WASHINGTON—Failure is a brutally honest teacher, and it has a funny way of altering perspective and priority. Jason Kreis thought he knew what he wanted. Now he knows what he needs.
He was far from the first to be seduced by the power and prestige of New York (or Manchester) City, and in his particular case, the allure made sense. Kreis had proven himself on smaller stages but yearned for more. As a player, the fiery forward was an MLS MVP and remains an impressive but anonymous sixth on the league’s all-time regular season scoring list. Yet his Dallas and Real Salt Lake sides typically weren’t very strong, and his 14 U.S. caps seemed low for a player so prolific at the club level. Kreis certainly felt that way.
That disappointment fueled him as a manager. Kreis helped build one of the league’s strongest clubs in its smallest market, crafting a style and ethos that powered RSL to an MLS title and four major finals. Considered the brightest American coaching prospect of his generation, he was driven to prove himself under brighter lights. When offered the opportunity in late 2013 to take over at expansion New York City FC, he jumped at it. It required two relocations, months in Manchester and a year off from coaching. It also required risk, for he had tenure in Salt Lake. But it represented the next logical step in his journey. He wasn’t ready for Europe or the U.S. national team, but an MLS club with that sort of profile and ambition seemed like the smart move.
Except he tripped. Kreis was fired after his first and only season at NYCFC. It was his first major professional failure, and it couldn’t have been more public.
“I don’t look at New York City and say I got a raw deal,” he told SI.com last week in the nation’s capital. “I say [there was] a confluence of things and one of those things, one of those very big things, was that I did some things wrong … from a coaching perspective, from a leadership perspective. I don’t think I did my best job.”
But that confluence also included “what could’ve been better from the club’s point of view,” he said. He spent his unscheduled time off looking not only at how he could improve, but at “what I need from the next opportunity to make sure this situation doesn’t happen again.” And he hopes he found it with an organization that, at least superficially, resembled the one he left.
Orlando City was a 2015 expansion team. It’s owned by a really wealthy foreigner, plays for a demanding fan base and is anchored both on and off the field by stars whose wattage far exceeds anything Kreis handled in Salt Lake. Kreis doesn’t see it that way, however, and when he accepted Orlando’s July offer, it wasn’t to prove he could perform under similar circumstances. It was because of what made the purple City different from the sky blue one.
“Getting fired and walking away from that, I developed basically a whole checklist of items I wanted to be a part at the next club,” Kreis said.
At the top of the list was a fully-stocked, fully-funded academy. NYCFC doesn’t have that yet. Next was a reserve/developmental team in the USL that, along with the academy teams, trained alongside the MLS side. Then came a grass field inside a soccer-specific stadium, a modern training facility, “fully supportive ownership that will do designated players to a certain level,” robust community interest, and so on.
“All of those boxes were checked by Orlando and I think there’s very, very few clubs in our league that could check all those boxes,” Kreis said.
That foreign owner, Brazilian entrepreneur Flávio da Silva, lives in Orlando. That made a massive difference to Kreis, who felt detached from a City Football Group board that managed far more than just an MLS team, made decisions that may have conflicted with the interests of a coach desperate to win that Saturday and was forced to borrow or build everything in New York from scratch. He doesn’t feel that way anymore.
“There’s a much cleaner ownership situation here. I know the owner. I talk to him on regular basis,” Kreis said. “That’s much different than a board that’s in Manchester and an owner that I never met or saw—very much like a corporation and a business. This feels very much more like a family operation. I think it draws a lot of similarities to Real Salt Lake, actually.”
Kreis said Da Silva’s expectations are clear, although he wouldn’t share exactly what those were. Nevertheless, Kreis said that “the direct line of communication to the people that ultimately are writing the checks and making the decisions, those are the people I feel like I need to be able to sit in the same room with … I just feel like I need to have a voice in that room.”
He has it. And that means the pressure really is on, arguably in a far more authentic way than it was in NYC. Kreis has been handed the keys this time, and for now, with a full-time general manager still to be hired, the 43-year-old will have significant say over Orlando City’s rebuilding effort. This is a team whose promising parts never really fit together under former manager Adrian Heath. There is talent in Orlando beyond Kaká and Cyle Larin, but it’s still unclear how the likes of Brek Shea, Carlos Rivas, Antonio Nocerino and others can best fit in and contribute. The defense is the worst in MLS, and Wednesday night’s scoreless draw in Toronto ended a streak during which Orlando hemorrhaged 12 goals in three games.
And the intangibles don’t seem to be there. Following Saturday’s heavy defeat to D.C. United, Kreis bemoaned his squad’s slow starts and admitted that there was “a little bit of a lack of leadership problem in this team.” That now starts with him. There’s a lot to do, and as much as Kreis hopes to steer City (7-10-14) into the playoffs, it heads toward Sunday’s match in Montreal five points out with only three games remaining.
What’s left, barring a minor miracle, is to gauge the chemistry, character and commitment among his current players and start thinking about the future. And Kreis is confident he has one.
“I’m pretty sure I won’t be fired if we don’t make the playoffs,” he said with an ironic smile.
“What’s important to me is to work with the right types of characters, the right types of men, and to know if they’re not the right types of men and the right types of characters that the club would support my decision to move them out, to move on from them or not to play them or whatever,” he added.
He didn’t seem to have that leeway in New York, and there were whispers that he had difficulty managing or connecting with some of the bigger names in the Yankee Stadium locker room. There were no multimillion-dollar salaries in Salt Lake, no World Cup winners, so it’s now a question that will follow Kreis until he proves otherwise: Can he succeed in a place where the team isn’t the only star?
“I’m not egotistical enough to tell you that I think the answer is 100% yes. Do I think that I could do a decent job of managing the right people? Absolutely. I think even in New York, if you go back and ask individual players, you might get a different answer than you expect,” he said.
Kaká wields plenty of power in Orlando, but Kreis said the Brazilian legend has a similar outlook: “With Ricky here and for me, it’s always been about the character of the person, not the name on the back of the shirt or how much money they make.”
Speaking to SI.com on Saturday, Kaká said he believed in Kreis’s potential to handle big names and expectations. It’s hard to imagine that the hiring didn’t get a thumbs-up from the one-time world player of the year.
“He’s smart. He’s intelligent,” the Brazilian said. “He had just one year with New York—his first experience—so he could [learn from it] and now he’s got an opportunity here to coach big players and I think he’s doing good and he’ll be successful in doing that because he’s smart and intelligent.”
Kaká said Kreis was “humble” and that he “listens a lot,” trying to work with the locker room rather than against it.
“He asks everybody what we can change and he never puts the fault on the players,” Kaká said. “Every time [it’s about] what he can do better, what he can change and this is something that I think is very special because not many coaches are like this. I’m happy to work with him.”
If failure in New York ultimately makes Kreis a better coach, then last year’s anguish and embarrassment will prove to be a blessing in disguise. And Orlando will benefit. Either way, by landing somewhere different, he’ll get get exactly what he wanted three years ago. Kreis now has at his disposal the intimacy of Salt Lake, and perhaps some of the stability, combined with a bit of the ambition and largesse of New York. He has the spotlight of a community on him.
“How important the club is in Orlando is unbelievable,” he said.
There’s a ton of potential, and, eventually, there will be no excuses. There’s promise and pressure. This will be the truest test of Kreis the coach, the team builder and visionary.
“That’s the massive thing I’m trying to convey to the players here,” he said. “This club, this community and this city can be something incredibly special and we should all want to be a part of that in the worst way.”