I was working on this article when word came down that New York City had fired head coach Jason Kreis a few weeks short of his second anniversary with the team. Here's a revised version explaining why CFG sacked him after just one season.
By any measure, Jason Kreis' brief tenure with New York City was tempestuous. Heralded as one of the key pieces in building a competitive New York City team, Kreis was fired Monday after just one season as head coach. How short was his tenure? Consider this: Kreis spent more time in Manchester "learning" City's "philosophy" than he did on the ground as New York City head coach.
Why did CFG fire him, then?
A lot of reasons come to mind, but they can be boiled down like this:
- He disagreed publicly with how CFG was constructing the roster;
- He didn't set up his players in the best position to succeed;
- His players didn't fully buy in into what he was trying to do.
Let's explore these further.
Building a winning team -- or not.
Of these three reasons, the first is likely going to be the most lethal. Whilst CFG waxed lyrical about how he "fit in" with their "philosophy" at his introductory press conference, they nevertheless felt he had to spend nearly a year in Manchester learning just what that philosophy was. That indicates a certain level of wariness about the man they'd just hired.
At first, things went smoothly. But starting with the signing of Frank Lampard, and the subsequent announcement that he'd be playing for Manchester City, instead of training with New York City, Kreis started expressing his discomfiture.
I suspect that things came to a head in May and June. Kreis -- and to a far lesser degree, Claudio Reyna -- desperately wanted New York City's third designated player to be a much younger player than either David Villa, 33, or Lampard, 37. Most rumours indicate that Kreis had set his sights on Colombian striker Fernando Uribe. At 27, Uribe was entering his prime as a player. Given New York City's difficulties in scoring, Kreis saw him as someone who could help David Villa shoulder the scoring burdens. Given his age, he could also help spearhead a youth movement in Gotham.
Instead, Uribe signed with Liga MX's Deportivo Toluca. He's performed well there; in 11 appearances, Uribe has eight goals. New York City was left to start their search all over again.
That's where Ferran Soriano stepped in. Overruling both Kreis and Reyna, Soriano instead set his eyes on Andrea Pirlo. Signing Pirlo, or someone like him, made perfect sense from an off-field perspective. But given how the team was set up to play, it made no sense from an on-field point of view.
Pirlo would be asked to contribute defensively, and heavily, something that he's never really had to do. The results on the field were predictable; time and again, Pirlo found himself overrun by fast, athletic MLS players on the counter. Time and again, Pirlo found himself in the tall weeds, asked to defend. The results were predictable; the Blues went 1-5-1 in the weeks after his signing, as he struggled to adapt to MLS, and the club's faint playoff hopes were all but extinguished.
Kreis made his displeasure known discreetly. The club tried to tamp that down, claiming that Kreis was overjoyed at signing Pirlo. But facts have a way of asserting themselves. It was never clear where Pirlo fit in within Kreis' makeshift system, and it showed on the field, as Pirlo drifted aimlessly in midfield.
For CFG, this kind of failure and dischord must've been intolerable. Who's Jason Kreis to deride signing a player like Andrea Pirlo? He's one of the greatest midfielders of all time! Is he whom he wanted to sign? No. But still -- he's got Pirlo! If he can't make a midfield of Lampard and Pirlo work, then he musn't be that good of a coach.
Give CFG this -- they try exceedingly hard to be an organization low on dramatics. Not for them the histrionics of José Mourinho, for instance. People might accuse them of being trigger-happy with coaching decisions, but the reality is that CFG have worked hard to instill stability in their teams. Roberto Mancini managed City for 3 1/2 years before getting the boot. Manuel Pellegrini, whose placid countenance currently graces the touchline, will likely be managing City for the foreseeable future, should his current success continue.
To have the coach of one of their junior teams criticizing team leadership, however discreetly, must've been a heavy affront. It's no coincidence that Soriano began making his presence much more heavily felt over the summer. It was after one of those summer games, in fact, that I saw Soriano, Reyna, and Kreis deep in the cavernous hallways of Yankee Stadium.
The scene was reminiscent of nothing so much as LBJ giving his notorious "treatment" to a recalcitrant senator. Soriano, a hulking man, towered over Kreis. His finger jabbed sharply downward, towards Kreis' chest. Kreis, meanwhile, stood, jaw jutting defiantly upward, arms crossed. Reyna stood between the two, hands in pockets, shifting nervously from foot to foot, looking downcast, lost in thought.
As I crept closer to catch what they were saying, a Manchester City staffer intercepted me and ushered me away. He claimed that Soriano was expressing his support for Kreis; as a Spanish speaker, having caught the tone of Soriano's words if not their exact nature, I was exceedingly skeptical, and said as much. The staffer repeated his claim, then accompanied me to the elevator.
All that to say: it was clear by the end of the season that Kreis was no longer a company man, if he'd ever been one to begin with. CFG clearly want one helming New York City. By their lights, Kreis had to go.
Searching for stability on the field
Designated Players weren't the only thing that bedeviled Kreis -- or the team. New York City never managed to build a consistent head of steam throughout the season. While the ceaseless turnover on the roster didn't help, Kreis didn't do himself any favors by failing to field a consistent starting eleven. Along with that, Kreis couldn't settle on a tactical setup, switching formations week after week.
More than most MLS coaches, Kreis is a "system" coach. At Real Salt Lake, he set up his teams in a diamond 4-4-2 formation -- a holding/defensive midfielder at the base of the diamond, a creative attacking midfielder at the tip, and two shuttling, box-to-box midfielders on either side. It's a system that has fairly well-defined roles.
That may have been how Kreis wanted to deploy his New York City squad at the beginning, but he found out he lacked the players for that system. He picked up his old RSL stalwart Ned Grabavoy in the expansion draft, but a look at his midfield reveals a ton of pieces that don't necessarily fit together.
Andrew Jacobson, the team's holding midfielder, is actually a box-to-box midfielder. Pirlo and Lampard essentially were penciled in to play the same role as deep-lying playmakers: Lampard because of age, Pirlo because that's where he's played for the vast majority of his career. Mehdi Ballouchy and Pablo Alvarez were right midfielders, but Ballouchy preferred to play in the middle and would constantly drift inside, whilst Alvarez was signed mostly as a favor to Villa, and was mostly ineffective on the field.
It goes on: Javier Calle, widely touted as a speedster, instead turned out to be slow, ponderous in decision-making, and injury-prone. Sebastián Velásquez proved himself too undisciplined to be the team's number 10. Mix Diskerud brought energy, but little else to the lineup -- and even that was erratic. There's more, but you get the picture.
Faced with 12 midfielders that didn't seem to fit together in any tactical sense, Kreis shuffled formations and lineups with dizzying frequency, in frantic search of a working combination on the field. The result was predictable: a team that too often resembled a highly-paid pickup team with no knowledge of how they could play together as a team.
This happened despite spending hours drilling each week during practice. But when formations and lineups change each week as well, those hours of drill are for naught; lessons learned in one game cannot be carried to the next.
Over the course of a season, Kreis went from an "empty bucket" 4-4-2 to a flat 4-4-2 to his beloved diamond to a 4-5-1 and on through a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3. As players tried picking up the nuances of one setup, Kreis introduced another. Rhythm picked up in one game was shredded in the next.
Finally, early into the summer, Kreis settled into a tactical deployment. It looked something like this:
That lineup and formation allowed him to deploy his best combination of midfield talent, such as it was, and helped shield a problematic defense. It placed Diskerud in what's likely his most effective position in the field, and once Poku started displaying his talents, it allowed Kreis to move Diskerud down to where Ballouchy played in order to make way for Poku to play.
It led to New York City's best stretch of the season -- a 5-2-1 run that raised hopes of playoff qualification. But when Pirlo and Lampard -- not to mention Andoni Iraola, Jefferson Mena, and Angelino -- joined the team, Kreis ditched that system in search of a way to deploy the two aged midfielders, whilst covering for their obvious flaws.
Eventually, Kreis settled into a fluid 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation that featured all three DPs, but by that point, the season was lost. Playoff qualification was all but impossible; and by CFG's stated reasoning, Kreis' fate was sealed.
It didn't help Kreis that New York City endured the kind of injury crisis that you only see in video games. That, perhaps more than anything, fuelled his search for a working starting eleven and a working formation; his roster had no depth to speak of, routine for an expansion team.
But the constant change frustrated players, and it frustrated fans. For instance, New York City's breakout player this year was Kwadwo Poku, a young Ghanian whom Kreis discovered whilst searching for an NASL or USL player to sign. Poku draws inevitable comparisons to Yaya Touré, Manchester City's midfield titan. His combination of speed and power consistently frustrated opponents, especially whilst coming on as a substitute. His performances on the field, and his humble, off-field demeanor made him a fan favorite.
But Poku started precious few games throughout the season. After breaking through in the early summer, Poku was essentially sidelined by Kreis as he desperately tried to blend Lampard and Pirlo into the starting eleven. The reaction from fans was obvious -- frustration shifting into fury, as Kreis started players like Grabavoy ahead of Poku.
The reality was more complex. Kreis knew what he could expect from Grabavoy; they'd contended for titles together, and they'd built a wretched expansion team into a league contender. As designated players, Lampard and Pirlo had to start, if for no other reason that it was the only way they'd become accustomed to MLS, and its unique rigors. That left only one spot available in the midfield; if Mix Diskerud was healthy, he'd be occupying that spot, given how much money he was making and his status as a national team player. The result was Poku saw precious little time after the arrival of the Blues' two DPs.
All that change, all that searching simply made life difficult for Kreis, the fans, and the players. And players reacted in the way you'd expect players to react.
There was no buy-in
One way of looking at an MLS roster is as an upside-down pyramid. The vast majority of players in an MLS locker room make between high five-figure and low six-figure salaries. Up until the most recent collective bargaining agreement, the MLS minimum salary was $36,000 per year. That's far below what athletes in the other major American sports make; the minimum salaries are all north of $500,000 per year.
It's now risen to $60,000 per year, but the point remains. Aside from your three designated players, all of whom could make multiple millions of dollars per year, most of the players on a 28-man MLS roster are "lunchbucket" players. You know the kind -- happy to contribute, happy to play, even if it's for pennies on the barrel.
That's how Kreis built his winning teams at RSL; his stars weren't players on the level of Pirlo, Lampard, or Villa. To a man, they embodied an all-for-one, one-for-all ethos that made them formidable opponents on the field. Part of that was due to RSL simply lacking the funds to splurge on players on that level of stardom. But there's no mistaking that Kreis preferred it that way.
That's not the kind of roster Kreis had here in New York City. Aside from players like Grabavoy, Chris Wingert, and Sebastián Velásquez, most of the players signed were has-beens (like Josh Saunders, who starred as LA Galaxy's goalkeeper in two MLS Cups) or never-weres (like Kwame Watson-Siriboe, Jeb Brovsky, and Andrew Jacobson). They weren't players Kreis was familiar with; he might have a reputation as a winning MLS coach, but he lacked the charisma of a Bruce Arena, or the charm of a Sigi Schmid. And these players -- yes, even Jeb Brovsky -- were relatively well-paid for lunchbucket players.
That was even more true when speaking of a David Villa, or an Andrea Pirlo, or a Frank Lampard. Having been led by men like Carlo Ancelotti, Pep Guardiola, and Jose Mourinho, why would any of them give any kind of shrift to what Kreis might have to say -- either in practice or the field?
Think of it this way: can you imagine Kreis going after any of his DPs, let alone benching them, in the way that the Red Bulls' Mike Petke handled Thierry Henry when the French legend dared challenge Petke's authority as a head coach?
You don't have to imagine, because that's the situation that developed over the course of the season. Time and again, his star players challenged his authority in ways subtle and small, but no less damaging and damning. Things came to a head late in the summer, after a loss to Columbus Crew SC on August 29th. In a scathing post-game press conference, Kreis ripped into his players publicly, questioning their desire to win.
"We need to work really hard," Kreis said. "We need to show — the players need to show — if they want to be here and they want to be a part of this. I know the coaching staff does, I know the coaching staff cares an awful lot about this club and about the job we’re attempting to do. But I’m not so sure that all the players do." (emphasis added)
It was, everyone at the press conference thought, a veiled shot at his DPs.
Lampard's response? A verbal shrug, when asked what he thought about what Kreis said.
"I respect the manager for saying that," he said. "Managers and players should be emotional after defeats at times. There’s an all-around spirit in the camp and I don’t see a problem at all. You’ll have to ask every individual, but I don’t feel that. All I feel is something’s off on the pitch, we’re not getting the results and the consistency, but for me it’s not for the want of trying." (emphasis added)
In effect, Lampard dismissed Kreis' words with a verbal wave of the hands. Oh, did the manager say that? I suppose it's cool for him to be emotional after a loss, I guess. But there's no problem that I see. Oh, no, everything's ok here, I'm just going to keep on doing me, thanyouverymuch.
That this was the reaction of the player most responsible, by his deliberate absence, for New York City's apparent trainwreck of a season is all you need to know about how much New York City's stars disrespected Kreis. One suspects, rightfully, that Lampard would never have dared say something like that had Mourinho spoken Kreis' words.
It went beyond that, though. Time and again, even though Kreis drilled the team in set-piece situations during practice, New York City failed to defend those same set pieces during games. When faced with adversity, all too often the team collapsed like a house of cards.
It all came to a head in the team's last game of the season. That game has to rank as perhaps the most lacklustre performance of the season; with nothing but pride on the line, New York City instead delivered an abject 3-1 loss to the New England Revolution.
As fans were still taking their seats, the Revs torched the Blues' midfield and defense to take a 1-0 lead. All through the first half, New York City players, particularly Pirlo and Lampard, seemed to be going through the motions, lackadaisically passing the ball around, before turning it over. Whilst the Blues dominated possession, New England repeatedly threatened to score over and over in surging counter attacks.
They broke through on another counter deep in the first half, and that was effectively that. Not that the Blues looked like they were in the game. To everyone watching the game along with me, it looked as though New York City had officially called it quits on the season -- and Jason Clarence Kreis.
After the game, Kreis spoke with confidence about the offseason. Asked whether he considered the season in full a success, Kreis answered yes.
More of a success. Absolutely. In my opinion, again, the club has to view what we were able to do in this last year as a very successful story. Now, the team, I think, we also can look at this and say to finish the season with 37 points is quite good. To finish the season with 10 wins is better than most of the [expansion] teams since the 2000s. I stated last week that puts us fourth-best expansion team since the 2000s and I don’t want to repeat it. For me, that’s a success.
CFG considered it a failure. Their disagreement with Kreis' assessment was absolute. Their judgment was swift; nine days later, Kreis was gone.
Perhaps it was harsh; I consider it a grievous error, and generally concur with Kreis' assessment, based on the knowledge I've gained following MLS over the last 20 years. But all coaches are hired to be fired. In the end, however unpitying his dismissal may be, it's hard to deny that in every way that eventually mattered, Jason Kreis was just as much the architect of his own demise as CFG.
Let that be a lesson to whomever follows in his footsteps.