Jason Kreis stepped down Tuesday, December 10 as Real Salt Lake head coach, leaving a huge gap in the club. Who will be the next RSL head coach? Is it Robin Fraser, RSL's former assistant? Or, is it Jeff Cassar, Kreis' current goalkeeper coach and reserve-team coach? And hold the phone; what about Eric Wynalda, the maverick, over-the-top personality who has been dying to coach a team in Major League Soccer?
Any one of these three is a candidate at this point and some are probably better choices than others -- but one thing is clear: Kreis will not be easily replaced. He literally built the claret and cobalt from the ground up and introduced the 'diamond 4-4-2' formation to Major League Soccer.
Kreis and his charges started teaching the system after he became the head coach in the 2007-08 season. Initially, he shuttled off players who either didn't believe in this beautifully fluid but terribly demanding system of play that originated in Portuguese and Spanish clubs -- or who couldn't handle the heavy responsibilities of this formation that taxed its wing defenders and midfielders more than any other system in creation.
The club was professional about the responsibilities its players had to the system, and made their intentions clear from the beginning. If you as a player didn't want to learn anymore about this style of play, you "raised your hand."
If it sounds somewhat elementary, it probably was. After all, the Duke graduate who majored in pre-med and psychology supposedly heard about the system during RSL's early days when he was still a player under John Ellinger -- at a time when the club struggled to put out a competitive product.
After Kreis retired from RSL as a player and became its coach, and after multiple trips to South America and Central America, he found players who could play in this system that was new to the highest level of American pro soccer.
Sure, it had been tried multiple times at lower levels of U.S. pro soccer and in select college programs -- but for one reason or another it rarely worked. The old Utah Blitzz head coach/technical director Chris Agnello even introduced nuances of a midfield 'diamond' to his youth teams -- mine included.
In my first game coaching at Blitzz FC along with my assistant Rob, who was white and had two twin sons who were about as identical as Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales (which is to say they weren't; one was tall and stocky and the other was short and fast) I started the lads as holding and attacking midfielders. We played a gritty, high-pressure game, a 1-0 win at Park City. I hadn't thought a lick about that game I coached for the old club -- until I observed how Kreis lined up seasoned pros like Kyle and Javi in that 4-4-2 diamond.
That diamond is, simply stated, the backbone of your team. Your players are interchangeable -- and they must be fit and capable of covering box-to-box for the entire game, as Kreis pointed out in this interview he did with Sports Illustrated in November. The midfielders must also have insane technical ability because if they don't hold the ball well -- as I found out later that season as a coach -- they will be exposed to countless counterattacks by teams that play balls over the top.
As for that U-12 boys Blitzz FC team, my assistant left our winning team at mid-season -- marking the only time that ever happened in my years as a club coach -- yet all of my Hispanic players stayed and played in that system. Ask any one of them what "up, back and through" means, and they'll likely set up a 15 x 15 yard grid with cones, get a ball and play. If you told them it was time to play 4 v. 4 in a 30 x 40 grid lined by cones they'd probably get giddy at the mere mention -- even though they're married or playing in college now.
The point is this: the diamond is not for everyone. It certainly wasn't for two highly skilled, athletic white boys from Kearns, Utah who ended up playing premier soccer at a different club and were All-Region selections in high school. And maybe that was because even then, in 2004, the diamond was so new to most Americans. "Why not sit back and boot the ball over the top to the big, fast kid?" my assistant always said to me. That's how it had been done for years, you know -- so Kreis was re-inventing American soccer with this strange 'diamond' in the minds of many.
Though Kreis wasn't the first person to display this diamond in the pros, or even in youth ball, he certainly was the first to have had it shown on national TV to impressionable American parents and children who might go to his youth academy in Arizona, or to his try-out camps -- or even to Rio Tinto Stadium to buy a ticket to a game.
At Real Salt Lake that diamond did work -- after some tinkering. It wasn't an overnight success; it took the claret and cobalt two seasons before they started perfecting it -- and shocked the soccer world by winning a title. In many ways RSL was a proving ground for ideas and philosophies that nobody dared try. It had the first academy in Major League Soccer, it was the first club to try this 'diamond 4-4-2'; it had a unique mantra called 'The Team Is The Star," all likely patterned after successful clubs before them in Spain and Portugal.
And then there's Kreis, the player's coach. The former star was also the league's all-time leading scorer for a time and someone with a penchant for competing until the bitter end -- even as a player when RSL was dead to rights. In those days at Rice-Eccles Stadium and (not making this up) the Brian Dunseth Fan Club, Kreis was just as intense and focused as RSL's captain. But, he could also be a guy with a quick wit and a dry, sarcastic sense of humor who once said to me as my kids played a "World Cup" game during a Blitzz FC summer camp at which he appeared that this everyone vs. everyone showdown in a penalty box "looks like organized chaos," and smiled. He watched every moment of that organized but chaotic game, too.
Above all else he wanted things done his way -- and if you didn't like that, you heard about it. As a player, if you didn't like it, you sat on the bench or were sent out the door -- in a nice way, but nonetheless you were done in his mind. If you think about it for half a second, Kreis isn't the first Utah-based professional or college coach who has been successful doing it in that manner.
Look at Jerry Sloan, the Utah Jazz basketball legend. Or Urban Meyer, the Utah Utes football guru who in two short years busted the BCS in what took other Ute coaches decades to even come close to measuring. All were driven to succeed, and they were former players themselves, intense to a fault and they all rubbed some people the wrong way. Above all, they absolutely hated to lose.
They also loved their players more than life itself and truly cared about each and every one. You can't tell me that Sloan wasn't more than a little hurt when Deron Williams derided the Hall of Famer publicly (because Sloan later quit). Or, that Urban wasn't put off by Florida players mocking him on Twitter after watching the Ohio State (and ex-Florida) coach barely eat his pizza in a stadium tunnel after a particularly hard loss to Michigan State last Saturday.
When you're a player's coach, you get the utmost love when you win -- and boy, do players' emotions flow like water when you don't. In turn, when things go wrong, you get a target on your back from upper management who says they like what you're doing, yet all they see is how it affects them from a business standpoint -- the bottom line. And you hurt, even when you don't publicly express it.
That's probably why Kreis took the high road, said very little about the matter until the end of the season, and headed out the door with his pride intact -- but slightly damaged. As a competitor Kreis had to have been more than a little hurt about RSL not negotiating his contract until the last possible moment.
Perhaps if Kreis wins his second MLS Cup, we aren't even sitting here having this conversation -- because in his mind he has proven his worth. Then again, he has often said that he wonders why clubs put such a premium on winning games as opposed to player development. But it is what it is, his pain is probably very real and strong and now he's gone, off to New York City FC. He probably could have stayed here as long as he wanted -- but as new owner Dell Loy Hansen said, he had "mountains to climb." Guess they weren't going to be the Wasatch.
And so, the number one question on every RSL fan's mind is: who will replace him?
Let's look at the candidates according to RSL insiders.
A former RSL assistant -- and Kreis' first go-to guy -- Fraser got the coaching bug a few years ago and accepted a job with Chivas USA, which like RSL has been a proving ground for new footballing methods. Fraser's time with the Goats did not go well, as the native of Jamaica lasted just 68 games, amassing a 15-32-21 record. But, Fraser is largely known as the person who along with Kreis is responsible for implementing the diamond at RSL. And, he is a former MLS Defender of the Year.
The one plus that he has over the other candidates is that he has already been a head coach -- and he did win or tie in over 50 percent of his games at lowly Chivas USA. The rub is that he is reportedly happy at his current position of assistant coach with the New York Red Bulls -- but going forward and based on his relationship with current RSL players (he was an assistant during RSL's title run) you have to believe he would consider the position if it was offered.
Prediction: Very likely.
Many people know of Cassar as the goalkeeper coach of RSL since Kreis hanged up his boots and No. 9 jersey. But, what you don't know about Cassar is that he has been Kreis' right-hand man since Fraser left in 2010. Though Miles Joseph has taken on some of Cassar's responsibilities it is Cassar who has become Kreis' eyes and ears, even coaching the RSL reserves that had a nice run this past season.
To get an idea of how he coaches, watch this video. If RSL management does want to stick to the status quo, Cassar is their man. Granted, he has zero head coaching experience -- except for coaching the reserves -- but he does have the inside track based on his close relationship with Kreis. For this hire, it all depends on management. Then again, rumors swirled that Kreis was not happy with the new front office, so this choice is still kind of up in the air.
Ah, the most interesting choice of all. Because here's a guy who arguably has the most upside of any of the RSL coaching candidates. You have a guy in Wynalda who like Kreis is not afraid to ruffle feathers, and a guy who like Kreis was a superstar in the league and understands one very important tenet if you're a coach. And that's how to manage players because he was a great but temperamental one himself.
He also took an amateur team (Cal FC) well into the U.S. Open Cup later rounds on two occasions -- and he has been dying to coach a major pro team for a while now. His only drawback is that he was accused of sleeping with former U.S. National team member John Harkes' wife -- which will not go over well in conservative Utah. One RSL fan even created a fan page objecting to the remote likelihood of him coaching here.
So there you have it...the three main candidates for Real Salt Lake's head coaching job. Let the games begin!