NEW YORK — When Jason Kreis walked into Yankee Stadium on Sunday — his first time in the building since being fired as head coach of New York City FC in November 2015 — it would have been natural if he felt some strong emotions about his return. But he didn't. Not because his one year as NYCFC coach didn't have an impact on him, but more because that season here was such a blur.
So no, there was no walking into the wrong locker room, or staring nostalgically at the famous stadium as he recalled memories fond and not so fond. In fact, it actually seemed to surprise him just how little attachment he felt when he walked around Sunday for the first time as the visiting coach.
"I have to tell you, that the year I was here was such a whirlwind," Kreis told Goal. "I just never really felt like my feet were under me. Even my memories about this stadium are just very fleeting. I just didn't feel settled, and so coming back here there just wasn't a whole lot (of emotion).
"Nothing like it was the first time I went back to (Rio Tinto Stadium)," Kreis said, referring to Real Salt Lake's home stadium, where he coached for seven seasons. "That's a whole different ballgame. I think some of that is part only being here for one year, and some if it is a part of trying to do so many things to get a hold of it that year."
Having already beaten his former club in the season opener, Kreis was far less focused on revenge and more focused on helping his Orlando City team continue its impressive transformation from defensively flawed strugglers to defensively stingy conference leaders. That transformation continued on Sunday with Orlando's 2-1 victory over NYCFC, which helped the Lions jump into first place in the Eastern Conference.
Orlando rode a pair of Cyle Larin goals to victory, but it was also the continued defensive improvement of Kreis' squad that ultimately neutralized NYCFC's dangerous attack. As much as NYCFC has developed into a tough team to beat at home, one formula has proven to be successful at Yankee Stadium: using a high press to punish Patrick Vieira's side for its commitment to building out of the back.
"That was our objective," Kreis said. "I don't think it's any secret that New York loves to build out of the back. They take a certain amount of pride in that, and they're resolute about doing it all the time. So for us, the objective was to see if we could press them in their half and nick a goal, but also just to disrupt their rhythm.
"For me, they're a harder team to play away from home because they've got good footballers, and on this tight field it kind of takes away their advantage of what their special players bring to the table," Orlando midfielder Will Johnson told Goal. "So we were able to keep our lines tight, get the ball wide and get some crosses in on this small field, and Cyle was able to produce a couple of finishes for us."
Johnson is one of a handful of key additions that have been instrumental in transforming Orlando from a poor defensive team to one of the league's toughest sides to score on. Only Sporting Kansas City and FC Dallas have allowed fewer goals than the Lions, who allowed the most goals in MLS in 2016.
"The first and easiest thing to talk about is the (new) personnel," Kreis said. "We have three out of the four (starting defenders) are new to the team. Then you add a guy like Will Johnson, with his defensive mindset and willingness to really just do whatever it takes to help the team defend. So from a personal standpoint we've improved.
"I also think that, from an understanding standpoint, we've improved. We had a preseason to really go over it with the guys, step by step by step. This is how we want to defend, this is why we want to defend, this is where we want to defend.
"Then the third part is it's a collective buy-in by all of the players to recognize, 'I've got to help this team to defend.'"
The collective buy-in is clear to see, and it starts with the team's star attacker. Larin has come into the 2017 in the best shape in his career, which has allowed him to step up his defensive contributions. The improved overall defense, and Larin's stellar form, are the key reasons the Lions are sitting atop the East. It's an impressive accomplishment considering the Lions have been without star midfielder Kaka since he suffered a hamstring injury in the early minutes of the season opener.
With Kaka's return looming, and Orlando still sitting on considerable resources to acquire more attacking help — resources garnered from trading standout midfielder Kevin Molino — the Lions are looking very much like a serious contender in what is still just Kreis' first full season in charge.
Kreis' quest to make Orlando a league power has become his main focus since taking over last summer, and enough time has gone by now that he can honestly say he has put the experience of his time with NYCFC behind him.
“I think each game that we play against New York City, the emotions for me are less and less,” Kreis said. “The attachment is less and less, to the point where this week I didn’t really have any extra motivation.
“For me, it’s about trying to get our team to have a solid road performance. It’s only our second road game, to show that we are a team that can win away. A lot of the hype or the word around town is that we only had four wins because they’re all at home. Nobody can say that anymore.”
"At the end of the day, I'm extremely thankful for the experience that I had here, for the people that I worked with, and for what I learned on an individual basis," Kreis said. "I was able apply everything I thought I did wrong and apply it to (Orlando), and I think we've seen improvements because of that."