RSL coach Jason Kreis talks on-field strategy and building long-term success
WASHINGTON D.C. – In this second part of a rare, in-depth conversation with Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis, he discusses his team’s style of play — perhaps the most identifiable and consistent in MLS — his long-term blueprint for success and his assessment of RSL’s progress during a three-year trophy drought.
That drought may end Tuesday night when Salt Lake hosts D.C. United in the U.S. Open Cup final.
Here is Part 1 of my March discussion with Kreis and some background on the conversation.
STRAUS: Moving from the individual to the collective, we hear a lot about RSL’s 4-4-2 and the diamond midfield. You have very clear ideas about the sort of players and personalities you want at the club. How much leeway and flexibility is there in your tactics? Do you have room for players who offer different things?
KREIS: I think that people overestimate putting players in boxes in our formation. For me, the formation is actually a lot more fluid, especially in the midfield, than people want to put it in. Some of that is our fault too because we have gone through times where the midfielder that starts, he stays there. And another midfielder starts there and he stays there. That’s not my ideal. My ideal is that those players are interchanging all the time.
STRAUS: Doesn’t keeping positions and responsibilities predictable help if you’re going to play a possession, pass-and-move style? Guys under pressure know where their teammates are going to be and they can anticipate runs and patterns. Couldn’t that interchanging complicate matters?
KREIS: Yeah, but then as you get the ball, pass and move means pass and move, right? Not pass and stay in my little lane. Then you end up in different spots and defensively we all just fill our holes. Everything has to be very rigid defensively, but I think when we have the ball that’s when I want to see more dynamic movements, more changing of positions than sometimes we have in the past. There have been other times we’ve been very successful, and I’m just blown away at how much our midfield can change positions, and it’s just beautiful to watch.
In an ideal world, all of my midfielders, anybody that plays in the midfield, needs to be very versatile. Needs to be able to sometimes show up on the lines when the space is on the lines, needs to be able to show up in the middle when the space is in the middle, needs to be able to defend in the middle, to defend wide, has to be very, very fit to cover a lot of ground. I’m more interested in finding very good minded soccer players than I am going to find somebody to play the left side of midfield. You know what I mean? That’s more interesting to me, to get good soccer players. Because good soccer players are smart and can be taught, “Okay, this is what he wants. This is what he wants at this moment. This is what he want at that moment.”
Khari Stephenson [signed as a free agent in February] is a perfect example. He’s coming to us from a system [in San Jose] that was very much two holding midfielders, a very wide left midfielder and a very wide right midfielder. And he comes in, and we knew he was good player. You get him in our camp, you see a very technically gifted, very smart tactical soccer player. He’s 33 years old and he’s asking questions every day. Every day. “Coach, is this what you want at this point? Is that where you’d like me to be at that point.” Most of those questions are defensive because that’s really where I care. When we have the ball, I don’t care. My answer to the midfield is, “Go where the space is.”
[NOTE: Stephenson has tallied one goal and one assist in 19 league games this season, nine of them starts.]
STRAUS: By the way, were you joking before [the interview started] when you weren’t sure what I meant when I compared RSL to the [San Antonio] Spurs or the [New Jersey] Devils?
KREIS: Sort of.
STRAUS: There’s a famous D.C. story about how Joe Gibbs was so immersed in coaching the Redskins that when he was asked for his opinion on Ollie North during the height of the Iran-Contra scandal, he had no clue who he was. Gibbs slept in his office….
KREIS: That’s actually very true, and I would be honest and say that I’m a little embarrassed by it.
KREIS: Because I don’t know what’s going on. I honestly don’t know what’s going on in the world. And that’s a little bit sad because I’m an educated person and I care about those things, but alternatively I guess I care most about this club.
[NOTE: Kreis graduated from Duke University, where he was teammates with RSL vice president and general manager Garth Lagerwey.]
STRAUS: I mentioned the Devils and the Spurs because they seem to be more modest teams that have stable management, a style, a philosophy that transcends a given group of players. And they’re in the mix every year. There’s sustained success. I was curious if there was something to the notion of having a model sketched out that could be a applied beyond a single generation of players.
You won’t be signing the $4 million a year DP, Morales and Beckerman won’t be around forever and at some point somebody is going to come with a blank check to sign Luis Gil. And you’ll have to keep going. How much of what you’ve built at RSL is by long-term design?
KREIS: We very much had a scripted plan, written down essentially between Garth and myself about what we’re doing. That was a huge part of the philosophy, is consistency — to stick with a core group of guys and add players around them and try to develop that core to be bigger and bigger. What we’ve done that we may not have really set out to do is basically to establish an identity and philosophy for the club.
STRAUS: You did not set out to do that?
KREIS: By philosophy, I don’t mean an overall philosophy because we had a very clear philosophy, but a playing style. I don’t think at the very beginning we were like, “We’re going to play in this diamond with two forwards and the wide backs are going to do X, Y and Z.” But along the way I think we’ve become pretty proud of our style of our play, and now there’s a very clear, “This is what we do. This is what we do when we don’t have the ball and this is what we do when we do have the ball.”
STRAUS: You’ve had some real disappointment in the playoffs the past three years. It can complicate the evaluation process, can’t it?
I appreciate playoffs. They ask things of a player that regular season games don’t. It’s more intense. You’re playing against another very good team that has everything on the line, just like you. There’s more pressure. You have to rise to the occasion.
But at the same time, it can be one or two games, a bounce here or there, an injury, and you’re done. It’s not always fair. Does the three years of postseason frustration say anything about what you’ve built — your ideas, your philosophy, your system, the types of players you’ve signed? When you haven’t won it for three years, do you reassess or do you believe that contending consistently means you’re on the right track?
KREIS: I think it’s a very, very interesting thing to think about. It’s very interesting to think about because of the fact that we have such a different level of expectation, even within our own club. It used to be very clear that everything we did, we were basically overachieving.
STRAUS: Did that come internally or from fans and people like me?
KREIS: Internally, people like you, people in our management, ownership, everybody. Fans. Right? Making the playoffs, then a conference final [in 2008]. “Oh my God!” MLS Cup [in 2009]. “Oh my God!”
Now it’s the point where we’ve lost that feeling of, “We did really good! We did really good getting to where we got to.”
We completely lost it so much so that last year, after attaining more points than we ever attained in a season, more wins, more goals. We did a lot of it again. Every year it seems like we get this “first” that we went after and we achieved. And we did X, Y and Z last year, the three things I just said. And we finished the year [with a conference semifinal loss to the Seattle Sounders], and it’s like we failed. The feeling from the top to the bottom was that we failed. And I personally I feel like that’s so wrong on so many different levels.
STRAUS: But that’s going to be your instinct at the time, just after it ends….
KREIS: And guess what? I was part of it. I felt it internally. I didn’t need to be told by Garth or anybody else. I felt it internally, that we failed. But that’s wrong. It’s the wrong way to motivate. It’s the wrong way to compete. I think that we behaved wrong and we evaluated the season in the wrong way.
We have to continue to say that what we have done is amazing. What we have built over a very few amount of years — a philosophy, an identity, a playing style — so many things that we have done, we need to be appreciative and continue to take it week by week and not say, “If we don’t win the Cup, then this or that is going to happen.” I firmly believe that if you put yourself in a place to win the Cup, if you give yourself a chance every year, that’s all you can ask.
STRAUS: Isn’t it a lot harder to do that than to get hot for a couple of weeks, win a title and then fall apart? Look at the Rapids.
KREIS: Yeah, absolutely. You can say the year we won the Cup , we got very fortunate. But I would tell you that we trended very, very well at the end the season, and everything was in the right place.
STRAUS: People may have seen it as a fluke at the time, but you don’t hear much about that anymore because of how good you’ve been since.
KREIS: I guess my feeling on it is, if we put ourselves in a place to contend for a Cup that year, just looking at that one year, then we’ve been successful. What happens in the playoffs, as you’ve correctly identified, is a play here or a play there, one injury to a player or one red card to a player could mean the difference between winning the whole thing or going out in the first round.
For me, the playoffs, I’m with you. It’s all about the MLS Cup. It’s playoffs. This is an American sport. I’m with all that. But if coaches get fired or hired based on whether or not their team won the Cup that year, that’s ridiculous thinking. Ridiculous thinking. Dismantling teams because you didn’t, that’s ridiculous. We didn’t dismantle our team because we didn’t win the Cup, we had to make those trades because we didn’t have money!