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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.
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.”