Jason Kreis surprised fans on Saturday when he started Olmes Garcia over a fully fit Robbie Findley against Chivas USA.
Findley, a World Cup veteran and the franchise’s third all-time leading scorer had recovered from an injury he’d sustained while scoring his first goal of the season.
Salt Lake staff described Garcia, at 20 years old, as raw and not someone that media or fans should expect to see much this season. Still, he had received minutes and scored an impressive goal the previous week when Findley was out.
"We’ve tried to be fair and make decisions and say, 'Okay, the forwards that are in form, those are the ones that will start,'" Kreis said after the match. "Friday I watched them both [Findley and Garcia] and said, 'Okay they both have looked very sharp this week, but Garcia scored last week so he gets the nod.'"
Truth be told, that’s how Kreis likes to manage his roster. Real Salt Lake's former captain and winningest manager governs his side by a simple philosophy: "The team is the star."
It isn’t just a cliché in Salt Lake. It permeates everything the squad does, from weekly selection to front office moves. Interestingly, the philosophy was developed while Major League Soccer was moving toward a star-driven culture.
In the offseason between the 2007 and 2008 MLS seasons, Kreis had a chance to think about how he wanted to manage his club. He had surprisingly taken over the squad in May, trading in his captain's armband for the chance to coach the side when it became clear that John Ellinger needed to go.
Kreis' ascension as the youngest active coach in the league came just months after the Designated Player rule took effect. The most famous DP in MLS history, David Beckham, had just been signed, as well. The league was structuring the salary rules to enhance its already star-focused league. Yet Kreis chose a different path.
"There was a very clear path put forward, I think, by the league, and it was very much . . . centered around stars," Kreis told Goal.com. "It just seemed really odd to me . . . In every market, the player was more important than the team."
In reading White Angels, a book about Real Madrid, Kreis was stunned to learn how the European powerhouse had managed its players, treating the team as the star.
"The team philosophy of Real Madrid was ... the team is the star," Kreis said. "I thought, 'That’s really odd because that’s a team full of huge egos, hugely high priced players, and some of the best players in the world.'"
Instead of following the rest of Major League Soccer and signing big name star players, Kreis decided on a philosophy that would allow solid players to become stars as the side succeeded.
The philosophy has worked. Since that off-season, Salt Lake has made the playoffs every year, making three conference finals, winning an MLS Cup, and becoming the only MLS side to reach the CONCACAF Champions’ League final.
The key to the whole system, according to Kreis, is that every player on his roster buys in. It matters so much to him that in post-season interviews last year, he asked every player the side planned to keep if he wanted to stay and how badly he wanted to remain. Players were politely told that if they didn’t want to stay, the squad would make it possible for them to leave.
"I have a very set philosophy that if you have a team that really understands what we’re trying to do … they should discipline themselves. They should hold each other accountable," Kreis said. "As part of that, what you’re asking for is complete buy-in."
By all accounts, Kreis has gotten the dedication from his squad.
"[The team is the star] is one of the biggest truths in the game of soccer for me . . . that means that soccer is not about single players. It is about one team," midfielder Javier Morales said. "If you see this team, there are no star players."
Though Morales says he isn’t a star player and doesn’t demand special treatment, Kreis notes that he is comfortable with players getting star-like attention from around the league. The key is that the players aren’t brought in to be stars and treated differently. Rather, they get a chance to prove it on the field. That extends to the way the front office operates as well.
"We’re not going to bring in a big star, high visibility DP. . . . We want to try to spread the money across not just the starting 11 even, but be 20-30 deep,” General Manager Garth Lagerwey said. "[As a result] on some level, we can plug and play."
The belief is that when the team succeeds, individual plaudits come. That’s certainly been true for this Salt Lake squad, which has sent many players to play for their national squads, earned numerous Best XI selections, and is a regular feature in MLS All-Star Games.
Of course, players need reminders, and Real Salt Lake’s squad is no different. In 2011, when Alvaro Saborio, the squad’s all-time leading scorer, was removed from a match against FC Dallas, he protested, refusing to shake hands with his coach, instead walking straight down the tunnel and leaving the field.
Kreis responded by suspending his top forward, not even including Saborio in the starting 18 for the next match.
"You need to remind players that it’s never personal," Kreis said. "Sometimes that’s gonna mean that you don’t get to play when you want to play. But it’s not about you, and it never will be."
Kreis notes that that very public incident is just one of many he has had with members of his squad, and that Saborio has behaved ever since.
Like the Costa Rica international, Kreis was a striker. He was the top scorer in MLS history when he retired. Kreis admits he was a star in his playing days but insists he was reluctant to accept the attention or other acclaim. Instead, his focus was on his team, helping them to win.
"I’m not a big fan of somebody being a star on a losing team," Kreis said. "There is no such thing."
This policy of not bringing in stars has impacted the type of players that occupy Real Salt Lake’s locker room.
"There’s really no star player that’s been brought in here just as a star," Kreis said. "We wanted to try to gain individual success and notoriety through the team and only through the team."
That extends to players like Kyle Beckerman, Morales and Saborio, all of whom are regarded around the league as stars. Yet none of them came to Salt Lake as marquee players.
"You could name any player you want on my team, and we could talk about how they were unwanted somewhere else," Kreis said. "We’re getting a second chance here and have bought into a philosophy that I can build my career, I can build some recognition for myself, if I buy into the team philosophy and if we win."
Before coming to Salt Lake, Saborio had made a big transfer to Europe, but had not played consistently and had effectively terminated his own contract, moving home to Costa Rica to train. Morales had played in the second division of Spain and was hungry for a chance. The Colorado Rapids deemed Beckerman expendable based on his similarities to Pablo Mastroeni. Salt Lake’s Rocky Mountain Cup rival traded the future Salt Lake captain for Mehdi Ballouchy.
"They only got [notoriety] because this team was successful," Kreis said.
Kreis says the philosophy he espouses is probably something he will take with him wherever his future leads. Given his resume, that future looks bright. It isn’t surprising that his name was regularly mentioned in media columns listing potential candidates to replace Bob Bradley.
"I think [the team is the star] is a universal principle for me," Kreis said. "I honestly think it’s the best way to do it in our league."
It has worked so far as Kreis has built a perennial powerhouse in the smallest market in the league.
Tyler G. Page is the founder of www.mlsnations.com.