By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 13, 2013) US Soccer Players - It wasn’t that long ago that Jason Kreis of Real Salt Lake was Major League Soccer’s brightest new coaching star. After taking the reins in Utah following an excellent playing career that concluded with RSL, Kreis revitalized the club (if such a thing is possible for a franchise only a few seasons old) and led them to a championship in 2009. Since then, all Kreis has done is turn a team in the league’s smallest market into a model of financial efficiency and on-field consistency. All while striving to play an attractive, attacking brand of soccer not typically associated with winning in the American game.
Kreis was almost too consistently successful, at least as far as the “new star” spotlight goes. It doesn’t help, of course, that RSL hasn’t returned to the summit of MLS since 2009. Even with another title mixed in, the attention of the soccer community would probably have moved on to the next fresh faced coach with a love for proactive play. In the event of one arriving, of course.
In 2013, that’s exactly what happened. Caleb Porter, who built his name making the typically ugly college game resemble something from Johan Cruyff’s dreams, landed in Portland and immediately transformed the Timbers. Porter’s project was new, an obvious advantage over the by now old news Kreis, with his six-plus years at Real Salt Lake. Porter brought his fantastic record from college and the reputation as an attacking soccer savant. In one season, he turned the Timbers into an MLS Cup contender on the back of a first place finish in the Western Conference, and he did it while making them an incredibly fun team to watch.
In a league starved for any type of stylistic innovation, it’s easy to see why Porter trumped Kreis as the new “it” coach of MLS. Porter overtook Kreis, at least in the stream of incessant chatter that accompanies each MLS season, as the next big-time American coach. It was Porter who was tapped as a future US National Team boss more often now, Porter who might one day break through the glass ceiling in Europe, Porter who was the most referenced exception to the American coaching rule of long balls and athletic prowess.
Keep in mind that Jason Kreis had done nothing wrong. He hadn’t deviated from his own upward trajectory as an American coaching star. While the number of years he has with RSL makes it easy to take him for granted, his success in making his team a perennial MLS Cup contender with a limited budget while remaining true to their style should be more reason to keep him on top. Kreis has done multiple times over what Porter is doing for the very first time.
And then there’s this, which is easy to forget because of Kreis’s tenure in Salt Lake City: Jason Kreis is only two years older than Caleb Porter.
It all makes you wonder if Jason Kreis’s dalliance with New York City Football Club might be about getting back into the spotlight on some level.
On Sunday night at Rio Tinto Stadium, Kreis reminded us all why he’s just as worthy of the title of “best young American coach” as ever. His Real Salt Lake team took apart the top-seeded Timbers, making use of their unique technical abilities and team cohesiveness to jump out to a two goal lead in the Western Conference final. A host of young players, all identified and nurtured by Kreis, made significant contributions to the win.
Rather than remain overshadowed by the newer Porter in his own house, Kreis served notice that he remains among the best of this particular generation of coaches. Now RSL stands just 90 minutes away from a return to the MLS Cup Final in a season that was supposed to be more about rebuilding the core of the team than contending for any silverware. More highlights to add to the resume.
Not that anyone should quickly forget about Porter and what he has accomplished in his rookie MLS coaching season. Whether we view Kreis or Porter as the top young American coach is mostly a matter of preference. Which is more valuable? Consistency over a number of years, or flashy success in a maiden campaign? Kreis has an MLS Cup. Porter hasn’t yet had a chance to coach for one. Porter needed just a year to take his team to the playoffs, Kreis didn’t lead RSL into the postseason until his second full season in charge.
Head-to-head, it’s all Kreis. Portland has yet to beat Real Salt Lake under Caleb Porter, something they’ll have to do by multiple goals if they’re going to make this year’s MLS Cup Final.
The smart thing to do is to simply sit back and revel in the fact that there are two young, tactically astute, American coaches taking their teams deep into the playoffs in 2013. The spotlight is fickle, and the American soccer public is easily distracted by things that are new. Yes, it’s unfair to Kreis. Ultimately, it will have little impact on the trajectory of his career. Winning, more than the whims of people constantly looking for something else to get excited about, will decide what heights he can reach.
Salient to that point is the second 90 minutes of the Kreis v. Porter matchup the MLS playoffs have given us. If Kreis’s team finishes the job, perhaps he’ll once again get praise he deserves. Then again, if Porter leads his charges to a comeback in front of the home fans in Portland, his nascent legend will only grow.
It’s winner-take-all in the Western Conference. It's also winner-take-spotlight. For now.
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