savvy to win in MLS.
“Prior to the start of the season, it was agreed with the coaching team that securing of a playoff place was an appropriate target for this year,” NYCFC said in a Monday evening press release.
It was the release that confirmed Kreis’ firing, the likelihood of which was first reported by SI.com’s Grant Wahl last month. Kreis managed an RSL side that was one of the league’s most consistent winners (and the 2009 champion) despite the absence of players with global renown or seven-figure salaries. But he failed to replicate that success in his first season at Yankee Stadium. NYCFC finished the 2015 campaign 10-17-7 and 12 points out of a playoff spot. And it didn't make a case for continuity at the end, losing its final three games.
“A win rate of less than one in three games and a points tally which was the second lowest in the league is clearly not in line with the targets that were agreed,” NYCFC said Monday. “While the challenges of building and integrating a new team are recognized, it was felt by the board, following a comprehensive review, that there was not enough evidence of the dynamics required to improve the performance of the team for the next season and beyond.”
With that statement, NYCFC demonstrated its inability or reluctance to shed its true colors. It appeared to try two years ago with the appointment of a then-40-year-old American coach without a minute’s experience in foreign football. But NYCFC’s ensuing behavior and Monday’s announcement revealed its true identity. It’s a European club whose direction and culture are determined mostly in Manchester. It just happens to play in The Bronx. MLS teams typically prioritize continuity. The salary budget and limitations on player movement and acquisition require more long-term planning. European clubs demand far more immediate results and have little tolerance for excuses. Kreis is a proven MLS winner. But he didn’t win fast enough for CFG.
The writing was on the wall last January, when CFG decided that Frank Lampard would remain with Manchester City for an additional six months instead of joining NYCFC for preseason training and the start of the MLS season. Given the choice to add depth for Manchester City’s Premier League title defense or to put its new team in position to gel from the start, CFG opted for the former against Kreis’s wishes. Foreign additions who aren’t Didier Drogba typically need time to find their MLS footing, and Lampard and NYCFC were robbed of that time. Kreis was undermined before the first ball was kicked.
The tinkering continued. Shay Facey and Angeliño were brought in on loan from Manchester City, Andoni Iraola joined up in June and then Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and Jefferson Mina arrived in early July. Kreis also was rumored to be less than thrilled with the addition of Pirlo, a brilliant deep-lying playmaker who, at 36, may not have been ready for the breakneck rigors of MLS or a team with obvious defensive issues.
Lampard and Pirlo started for the first time on Aug. 1, when NYCFC lost, 3–2, to the Montreal Impact. It was the start of a 1-5-1 stretch. Following an Aug. 29 defeat by the visiting Columbus Crew, Kreis called his players’ commitment into question.
“The players need to show if they want to be here and be a part of this because I know the coaching staff does,” he said. “I know the coaching staff cares an awful lot about this club and the job we’re attempting to do. I’m not so sure all the players do.”
Many of those players were selected or vetted by CFG. Some of them, like Lampard, said they disagreed with Kreis’s assessment.
“You’ll have to ask every individual, but I don’t feel that,” the Englishman told reporters. “All I feel is something’s off on the pitch. We’re not getting the results and the consistency. But for me, it’s not for the want of trying.”
The tension between manager and management was palpable. Kreis wasn’t getting the best out of his foreign players (including Mix Diskerud, the U.S. national teamer who’d spent his entire pro career in Norway and Belgium). If legends like David Villa, Lampard and Pirlo aren’t successful, the coach without clout will take the blame. And if NYCFC’s three-game September winning streak restored a glimmer of hope, the ensuing skid all but ended it. This was a coach, a team and an ownership group that simply failed to mesh.
At other MLS clubs, he’d get more time. Kreis won five games in his first season at the helm of RSL. Ben Olsen (D.C. United) and Jay Heaps (New England Revolution) each won only nine games in their first full seasons in charge and Peter Vermes won 14 of his first 42 games with Sporting Kansas City. All went on to have success. The Philadelphia Union say they’re sticking with Jim Curtin after another losing season and the Colorado Rapids seem to be happy with Pablo Mastroeni, who has won only 17 of 68 games as coach. But in the world in which CFG operates, Kreis had to go. It was a Premier League decision, not an MLS decision.
And that’s okay. It’s important that MLS clubs have different philosophies and identities. The last thing a single-entity league needs is teams that behave too similarly (too many already dress alike). NYCFC is rumored to be eyeing a European coach. SI.com reported that Manchester City youth coach Patrick Vieira, who won the World Cup as a player with France, is under consideration. According to Goal.com, former AC Milan, Real Madrid, AS Roma, Juventus, England and Russia manager Fabio Capello is in talks to take over.
Neither has a shred of MLS experience. That’s been the undoing of several well-known Europeans who’ve coached here in the past. Only one manager without significant American soccer pedigree has won an MLS Cup title (Gary Smith in 2010). But CFG has different priorities and a different standard of success. Many suspected that from the outset and on Monday, NYCFC’s true colors finally were revealed. NYCFC and CFG are going to do things their own way. Ultimately, NYCFC’s fans and its record will determine whether the path is the right one.
Kreis, meanwhile, will have no trouble finding another job. Toronto FC, now run by former RSL president Bill Manning (and coached currently by Greg Vanney), and the Chicago Fire (the post is vacant) are among the clubs that may be interested. Atlanta United, set to enter MLS in 2017, may give Kreis a call. Wherever he winds up, Kreis surely will have more power, latitude and security than he did this year.