From player to coach: How RSL turned an MLS joke into the league's new model
By May 2007, Dave Checketts was sick of losing.
In consecutive weeks, Real Salt Lake’s owner had watched his team – then beginning its third season in Major League Soccer – lose 4-0 to fellow 2005 expansion side Chivas USA and then 2-0 at home to the rival Colorado Rapids. After four games, RSL had just two points.
Checketts, a former NBA and NHL executive who had never experienced that level of sustained failure, looked around his franchise and saw one solution. Days after the loss to the Rapids, Checketts fired head coach John Ellinger and general manager Steve Pastorino. When it came to finding a replacement for Ellinger, however, Checketts had one unlikely candidate in mind: forward and team captain Jason Kreis.
On May 4, 2007, Salt Lake announced that Kreis – who only days earlier had still been a player on RSL's active roster – would become the team's next head coach.
Almost as soon as the team had completed its announcement, the establishment voices in American soccer – owners, players, media – began questioning Checketts' decision.
“I got all kinds of comments from other owners; it was like a big laugh fest at my expense,” recalls Checketts, who sold his stake in Real Salt Lake to Dell Loy Hansen in 2013. “It was looked upon as a basketball guy, who had no clue what he was doing in soccer, [asking] one of his players to retire and become the head coach. So yes, I was the brunt of a lot of jokes and I didn't care.”
It was Checketts, though, who got the last laugh.
While Real struggled in Kreis' first year in charge, the very next season the team advanced to the Western Conference Final and in 2009 defeated the LA Galaxy in a surprise MLS Cup upset. Kreis cemented his legacy in Salt Lake by bringing his team to the brink of the CONCACAF Champions League title in 2011 and within a crossbar of the 2013 MLS Cup trophy.
“I suspect that the majority of people thought that [Checketts is] going to fall on his face and this is going to be another really bad decision by Real Salt Lake,” says Kreis. “I think a couple of years [later], after we made the playoffs the second year, [the] conference final, [the] MLS Cup win in 2009, then I think people started to look around and say who else may be able to do this kind of job? Who else may be able to make this transition and can help us transform our club?
“And so I do think that because of an owner having that kind of faith in a person, a player, I think it meant that other owners might be willing to do the same.”
MLS old guard
It wasn't long before teams around the league did exactly that as they searched for their own Jason Kreis. In 2010, D.C. United promoted assistant coach Ben Olsen after only seven months on the job and less than a year removed from his retirement as a player. In 2011, the New England Revolution hired Jay Heaps, fewer than two years after Heaps retired from playing and despite a total lack of previous coaching experience.
“[Kreis' success] set the ball rolling for guys to get chances when previously, you had to have an insane amount of success as a college coach before you'd ever get a sniff of coaching in Major League Soccer,” says commentator Brian Dunseth, who played with Kreis at RSL in 2005.
But in many ways, Kreis' early success has proven a double-edged sword for aspiring coaches around the league. While there's little question that some teams have sought to emulate Checketts' model in Salt Lake, few of the ex-players hired to lead those teams have achieved similar levels of success. Consequently, teams around the league appear less likely now to take a chance on an inexperienced ex-player than they did just three years ago.
This is in part a function of a changing MLS, one that has more institutional infrastructure in place than ever before and fewer of the salary cap restrictions and byzantine roster rules that once made coaching in this league so impenetrably difficult.
And perhaps Checketts, despite his lack of knowledge of and experience in soccer, understood something about coaching that other MLS executives and owners didn't. He compares Kreis to legendary basketball coach Pat Riley – whom Checketts hired at the New York Knicks in the early 1990s – explaining that both men achieved a level of greatness as players and as leaders that transcended their natural athletic gifts.
In Kreis, Checketts felt that he had found both a kindred spirit and someone who had those same qualities he had once seen in men like Riley.
Perhaps there is a player like Kreis in today's MLS who could walk off the field and onto the sideline and find some measure of long-term success. But what front office would take a risk on such an unproven commodity?
“You would think now there's enough of a structure and an identity set up in Major League Soccer that you wouldn't have to be forced into a situation to make such a drastic and risky decision [like Checketts did],” says Dunseth. “I can't see an American player being put in the situation to have this opportunity again.”
The relatively disappointing results of Kreis' successors around the league suggest that Dunseth may be right, that the likelihood of there being another one like him recedes with each passing year.
And yet the template is still out there, waiting only for another Dave Checketts to find his own Jason Kreis.