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Reality Check

Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis and his team find their passion in Argentina.

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Rosario, Argentina: a mid-March morning, 2008.

In the distance, they resemble a line of straggling school children. They are hefting metal folding chairs across the dew-drenched grass of Argentine soccer team Rosario Central’s training camp, Palos Verdes.

As they get closer to the pine-tree lined pitch, their black trousers, white shirts and clip-on name tags clearly identify who they are: Missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints working in the Argentine port town, Rosario, who have come to support Salt Lake City’s soccer team, Real Salt Lake.

The Utah team is on a 14-day tour of friendly matches against Rosario’s top soccer teams. After Argentine capital Buenos Aires, home to legendary soccer teams like Boca Juniors and River Plate, Rosario is Argentina’s most important concentration of soccer talent.

Of the 40 young elders and 20 sisters, some are from Orem and Murray, while others are natives of Uruguay and Argentina. In total, 190 “young warriors” as the LDS mission president, a lawyer from Salt Lake City, calls his charges, cover the province.

One young elder confesses to not liking soccer until he came to Argentina. “Here, if you don’t like football, it’s like not liking asados [Argentine barbecue],” he says, a pamphlet promoting familias para siempre (families are forever) jutting out of his back pocket.

Another missionary, Elder Hyams, had attended all the Real matches for their first year and a half until leaving on his mission. He was unaware until now that former RSL captain Jason Kreis replaced head coach John Ellinger in May 2007 but was not surprised. “You get used to losing,” he says.

Kreis agrees. “Losing got accepted for three years,¨ he says, in his typically taciturn, tight-lipped way. Since 2005, RSL won just 21 of 94 games, never once making it to the playoffs. The fans, Kreis adds, deserve better. That’s a point RSL fan club Rogue Cavalier Brigade member, Donk, the RSL malcontent, does not dispute. He recently asked in his blog, “Will fans keep coming back to see a team that sucks?”

How long owner Dave Checketts’ patience with losing will last is another unpredictable factor—especially given that, according to RSL’s staff, he’s lost $2.5 million to $5 million per year on the team.

After much wrangling, criticism and political bad blood, construction is underway on RSL’s $110 million stadium in Sandy. Fans can only wonder, given RSL’s traumatic history so far, will there even be a team to take possession of it by the time it opens in the fall?

For a man in an ever-tightening vice grip, Kreis seems remarkably calm. On one hand, he is trying to forge a new team out of the wealth of players he has plucked from soccer leagues in Argentina, Germany, Columbia, Scotland, MLS, and universities, some only within the last few weeks. On the other, he knows the countdown to the fourth season opener at Chicago Fire on March 29 at the Rice Eccles stadium is approaching lift off. When you factor in that Kreis has no coaching experience and is building a new team from scratch, the picture only gets more complex.

Perhaps some of 35-year-old Kreis’ calm comes from knowing the fate of his team rests on decisions he makes. He is motivated by the low expectations others may have of him. At the press conference in May 2007 announcing RSL owner Dave Checketts’ decision to dump Ellinger as head coach for Kreis, Kreis described himself as “5 foot 7 on a good hair day.” He all but jeered at the press conference: “You don’t believe in this decision, then get in line. There’s soon going to be a lot of you, and I will in the end thank you for that.” A painfully shy man, according to both Kreis and his wife, Kim, he nevertheless draws his deepest motivation from proving people wrong in this most public of arenas.

“The best way to right this ship was to do it myself,” Kreis decided when Checketts offered him Ellinger’s job. A key part of the ballast he’s using is foreign talent, notably from Argentina, from where he’s imported defender Matias Mantilla, midfielders Matias Cordoba and Javier Morales, and forward Fabian Espindola. Cordoba joined the team barely a month ago. Since RSL can’t afford first-division European players, Kreis says, the favorable exchange rate on Argentine pesos makes players from that country attractive.

Then there’s a similarity in playing style. United States and Argentine teams, Kreis says, both play tough, physical games, at a fast pace, with a lot of defensive pressure. “We chose to come to Rosario in large part because of the Argentine players,” Kreis says. “So they could show their teammates their lives, take the guys to steak restaurants, show them the sights.”

In this exercise in team-building that Tony Robbins would no doubt endorse, taking the non-Latino players out of their geographical and linguistic comfort zone and seeing how the team knits together seems a logical way to try and build morale, create relationships. It’s the games that are the true testing ground, though, no more so than the final tour match against Rosario Central.

The LDS elders and sisters boisterously cheer the first half against Rosario that sees the two sides largely equal. In the jittery beginning, Real gives away a free kick. Shortly after, RSL midfielder Kyle Beckerman drives a strong shot at the Rosario goal just passing outside the right post. Beckerman, Carey Talley, Morales and veteran Andy Williams have periods of dominating the midfield, pressuring Rosario’s defense. Rosario presses back hard, but by half time, there are no goals.

Some of the missionaries want players like Andy Williams to sign their Book of Mormon. Others decide they will offer their ties. The Latin American-born Mormons comment on how the United States’ side wears shin guards. The macho Argentines do not. For the RSL fans, the quality of their team’s performance is encouraging. “They look good out there,” one of them says.

Follow Kreis and his team around Rosario during the second week of their tour and it’s clear the coach is searching for more than goal-scoring ability. He’s trying to inject a European/Latin American style into his team: low ball passes, well-crafted attacks coordinated by midfield nexuses like the dreadlocked Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales. Kreis seeks, finally, a team of fighters and scrappers whose collective heart beats with a will as defiant as his own.

To understand what that heart might be, you need only look at the hard-fighting history of the man who is, Frankenstein-like, trying to bring it to life. The game against Rosario Central was his last chance in Argentina to see if he had succeeded.

ON THE BENCH
Kreis’ philosophy as a player was simple: “If you work hard enough, you get everything you want.” As a coach, he found that didn´t always work. The harder he worked, he says, the worse the team played during the first games of the third season he coached. “Perhaps I need to back off,” he says, but then adds, with a glimmer of a smile, “I probably won’t.”

That refusal to back down is evident throughout his soccer-dedicated life. Born in Omaha, Neb., in 1972, he started playing as quickly as he could walk, he says. But in the flatlands, he says, “For a kid deeply in love with soccer, there isn´t a whole load of gratitude for that.” By the time he was old enough to notice few Nebraskans shared his passion for soccer, he didn´t care. “All [U.S.] soccer players play at the professional level not for popularity, nor money, but for the love of the game,” he says.

His family later moved to Louisiana where he played center midfield at high school. There he fell in love with his future wife, Kim. He also met the man he describes as the best coach he ever had, British-born Gary Williamson, who now coaches a team in north Texas. “He has a way of challenging you,” Kreis says. “After the talks he gave, you were ready to run through the wall for him.”

At college, he encountered “the negative thinking of people in the know.” An assistant college coach told him he wasn´t physically fit enough to play center midfield. “I played the next year and scored 15 goals,” Kreis says, as ever, proud of the chip on his shoulder.

After graduating with a psychology degree from North Carolina’s Duke University, Kreis signed with Major League Soccer in 1995, the fifth player to do so. MLS owns the contracts of all U.S. professional soccer players, unlike in other countries where teams are privately owned. Each U.S. team has a $2.2 million salary cap which it can spend buying players, ensuring that, unlike in Europe, a few teams with enormous war chests don´t dominate the game.

One early January day in 1996, Kreis watched the 10 new U.S. teams make their picks out of hundreds of players up for grabs. “I kept track of who was being selected and I knew the names,” he recalls, thinking more often than not, “I´m better than that.” Each round consisted of 10 players being chosen. He was selected in the fifth round, No. 53, by Dallas Burn. He took particular pleasure at showing the teams that had overlooked him what they had passed on by becoming the team’s top scorer with 13 goals. The second season, however, Dallas benched him for a high-profile Swiss player. “It was very good for me,” he says. “It made me that much more hungry.”

He spent nine years at Dallas, on and off as captain. His eighth year, a serious knee injury put him out of the game for six months. Then his coach told him at the annual end-of-season exit meeting they were bringing in an international player. Kreis wouldn´t even be able to compete for a starting place on the first team. Come the following season, he was to be relegated to the soccer equivalent of a bit-part player. For someone who describes himself as an icon of the club, someone who felt he had left his blood and sweat on the field for them, he says, this was unacceptable. He called his agent and on Nov. 17, 2004, Real Salt Lake signed him as their first player.

PARADISE LOST
Despite considerable press fanfare, things didn´t go well for a team built, as MLS expansion teams are, out of cast-offs from other established clubs. “We did very poorly the first year,¨ Kreis says. “It felt like there were a lot of good players who should be able to win games but weren´t on the same page.” Kreis agrees that the club’s management threw money at a group of players and expected them to perform.

Former Real coach John Ellinger had made a name for himself coaching U.S. youth soccer. “He believed in giving players the respect and the freedom you should allow as professionals,” Kreis says. The problem was younger players were not held accountable, he adds. The second year, the losses continued, RSL getting their butts kicked in the first five out of six games.

For midfielder Carey Talley, who joined at the end of the first season, losing was agony. The fact that some players seemed only interested in collecting their salaries gnawed at him. “Losing wears on you, big time,” he says. “It’s the worst habit to ever get into. It started at practice. Guys didn´t even realize it. They didn´t win one game in practice, and it never crossed their minds.” Talley recalls losing his temper, telling several of his teammates, “Get your head out of your ass.”

Talley shared a room with Kreis. He saw how the endless losing got to him, too. “He´s a pretty reserved guy,” Talley says. “I’d see him get even more and more quiet, the more his frustration built up.”

The tension over losing also appeared to get to Ellinger, who told reporters at yet another post-losing-game press-conference in July 2006, the team was missing something in their jock straps. Kreis won´t comment on that. But around the same time as Ellinger´s speculation on the team´s testicular fortitude, Kreis had a pre-match epiphany against New England.

In the locker room, he looked around at then-goalkeeper Scott Garlick, forward Jeff Cunningham, midfield attacker Chris Klein, and Talley. They were good enough to lift the players around them, he told them and they were good enough to win. “From that moment, on we had a direction,” Kreis says. And they won against New England 3-1. The rest of the second season, RSL had the winningest record in the league, Kreis says, winning six, drawing five, losing four and narrowly missing the playoffs.

Kreis was sure the third season would reflect the success of the tail end of the second. Then, Ellinger signed 16-year-old Freddy Adu. “I don’t have a bad word to say about him, but the media hoopla that surrounds him, what comes with him, that, the team didn´t need,” Kreis says. The older players’ egos were hurt, he admits. “After all they had done, he got all the attention.”

RSL lost the first four games of the third season. One fan set up a Website called FireJohnEllinger.com. Checketts didn´t need encouraging.

Upon his promotion to coach, Kreis knew relationships between him and players he considered friends would change, he says. But he didn’t give it “enough credence.” He ended up trading his best friend on the team, Chris Klein, to L.A. Galaxy to secure other players he needed. For his wife, who was also a close friend of Klein and his wife, Angela, “It was heartbreaking.” For Talley, losing Kreis’ friendship to the inevitable distance imposed by his being coach, “kind of stinks.” But he also wants to make sure his friend does well. “If I don’t start producing, it will land on his head,” he says. He feels more pressure “to perform, to make things right.”

BLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS
“All the best, boys, hey,” RSL players say to one another one Tuesday afternoon in mid-March, on a pitch sideline under the crystal blue Argentine sky.

After the backslapping, hugs, and general male bonding, almost as if they were going off to war, they settle down to play third-division team Jockey Club. The team shares the name and grounds of the Jockey Club, a centuries-old gentlemen’s club for the Argentine upper crust based in Buenos Aires and Rosario. What it does not appear to share, though, are the club’s considerable resources to purchase quality players.

In the distance, club members play a polo chukka, the raised wooden polo mallets clashing in the afternoon sun. The atmosphere of the park seems more attuned to picnics than league soccer. RSL’s first team nevertheless plays with conviction and concentration. They offer an orderly, well-organized game with two well-taken goals, one a header delivered from a corner, the other a right-footed kick in the penalty box. Convincing, but given the side they are playing against, hardly overwhelming.

After the game, Kreis complains the Jockey Club team “didn’t come out of their half,” and that they played a negative, defensive game. RSL had fewer small connecting passes than he would have liked. “The difficulty of a game like this, with this park atmosphere, is to maintain the desire.”

If Jockey Club were less-than-inspiring competition, the demands of Argentine league soccer meant that both Newell’s Old Boys, against whom RSL’s first team drew 1-1, and Rosario Central, fielded reserve teams while their first squad prepared for weekend matches. Since they are both faced with being relegated to the second division, keeping their top players in reserve is understandable. While Kreis thought RSL’s performance against Newell’s was “good but not great,” defender Chris Wingert was unhappy. “We lost possession too much, we should have played better at Newell’s.”

Argentine soccer, in general, is going through its own crisis, according to Rosario-based veteran sports journalist Miguel Tessandori. Instead of the enganches—players naturally talented at developing the game and tunneling their way through defenders—now Argentine coaches, he complains, focus on running up and down the pitch. This results in games being imprecise, physical, with lots of marking required, the ball constantly being stopped for fouls and free kicks as sprinting players crash into each other.

“With this new style, in place of conserving the traditional, national style for which Argentina has long been respected, now all the teams are the same,” he says. “Soccer, too, has become a victim of globalization.”

Kreis admires the previous team of his newest player, Matias Cordoba, Argentine premier league club Tigre, where he played on loan from Argentino Juniors, precisely for the reason that they defy that trend to sameness Tessandori so bemoans.

Tigre climbed from the third, to the second, to the first division in three years, playing with a similar philosophy as RSL’s—no stars. When Kreis watched them play, he was struck by how “they were all fighting for each other, with their blood, sweat, and tears.”

UNDER PRESSURE
Lo apretan bien,” Juan Carlos Leguizamon says. They pressure them well.

The veteran goalkeeper, long since retired, is talking about Argentine third-division soccer team, Central Cordoba. His son, Juan Cruz Leguizamon, is Central´s reserve goalkeeper. They are playing RSL in a friendly 60-minute scrimmage on a Tuesday afternoon in a dilapidated stadium on the outskirts of Rosario. If the Jockey Club was unimpressive, the 102 year-old club, Central Cordoba, is, at least in the first half, a more combative if unpredictable opponent.

The only witnesses to the match are two fans sitting in the stand’s rusting seats under the scalding sun. No one much comes to see the club anymore, Leguizamon says. “It’s a humble institution with no acquisitive power,” he continues. Central narrowly escaped having its property auctioned off last year to pay debts to former players. The paint-peeled walls, tired turf, and dejected atmosphere that hangs over the stadium reflect the price of failure, of season after season of losing in the Argentine leagues.

Kreis watches intently from the sideline as his reserves struggle to find a rhythm against Central’s substitutes and reserves mix. Most of the players Central fields haven´t played a professional game since the end of last year. They bring an almost ferocious energy against the neat midfield buildups RSL endeavors to convert into drives to Central´s box.

“Central have ground los yanquis to a halt,” Leguizamon says approvingly about Central’s scrappy performance. Central´s players hunger to the point of desperation for their coach to notice them, to give them a game.

At halftime, Kreis tells his frustrated players to be patient, to make Central come out of its box. His advice seems to work, aided by some changes in Central´s lineup. In the second half, Central Cordoba fields three new players, including an inexperienced goalkeeper who runs out from the goal mouth late in the game to intercept Real defender Dusty Kirby. This offers Real midfielder Andy Williams an easy rebound shot into the net. Two minutes later, Real forward Yura Movsisyan sneaks the ball by several defenders and shoots into the right edge of the goal.

Kreis is pleased with the result. But for Central Cordoba coach Miguel Angel Ibanez, burdened though he may be with his own problems, he feels Kreis faces a tall order. “It´s difficult what he has to do,” he says in Spanish. “It takes time to assemble a team out of new players, for them to get to know each other, how each plays. It´s going to be hard.”

Whether Ibanez was right or not, Kreis would find out, along with 60 LDS missionaries who dragged their folding chairs out two days later for the match against Rosario Central.

THE FIGHT CLUB
“Let’s wake up, boys” one of the RSL players calls out as the second half against Rosario Central starts. Kreis says that the last game of a foreign tour, players often have one mental foot on the plane. But so far, RSL has revealed a dogged determination to overcome its opponents.

Again RSL focuses on low passes, while the Argentines favor long, high, diagonal passes from one flank to the other. Five minutes into the second half, RSL attackers scramble in front of Rosario’s net, defender Nat Borchers back-heeling a goal from a pass from forward Yura Movsisyan.

As the Rosario goalkeeper picks up the ball, he says, in disbelief, “Hacen un gol este?” This team scored?

The game turns argumentative with Beckerman at the heart of a pushing match that ends up requiring coaching staff from both sides to separate the teams.

“Dude, no pasa nada,” a missionary shouts out. Translation: nothing happened.

If Rosario Central underestimated the U.S. visitors, the players’ surprise does not hold them back from Rosario’s star Gonzalo Belloso dispatching an easy penalty.

Ex-Columbian league Real defender Jamison Olave shouts out “Toque, toque, toque,” in Spanish, encouraging his team to pass the ball more. Beckerman takes a rebound of a shot by midfielder Williams and blasts it into the back of the net.

Tempers continue to flare. When several RSL players get into a tangle with Rosario’s Belloso, a female missionary calls out, “Hands off the grandpa-dude!” Whether 35-year-old Belloso would have appreciated such support, if he’d understood it, is debatable. Nevertheless, Belloso, in the last minutes of the match brings it to a 2-2 draw with a perfectly executed header right in front of the goal mouth.

Rosario-based soccer journalist Miguel Martinez had seen RSL play Newell’s and is in attendance at the Rosario match. He admires Real. “They have a very good control of the ball,” he says. “Very tidy, good low touches, they work together well.”

After the match, RSL players cross the pitch and applaud the missionaries. The team mingle with their young fans. One of the Argentine players asks if it is true that you can’t touch a Mormon woman. Later another Argentine player makes his teammates laugh as he pretends to put his arm around a female missionary fan for a photo. He mimicks her saying in a high falsetto, “No, no, no, you can’t touch me.”

COME ON, EVERYBODY
Back on the team bus, Kreis says, “I feel like they’re together.” He seems relaxed, even as he does reserved. “This is the first time our club had a real plan, a real direction,” he says.

If “winning changes everything,” as RSL marketing chief Trey Fitzgerald had said back in Salt Lake City before the tour began, so, as former coach Ellinger knows, does losing. “John´s biggest fault is he couldn´t motherfuck people, couldn´t be a hammer,” Fitzgerald says. “He was more a father figure to the team.”

Kreis says he is neither a father figure nor the distant businessman-model he at times encountered as a player. Rather, he seems a coach intent on writing his own rule book. If there is one constant in the business of coaching, Kreis says, it´s that, sooner or later, you always end up being fired.

Kreis has yet to settle on a captain. Indeed, choosing a captain conflicts with the message he wants to put out to his team that everybody can be a leader. “He wants the guys to care about each other,” defender Chris Wingert says, “and they do.”

RSL left Rosario undefeated but also without a win against the two heavyweights, Newell’s and Rosario Central. Kreis looks out the bus window a moment at Rosario’s sprawling industrial suburbs, then says, almost wistfully, that in the last moments of the game against Rosario Central, “It would have been nice to have kept out that second goal.”

From the back of the bus comes singing in Spanish. “Daah-leee, daah-leee, daah-leee, Ray-al Sal Laiiik,” chorus the Argentine players several times.

“What are they singing?” Kreis asks. “About Newell’s Old Boys?”

In fact, the Argentines, in festive mood, are singing “Go for it, go for it,” for their own team.

Someone shouts out in English to join in. The American players, perhaps, like their coach not understanding what it is they are being asked to chant, remain silent.

For Kreis, the true test of his team will be not only on the Rice Eccles pitch against Chicago Fire but in the locker room afterward. He wants to look his players in the eyes and see if they are walking away or mumbling to themselves like players who don’t care. Or, depending on the result, if in their eyes, he finds bitter disappointment or boisterous happiness. Either way, if he finds emotional commitment to the team, then he will surely be content.

Then again, given how hard he’s worked to craft a team that beats to a single collective pulse, perhaps what he might most hope for when he pushes open the locker room doors is to be greeted with the full-throated roar of 29 voices chanting in Spanish: “Daaah-leee, daaah-leee, daaah-leee Ray-al Sal Laiiik.”