SEATTLE — Throughout some of Real Salt Lake's most difficult and inconsistent stretches this season, coach Jason Kreis had plenty of detractors in the stands and in the blogosphere.
For all the good things Kreis did to turn the franchise around, there were aspects to the job he clearly was struggling to get right. Not only were his players repeatedly getting stupid red cards, but the team seemed helpless on the road.
Both were major issues, and together they seemed destined to keep RSL out of the playoffs despite continued dominance at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Until RSL's late-season push into the playoffs, many fans had come to the conclusion that Dave Checketts' gamble on a rookie head coach had been a mistake.
Internally, though, Kreis was never on the hot seat. Not with Checketts, not with president Bill Manning and not with general manager Garth Lagerwey. All three believed in Kreis' potential as a young head coach and Real Salt Lake's appearance in the MLS Cup this Sunday further validates that belief.
"You have to understand, just like you do with young players, there may be ups and downs, there may be some dark places and there may be some struggles in there," said Lagerwey. "But as long as he keeps moving forward, now you're going to get what you think you have, which is the raw materials of a truly elite coach."
That sentiment wasn't shared by many during RSL's winless May, or after seeing defender Jamison Olave sent off on three separate occasions this year, but RSL's big brass never wavered.
Kreis' personality, leadership, intelligence and soccer knowledge is why Lagerwey believes his coach is evolving into an elite coach.
Even L.A. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, Kreis' counterpart this Sunday and arguably the most successful American coach of all time, believes in that potential.
"He's a fabulous person, and I'm real excited about his growth as a coach. He got thrown in real quick and he's obviously accomplished a lot in a short time," said Arena.
After becoming a head coach, Kreis contacted every head coach in MLS to pick their brains about the profession, and Arena was one of the most forthcoming. Considering how brief their interaction was during his 11-year playing career, Kreis admitted he was surprised Arena was so willing to share information with a rival coach.
Of all the qualities Kreis has displayed as a coach, Arena said he's been most impressed by his leadership, particularly in the toughest times.
Win or lose against the Galaxy this Sunday, Kreis said he still has a lot to learn as a head coach in Major League Soccer. A win, though, would go a long way toward converting more detractors.
"You win a championship, you'll be around a long time. But if you come up just short, people will forget about it by next year or the year after that," said Lagerwey.
No one knows that better than Juan Carlos Osorio, the New York coach who led the Red Bulls to a runner-up finish last year. With the Red Bulls on pace for one of the worst seasons in franchise history this year, he was fired mid-season.
A similar fate for Kreis seems impossible, particularly with the way he handles the locker room. He believes in "open and honest communication" with his players, something he craved as a player and something current RSL players enjoy.
"As a young coach, he's made some mistakes in the last couple years, but I think his overall understanding of the players and his belief in us I think it's been progressive. I think he keeps getting better at what he does every week," said defender Nat Borchers. "Jason genuinely cares about us on and off the field, which is also special about his personality. I love playing for him."
In terms of experience, the Galaxy coaching staff has a huge leg up on Real Salt Lake heading into Sunday's final. Kreis, however, loves to embrace those types of challenges and will try and win over a few more detractors this weekend.
Real Salt Lake vs.
Los Angeles Galaxy
Quest Field (Seattle)
Sunday, 6:30 p.m.
Radio: 700 AMHeady