There are all manner of inspiring underdog stories in football, and Real Salt Lake’s 2009 MLS championship charge ranks among the most unlikely. Finishing the regular season with a losing record, the men from the high Rockies somehow scraped and clawed their way into the play-offs, where they were expected to be sacrificial lambs for defending champions Columbus Crew, star-laden Chicago Fire and finally LA Galaxy, the Galacticos of the American scene, in a one-off final.
When the dust settled, the Utah outfit – considered league laughing stocks since their first season in 2005 – hoisted aloft the most coveted trophy in American soccer, while the likes of Landon Donovan and David Beckham kicked at the dirt. The triumph was a testament to esprit de corps, work ethic and perhaps most of all, the understated, working-class values of coach Jason Kreis. “This is a huge deal for us,” the 36-year-old Kreis, former captain and first-ever signing of Real Salt Lake told FIFA.com. “A lot of people had written us off and gave us no chance. When I took over as coach two seasons ago we had a clear plan of how we were going to build. This title proves we are doing the right things,” added the coach.
We were happy to let teams write us off. We came to relish our role as no-hopers.
If the right things are now being done now in Sandy, Utah, they were assuredly not in the club’s first three seasons. Real finished in the bottom-two in 2005, 2006 and 2007 with an aging and oft-injured Kreis as the main striker and talisman, becoming the butt of cruel barbs from rival supporters. “When I took over as coach, we started with a simple philosophy: the team would be the star,” said Kreis, who brought RSL to their first play-offs in 2008 in his first term at the helm. “We decided not to go out and buy big-name players, but rather to create big-name players through the success of our team. We did not sign the best players, but good ones, and we let them battle it out week in and week out for starting positions.”
After besting the cream of the MLS crop in a remarkable run to their first title, Kreis’s coaching theory looks like a stroke of genius. Fitness, team unity and fighting spirit won the day. The likes of Kyle Beckerman, diminutive goalkeeper Nick Rimando, Nat Borchers and former USA creator Clint Mathis were on top of the world together in a way none could be individually. “We were extremely comfortable as underdogs throughout the play-offs,” added Kreis, the first American-born player to scoop MLS’s player of the year award. “We had to win so many of our games at the tail-end of the regular season just to get into the play-offs that we were comfortable with the stress of do-or-die situations. We were happy to let teams write us off. We came to relish our role as no-hopers.
“When it came time to play LA, we felt we matched up with them. They had the stars, but we knew we had the better team,” the young coach remarked after bringing a first professional sports title to the state of Utah since an ABA basketball gong in 1971.
Kreis, who scored 91 goals in eight seasons with the Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas) was the perfect man to assemble this rag-tag band of outsiders and cast-offs. His strengths as a player were prosaic: speed, a jackhammer left foot, physical strength and a direct eye for goal. The Omaha, Nebraska native was continually passed over by national team coaches Steve Sampson and Bruce Arena, amassing only 14 caps, and never lining up at a FIFA World Cup™. Kreis was the kind of striving player who so often make the best coaches. “I always knew I wanted to coach,” added the man who became the youngest head coach in MLS at just 34. “I got really serious about it in my last few seasons playing. I got my badges and would pay close attention to the things my coaches were doing; trying to think about what I would do in their shoes.”
Hoisting the elusive hardware
That fateful night on 22 November in chilly Seattle, after a marathon penalty shootout with LA, Kreis finally got his hands on the trophy that eluded him for a full 11 years as a player: the MLS Cup. “I never even made it to the final as a player,” he went on, firm in the knowledge that he had outwitted Galaxy boss and former national team supremo Arena, the man who so often scratched Kreis’s name off the Stars and Stripes teamsheet. “It feels so special to win it as a coach. It’s such a great feeling, and a hard one to describe.”
The ambitious young coach – already thinking of defending his crown and just back from a scouting trip in Argentina – will not be content with one big day. Just as determined as when he was barreling over defenders and slamming home with his vicious left foot in his playing days, Kreis has his sights on settling an old score. “It’s every player’s dream to play for the national team. I got to do it, but I never went to a World Cup,” he concluded. “Now I have a new dream, to coach the US national team at the highest level. Maybe I can get to a World Cup that way.”
Knowing Kreis’s style on both sides of the touchline, current US boss Bob Bradley might do well to peek over his shoulder every now and again.