Jason Kreis emerges from NYCFC struggles to inspire Orlando City
SAN JOSE, California -- As Jason Kreis sits down before a midweek game against the San Jose Earthquakes, he looks a man back in his element.
The Orlando City manager has just returned from practice, and the laptop he carries hints that the day's work is far from done. Yet there is an enthusiasm bubbling beneath the surface that reveals he is in sync with his environment. He's once again building a team into a contender; playing with a style that is easy on the eye. Results this season have largely been positive, hinting at the possibility of greater success to come. And the organization around him is supportive of his approach.
That hasn't always been the case during Kreis' coaching career. His initial foray into management with Real Salt Lake spoiled him in a lot of ways. He had an owner in Dave Checketts who invited plenty of criticism by hiring him back in 2007 even though he had no previous coaching experience. He also worked with a general manager in Garth Lagerwey, who was adept at massaging the salary budget and who largely shared Kreis' view of which players would work in the coach's preferred system.
Yet after Kreis decamped for New York City FC after the 2013 season, the opposite was true. Even though, as an expansion team, there were bound to be stumbles, expectations were as big as the city to which he was moving. So were the reputations of some of the players acquired, like David Villa and Andrea Pirlo. A philosophic disconnect soon emerged, and a disappointing season ended with Kreis being shown the door.
"I just never felt like I got to build that [trust] there in New York, whereas in Salt Lake I built it," said Kreis in an exclusive interview with ESPN FC. "I think some of it was intrinsic because of the relationship I built with Checketts, even when I was a player still. I never really felt like I was afforded the opportunity to really cohabitate with the decision-makers in New York City. In Orlando, I had a very clear idea of that's something that I needed, something that I as a leader need to have. I literally wouldn't have taken another job if it had been similar to the New York job. That was something knew needed to be different."
Yet at first glance, Kreis appeared to be landing in a very similar situation. Orlando had a hands-on owner in Flavio Augusto da Silva, who had a yearn for big-name players, regardless of how they might fit into the team. But Da Silva, along with then-GM and founder Phil Rawlins, gave Kreis assurances he would be able to run the team as he wanted, and that has been the case. Instead, one had to look back further in Kreis' career to find commonality.
"Orlando feels to me more like a family affair than New York, and very much in line with RSL," said Kreis. "I think Orlando and RSL are very similar clubs in the way they started. RSL was David Checketts and his family that really owned that club; his sons, his wife. I feel the same with Orlando in that the Rawlins really started that club, Phil and (wife) Kay and their sons were involved with the club at a very organic level. Then both clubs needed more funding and got it. But I think both ownership groups have tried to continue what was started, and not wanting to change the identity of the club."
That Kreis finds himself in an organization that is a better philosophical and psychological fit doesn't mean he views himself as a victim of circumstance in New York. In fact he is almost withering in his criticism of the job he did with NYCFC.
"I could have coached the team better. I could have run the preseason a lot better from a tactical perspective," he said. "I could have worked with some of the leaders on the team better, in a different way. I went into that job basically with a club on cruise control in RSL. I went into the New York job still thinking I was on cruise control and doing things with a group like it had been together for seven years, and not recognizing that this was a brand new group and they needed a lot more work. I think from that perspective, I could have done a lot of things better. I think I could have been a better communicator with the people above me as well."
To get an idea of just how deep Kreis' self-examination went, you need only look at the steps he took to broaden his coaching knowledge after he was let go. He took Spanish courses and also did the USSF Pro License course, where one of the guest speakers was David Moyes, who knows a thing or two about how a move to a higher-profile job doesn't always work out.
"Moyes took this bigger job at Manchester United and got fired pretty quickly, so I drew from a lot of what he was saying," said Kreis.
Kreis also sat in on training sessions with Bruce Arena when he was still with the LA Galaxy, as well as old club teammate Oscar Pareja with FC Dallas.
But the biggest boost of all came from then-U.S. national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann, who added Kreis as a de facto assistant coach. Kreis did scouting work before Copa America and also ran sessions during the 2016 January camp.
"To be fired after one year, frankly that's a blow to your confidence and you're ego," said Kreis. "You do spend a month or two questioning yourself. So to get back on the field again and running training sessions with the national team, and helping Jurgen from that perspective, and getting positive feedback from him and Berti Vogts, who has such a tremendous coaching history, and also the players, that was really necessary for me. It helped me heal for sure. It made me feel like: 'Okay, I actually do know what I'm doing.'"
Those experiences are now serving Kreis well in Orlando. His relationship with star midfielder Kaka seems more honest and open compared to when Kreis was managing Villa and Pirlo in New York.
"Kaka leads by example; he's interested in trying to help me convey the message to the rest," he said. "He shows that he believes in what the coaching staff is about and the direction we're taking. And he's very tactically savvy, very intelligent player that can give you a different perspective sometimes if you ask for it."
How often do you ask him?
"Pretty often. I'm a pretty open-minded guy. I don't feel like I know everything. I'm constantly trying to learn and constantly trying to improve. Not all the time, but I do ask him."
After Wednesday's 1-1 draw with the San Jose Earthquakes, Orlando is now 6-3-2 on the season and firmly in the hunt for the playoffs. The frontline pairing of Carlos Rivas and Cyle Larin has been lethal, while Jonathan Spector has been a big addition in the back. Antonio Nocerino has been resurrected into a consistent contributor and old Kreis favorite Will Johnson has been converted into an outside back.
But while he and general manager Niki Budalic have done plenty to revamp the team's roster, Kreis insists that the biggest improvements this season have come from "intangible stuff" such as the team's competitiveness, experience and willingness to fight for one another.
"The best way to say it is we're all pleased and happy about the start we've had, but we're not content," he said. "I think our whole team and our club has a very realistic self-opinion, which is that maybe people thought we were better than we were. We're happy with where we are, but we know we need to improve. We haven't been together very long. There's a lot of room for improvement in almost every facet of our game."
With Kreis back in an environment where he can thrive, Orlando is poised to do the same.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.