That song — "Homecoming", from Kanye West's Graduation album — plays in a mental loop whenever I think of tonight's game. It doesn't help that in the run-up, the prevailing narrative centers on Jason Kreis' return to Sandy, Utah. Utah was where Kreis finished out his playing days as MLS' all-time leading scorer. Where he took over the abysmal team for which he played, and together with Garth Lagerwey, turned them into a perennial MLS contender.
So you can't blame Kreis for asking, if only to himself: do you, Real Salt Lake, think about me now and then?
Regardless: it's too late. Kreis left RSL for NYC in the winter of 2013, in what was the least-surprising head coaching appointment in recent MLS history. And then: nothing. Rather than spending time working with technical director Claudio Reyna and helping craft a competitive MLS roster, Kreis' new taskmasters instead had him marking time for several critical months with Manchester City's youth academy. For all intents and purposes, City Football Group treated the head coach of their new team in the world's media capital as a glorified coaching intern.
I've never understood why that happened. I thought it was weird, and a mistake, back then. I'm even more convinced of it now. Jason Kreis came thisclose to winning a domestic double right before taking over the reins in New York City. Dude knows how to coach — and at a high level. Let's be real here: if Jason Kreis were, instead, Jurgen Kreis, and he'd come thisclose to winning the domestic double in, say, Belgium, there is no way on earth that CFG would've had him cooling his heels on Patrick Viera's youth staff before taking over his team and building it.
I'm sure Kreis picked up a few things there. He's been nothing but complimentary of his experience. That's not the point.
The point is that building a team — let alone a winning team — in MLS is devilishly difficult. It's not the kind of thing that gets done on a wing and a prayer. You have to devote your full energies to it. One of New York City's persistent difficulties is that, eleven games in, the team still hasn't jelled together. More often than not, when you watch New York City play, it looks like you're watching eleven guys who just got together a couple of days ago and have no idea how to play with each other.
This shouldn't be happening at this point of the season. By now, this team should have some kind of identity; the players should have some sense for each other's playing rhythms. And yet, it hasn't happened yet; nor does it show any sign of happening soon. This is one reason Kreis has experimented so much with his playing formations.
Contrast Real Salt Lake. Jeff Cassar took over from Kreis; yet Real's kept winning. Last season, when they were widely expected to crash hard, RSL instead finished third. This year, they're tied for sixth in a stacked Western Conference. A tidy little three-game unbeaten run got squashed with an ugly 4-1 loss to the Montreal Impact. But games like that are a fluke for RSL. Here's why.
Start with RSL's backline, who have a deserved reputation for their impenetrability, especially MLS legend Nick Rimando. Rimando is where penalties go to die. In his career, Rimando has faced 68 penalties; 25 have missed. He's saved eight of the last ten he's faced. In front of that line roams Kyle Beckerman; then John Stertzer and Luke Mulholland accompany one of the league's best number 10s in Luis Gil. Finally, Alvaro Saborio and Devon Sandoval give RSL their scoring punch.
Kreis, obviously, is familiar with all this. Here's how they'll probably line up:
That 4-1-3-2 — what some would refer to as a wide diamond — has been RSL's staple for the better part of a decade. Each player in RSL's roster knows their place in the system, and what they need to do to make that system work. If Saborio can't go, Joao Plata steps in; if Beckerman's unavailable, in comes Javier Morales. Whatever the circumstances, whenever adversity strikes, RSL has something they can fall back on.
That system is what New York City lacks. They lack it for any number of reasons, but the two big ones are:
- lack of familiarity with one another.
- a roster full of disparate parts.
For this lineup to work, though, Diskerud has to step up his game. Aside from New York City's inaugural home game, Diskerud has been all too anonymous in the midfield. He's grown too accustomed to playing too conservatively, spraying short passes, and all too often in the wrong direction. On top of that, he needs to be much more aware defensively; then on a flash, flip that defensive interception into an offensive play.
There's only one problem with that: Mix Diskerud is neither a buccaneering midfielder, nor a defensive stalwart. And the only thing that would make him a Norwegian Pirlo is his hair. He's not a deep-lying playmaker. He's not going to be.
It's a testament, then, to how shoddily constructed this roster is that Kreis has used five different formations in eleven league games. Diskerud isn't the only miscast player; Jacobson isn't a defensive midfielder, Wingert is a left back, not a center back, and on it goes. Kreis' search for formations is really a search for how best to utilize the pieces he's got. That, in turn, keeps the team from jelling and developing any rhythm. Add to that an epic injury crisis — one that's particularly ravaged the defense — and you have the ingredients for a rapid spiral into oblivion.
I can't help wondering what would've happened had Kreis and Reyna been working together — in New York City — from the moment Kreis was hired, much the same way that Kreis worked hand-in-glove with Garth Lagerwey. Maybe New York City wouldn't have signed an Ecuadorian defender who never saw any playing time. Maybe their expansion draft strategy would've been different. There's all kinds of what-ifs that can occupy the mind.
In the end, you can't really go home again. But like the song goes, maybe New York City can start again. They ended one streak on Friday; let's see if they end another tonight, and start again.