Let's make something clear from the start: Jason Kreis should absolutely be feeling pressure as New York City FC head coach. He's not in Sandy, Utah anymore. He's leading a team in a city whose attention Major League Soccer is desperate to capture. He's got more financial and scouting resources than any other MLS coach, and it's not even close, by a laughably unfair margin.
CFG hired Jason Kreis not on potential, but on promise that was already realized. People refer to Kreis as the best young coach in Major League Soccer not because of his potential, but because of what he's already done. That's a huge reason why CFG hired him in the first place. With Claudio Reyna lacking knowledge of how to build a winning team, New York City needed someone with the capacity to backstop the front office and build the team into a perennial contender. Kreis fit that description.
This season — dreary as it all too often was — served to obscure that, so before I continue, let's review what he accomplished in Sandy, Utah.
What Kreis did in Utah
Kreis took over as head coach of Real Salt Lake on May 3, 2007. He'd been the team's captain as they struggled to a 5-22-5 record in their inaugural season, but after a slight improvement in 2006, the team started 2007 with an 0-2-2 record. He became the youngest coach in MLS at 34 years of age, retiring in order to coach the team.
Whilst RSL finished the 2007 season with a record of 6-15-9, Kreis overhauled the team's roster over the course of the year. The following year, RSL climbed to third place in the Western Conference, qualifying for the playoffs for the first time.
In 2009, Kreis led RSL to the playoffs again. RSL knocked off the defending MLS champions Columbus Crew over two legs, then raised their first MLS Cup, defeating a relatively star-laden — for MLS, anyway — LA Galaxy in the final.
Kreis continued his success as RSL coach in 2010 — his team were the first American club to win a CONCACAF Champions League group, going 4-1-1 in the process. They made the playoffs again, but couldn't defend their title, falling to FC Dallas in the Western Conference Finals.
In 2011, RSL came closer than any American club ever has to winning the Champions League, falling to Monterrey 3-2 on aggregate. They were only the fourth club ever to tie a Mexican team on Mexican soil. They were also successful in MLS, finishing third in the league, making the playoffs yet again, but falling to the Galaxy in the Western Conference Finals.
Finally, in 2013, RSL came agonizingly close to capturing a domestic double, falling to DC United in the finals of the Open Cup, then losing an epic 20-round penalty shootout to Sporting Kansas City in the MLS Cup Final.
Why did I spend so much time reviewing Kreis' record? Because, based on this season alone, there's a narrative out there that Kreis is, if not an outright bad coach, then definitely mediocre.
To which I say: Please. I mean, please.
This is not the record of a mediocre coach, let alone a bad one, by any stretch of the imagination. And if you think it is, then fans of the Chicago Fire, Colorado Rapids, Philadelphia Union, Toronto FC, Montreal Impact, Houston Dynamo, and Real Salt Lake would like to have a strong word — or a dozen — with you.
Kreis coaches in a league that just this season, still employed fossils like Franks Klopas and Yallop, not to mention Owen Coyle, who was last seen blundering about in the nether regions of the English Championship before somehow surfacing in Houston.
Are we seriously saying that Kreis — who took RSL in three years from the cellar to the championship, and left it thisclose to a domestic double — is a worse coach than Klopas and Yallop and Coyle? On what basis? On the evidence of this solitary season's work?
Fine. Then let's review what Kreis has dealt with since becoming New York City manager. That's the only way to do it justice.
Is New York City FC part of a coherent greater whole?
On December 11, 2013, Kreis was named manager of New York City. Rather than get down to work immediately with neophyte technical director Claudio Reyna in crafting a team, he was instead sent to Manchester City to, essentially, serve a coaching internship. As the press release announcing him as manager stated,
"During this time, Kreis will be immersed in all aspects of Manchester City FC, observing in particular, the club’s approach to coaching, training, and player development, with the goal of applying similar approaches to New York City FC."
As Huan Nguyen and Austin Fido of Once A Metro have ably outlined, there's lots of virtue in having managers of an inter-connected group of clubs reading off the same pages in the hymnal. That's what's happening with the Red Bulls, whether in Leipzig, Salzburg, or New York.
That's not what's happening with City Football Group, at least in any discernible fashion. CFG owns Manchester City, New York City, and Melbourne City, and has a minority stake in Yokohama F-Marinos. But that's where the similarities end. Unlike the Red Bulls, the City clubs don't operate off one unified tactical or strategic playbook.
John van't Schip's teams tend to play in a 4-3-3 with counter-attacking tendencies. Pellegrini's teams line up in a 4-5-1. Kreis, meanwhile, has used everything from an empty-bucket 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3. There's no evidence — at all — that CFG clubs approach the game from the same perspective.
Moreover, what of Manchester City's "approach to coaching, training, and player development"? What of it? It's not at all clear that there's an actual approach, beyond spending lavishly. I don't say that derogatorily; having near-unlimited resources is a wonderful thing, and can be a difference-maker.
But they're a means, not an end. In researching the club after their takeover by what's now CFG, I get the distinct impression that, all too often, they get used as an end, not a means. It takes time for a club to craft a distinctive process in how they approach the sport — whether that club is Barcelona, Ajax, United, Bayern, or even the Red Bulls.
Time. And patience.
It's hard to say how patient CFG are; they've only been in charge of Manchester City since 2008. But they've shown little mercy in dismissing managers should they fall short of expectations. Mark Hughes, who was hired shortly before CFG took over, made way for Roberto Mancini. Mancini managed Manchester City for three-and-a-half years, winning the FA Cup in 2011 and the Premier League in 2012, but got sacked after an insipid loss to Wigan in the 2013 FA Cup Final, and an even more insipid title defence.
In his place came Manuel Pellegrini, who promptly won the Premier League in 2014, but after failing to defend the title this past spring, he faced dismissal as well. Instead, he received a vote of confidence from CFG, as well as additional reinforcements in his player squad.
Let's talk about the squad for a second. Kreis' internship made much hay of him observing how Manchester City developed players, but a look at their first-team roster belies those claims. It's more accurate to say that other clubs have developed City's players for them. With the exception of Kelechi Iheanacho, every player for City has come from elsewhere.
Maybe Iheanacho is the start of what will become a torrent of in-house talent. Maybe! But it's far more likely that City will continue doing what they've been doing since CFG's takeover in 2008: importing high-priced talent to address shortcomings in the squad.
We can't really speak to Melbourne City; for the most part, they've been left alone to make their way in Australia's A-League. That said, John van't Schip's squad made the playoffs last season, and have started out this season well. But his roster is almost entirely made up of Australian players. While I'd guess van't Schip has just as much access to CFG's largesse, he's notably chosen instead to quietly build a roster and team on his own graft.
That brings us to New York City. Kreis spent most of his first few months as coach in Manchester, helping Patrick Vieira (who might wind up his replacement) with the Elite Development Squad. There, Kreis had the chance to see potential players for his New York City team. Presumably, that's how Shay Facey and Angelino came to join the team.
That's not bad, at all. In retrospect, though, it's hard to think that was a useful expenditure of time. Did Kreis — a coach who'd had singular success at RSL, remember — really need to spend months hanging out with Vieira? Especially since it's not like he brought a unique tactical approach back with him.
Don't get me wrong; I'm sure Kreis enjoyed the professional development. But was it the wisest thing for him to do considering he needed to stand up a team from scratch? Would it not have been better for him to stay Stateside and do what van't Schip has done in Melbourne? We'll never know, because that's not how things have turned out.
Building New York City's roster & the Lampard fiasco
New York City signed a handful of players — notably, the team's first designated player, David Villa — whilst Kreis was in Manchester. Then came the signing that, more than any other, has defined New York City for better or worse.
Let's not rehash the sorry series of lies that have marred Lampard's time in New York City. Let's instead focus on Lampard the player. It's that aspect that best illustrates Kreis' difficulties as New York City coach.
Kreis' teams in Real Salt Lake were notorious for their all-for-one, team-above-all ethos. David Villa fits that ethic admirably; more than most players, he carried New York City on his back, throwing himself into defensive work on the field, and representing himself as a New York City player off it.
You can't really say that about Lampard. For one, he didn't fit Kreis' presumed tactical approach. Kreis' RSL teams lined up in a diamond 4-4-2. That formation requires two shuttling midfielders on either side, a defensive/holding midfielder to destroy opposing attacking forays, and a creative "number 10" up top.
Lampard fit exactly none of those requirements, especially at his advanced age. He'd traditionally been the furthest-forward midfielder in a 4-3-3 at Chelsea; whilst he'd been employed as a number 10, and had done work as a number 6, in reality he was a number 8, surging forward to score his goals.
Moreover, his signing reeked of a player being foisted on a team for a purpose other than on-field contributions. That's not just me writing; I've lost track of how many people defended and continue to defend his signing based on a presumed ability to sell tickets.
There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. But it's a bit hypocritical to sign a player to move tickets and merchandise, wholly and consciously ignorant of that player's potential on-field impact, or lack thereof, and then hold the coach responsible for that specific failure.
It's even more damning when you sign that player, then lie about signing that player in order to pull a fast one with the team that player's really going to play for, then lie about when that player's going to actually play for the team you've told the whole wide world he's playing for, then sheepishly sort-of admit you've been economical with the truth, then not have that player actually take the field for his original, supposed team until deep into that team's season, when his presence has been rendered academic to the team's success.
Yes. That happened. In that fashion. Yes, I'm still furious about it. It's one of the most egregious breaches of faith a team's ownership has ever committed, and I'm a Cleveland Browns fan. It's wholly unprecedented — I have found no other example of a team announcing they signed a player, only to have that same player play an entire season for an entirely different team that they signed a contract with.
For that reason alone, CFG shouldn't just keep Kreis. They should extend his contract and they should be bending over backwards to sign whatever players he wanted. Let's be clear, though; that didn't happen. Not by a long shot.
The expansion draft and the Reyna factor
Kreis spent most of 2014 shuttling back and forth between Manchester and New York City. Again: it's hard to quantify what that meant in player scouting, but when it came to player acquisition, it meant that New York City lagged badly. Soon, it became apparent that New York City would be doing the bulk of their player acquisitions through the expansion draft. For Orlando City, stocked with young players, the expansion draft was more of a luxury, a way to get needed MLS experience. For New York City, it was a necessity.
At the time, everyone, myself included, lauded New York City's work in the draft. For the most part, their selections wound up being major contributors to the team this season. Seven of the team's ten picks wound up seeing playing time. But where New York City could've acquired young players for the future, Kreis instead wound up doing the same thing Adrian Heath did for Orlando — selecting tried-and-true MLS veterans in Ned Grabavoy and Chris Wingert, for instance. It was the safe move, and by and large, it paid off for him.
Where Kreis' absence becomes more of a factor is in whom New York City signed outside the draft. Let's review those signings quickly:
- Josh Saunders - one of two candidates for team MVP, and it's not even close.
- Jeb Brovsky - hasn't even made the bench in months.
- Kwame Watson-Siriboe - disappeared from the team before making a late-season pair of cameo appearances.
- Andrew Jacobson - despite being a box-to-box midfielder, was the team's rock as a defensive midfielder.
- Akira Fitzgerald - never featured for the Blues, got waived.
- Adam Nemec
- Javier Calle
- Andres Mendoza
- Mix Diskerud
You know my take on Diskerud; I won't rehash it.
I have it on fairly good authority that it was Claudio Reyna, not Kreis, who was responsible for the acquisitions of Javier Calle, Adam Nemec, and Andres Mendoza. Even for random MLS player signings, these three stand out in their ineptitude.
Mendoza, billed as a talented central defender who could anchor the back line, proved to be anything but. Instead, he was utterly unready for the rigors of playing in a much better league in a vastly different country. He never played a minute for New York City; Kreis deemed him so raw that he sent him to Wilmington, the club's USL affiliate. In turn, Wilmington's coaches realized he was so bad, they compared him to 'Hat Trick Rick' in the Discover Card commercials, and sent him right back to New York City.
Nemec was touted as the hold-up striker needed to pair up with Villa. He was anything but that. Infamous for being unable to score outside of Slovakia or the Slovak national team, Nemec was picked up from a struggling Union Berlin in the 2. Bundesliga. He promptly demonstrated why they let him go, showing precious little ability to play in MLS. That's okay if you're paying him spare change.
Instead, once the salary lists were released, it turned out New York City were paying him $300,000 a year. Given that the Slovak Chuck Liddell hadn't even graced the bench since May, the outrage was palpable. He was promptly released afterward, having made no impact at all.
Finally, Calle. The Deportivo Medellin left midfielder came in with much intrigue; reputedly, his loan from Colombia cost New York City $1 million. It didn't; he was paid $200,000. But even at that level, for his production, that price was outrageous. Calle spent most of the season injured; when he wasn't, his ponderous, shambolic performances made mockery of his paycheck. He will not be missed.
The 2015 season
From that dross, Kreis was forced to craft not just a roster, but a winning roster. He found it difficult. Anyone would. We're talking about players who've never played together, for the most part, trying to figure each other's playing rhythms out, on the fly. No wonder that, early in the season, New York City resembled nothing so much as a highly-paid pickup soccer team.
On top of that, New York City got scythed down by a surreal injury crisis. At one point, most of the playing roster was struggling with some kind of injury. No sooner would one player heal than two more would be cut down. The two factors combined to mire the Blues deep in the cellar of the league; aside from a victory against New England in their home opener, things looked bleak. New York City ended May with a record of 1-7-5.
Thirteen games. One victory.
Somehow, Jason Kreis managed to knit together a working team. Between June 6th, when New York City defeated Philadelphia 2-1, and July 26, when they hammered Orlando 5-3, the Blues crafted a 5-2-1 record. It looked like New York City had turned a corner. At 6-9-6, on 18 points, the playoffs were a plausible possibility.
Reinforcements were on the way, too — additions to the defense and midfield. These players, though, weren't carefully selected. The late-arriving Frank Lampard and newly-arriving Andrea Pirlo, as well as the additions of Manchester City youth player Angelino and Athletic Bilbao legend Andoni Iraola disrupted a painfully-earned, fragile rhythm.
Of the four, Angelino -- an 18-year-old youth player -- was probably the best player, and it's not even close. Iraola played in a few games as the summer drew to a close, but was quickly exposed as a defensive liability, and he didn't play significant minutes as the season drew to a close.
Think about that for a second: a teenager, whom Kreis likely scouted out, was the standout player in a group featuring the greatest modern English midfielder, the greatest modern Italian midfielder, and a Basque defensive legend.
[SIDEBAR: Let's talk about Iraola for a quick moment. The minute word came down that New York City signed him, there was no lack of people signing his praises. Very few people, aside from myself and a couple of others, paused to ask a very pertinent question. Namely: Iraola is Bilbao's captain. So, um, why are Bilbao letting him go just like that? Could it be that he no longer can perform at an acceptable level?
Those concerns were roundly dismissed. They were, it turns out, valid. Iraola wound up the season on the bench, after hilariously demonstrating just why Bilbao let him go like a pair of Zubaz shorts. He was an utter defensive liability, leaving the right side of the defense wide open game after game. He was replaced by RJ Allen - someone whom New York City literally signed off the street, whom Iraola, with his sleek European pedigree, was supposed to himself replace.]
As Kreis tried to figure out how to blend in his reinforcements, New York City lost back-to-back games, including a third straight to the Red Bulls. They beat DC United, but a 5-1 rout at the hands of the LA Galaxy made things brutally clear:
New York City wasn't going anywhere, fast.
That New York City finished with a record of 10-17-7, somehow in playoff contention until October, is testimony to Kreis' skill as a coach. Aside from the draft, and the acquisitions of Facey and Angelino, there's little evidence that Kreis has had significant input in player signings. He's been scrambling to jam together usable lineups with the pieces available to him, showing a marked degree of tactical flexibility in the process.
If it sounds like I'm demanding your agreement: yes, I am. Lesser managers would've buckled; lesser managers would've finished with a far more dreadful record. As it stands, only Seattle, Montreal, Orlando, and Portland have won more games in their inaugural season.
Wait, there's more. New York City isn't just any team; it was a club started from scratch. MLS expansion teams have been split in two camps; teams that have effectively been promoted, and teams that were started ex nihilo. Those teams have a dreadful record in MLS.
How dreadful? Let me count the ways. Their combined record is 325-450-287. None has had a winning season out of the gate; in 33 combined seasons, 21 have been shot through with failure. It's taken them an average of four-and-a-half seasons to enjoy their first winning season. Toronto FC still hasn't had a winning season, in fact; they finished 15-15-4 this year. Of the 12 winning seasons those teams have enjoyed, one team has half of them.
Yes, that would be Real Salt Lake.
Sure, Kreis accomplished that with the help of Garth Lagerwey, who's staked a serious claim to being the greatest general manager in the 20-year history of the league, but still — that's a stunning achievement. Take away that horrific start to the season, when everyone was feeling their way for the light switch whilst hobbling on crutches, and New York City's record is 9-10-2.
And CFG wants to replace Kreis with Patrick Vieira? Really? I mean: really? For what reason? Because he didn't win enough? You're going to hobble the guy you hired to lead your $100 million team, force him to endure a coaching internship of somewhat dubious value, foist signings he'd rather not have on him, and after somehow piecing together a roster that manages to be competitive, give him more signings he doesn't want, and after all that — you're going to fire him?
Let's talk about why this is even a notion. It's because he dared express presumably valid differences of opinion, based on his earned experiences in a league in which he's been remarkably successful given the context. He dared express those differences with an ownership that's largely shown itself to be mind-bogglingly, stupefyingly obtuse in its dealings with the wider world. That ownership doesn't like it. They know best.
They know so much, they signed one player more famous for breaking his arm swiping cherries from a tree than scoring goals. They know so much that every single effort they've made at siting a stadium has been met with opposition so stout, the efforts have been dead before arrival. They know so much that they're actively considering firing the one coach who's been able to figure out how an expansion team can win in favor of a youth team coach who's never coached a senior team, at any level.
This isn't Manchester City, whose fans were desperate for someone to display a baseline degree of competence in team management akin to breathing oxygen. This is New York City. Gothamites were perfectly content to ignore Major League Soccer on their doorstep for two decades. They will be perfectly content to ignore it for another two decades. Flash however much cash you will, it matters not; this is where money sleeps and wakes, and people will simply yawn.
Frankly, this has to be a little humiliating for Jason Clarence Kreis. Has to be. If I were in his shoes, and another team came calling, I'd at least listen. If I liked what I heard, I'd think hard about moving on. And if I were to leave, either because I got fired or because I got a better offer, I'd be looking forward to the next time I played New York City.
And I wouldn't blame him if he ran up the score, just to prove a point. I'd hate it; oh, I'd hate it. But with every goal, I'd know whom to blame. It wouldn't be Jason Clarence Kreis. He'd just be showing those who know best just how little they really know.
New York City basically has one shot at being the flagship team for the decade or two of MLS history. But nowhere is it written that it has to be them. It'd be a damned shame if they blow it making the same old damned mistakes that every other fool with money has made in MLS. CFG don't have to be the newest fool in the market.
They're just choosing to be. We're just going to be the people paying for it.