Posted October 01, 2013

Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis discusses molding players and the RSL way

MLS, Real Salt Lake
Jason Kreis has guided Real Salt Lake to a share of first place in the Western Conference. (Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI)

Jason Kreis has guided Real Salt Lake to a share of first place in the Western Conference. (Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI)

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, 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.