Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By JOSE M. ROMERO
CASA GRANDE, Ariz. — Real Salt Lake began training camp for 2011 last week, and along with starting the new year, the start of camp also signaled the beginning of a coaching career for one of Major League Soccer's longest-serving players.
Former Chicago Fire standout and new RSL assistant coach C.J. Brown is getting a crash course on coaching, as well as learning Real Salt Lake's style of play and the coaching style of head coach Jason Kreis. With a key CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal at Columbus in less than month, getting the team fit and game-ready is the mission, while adapting to a new role and new career remains key for Brown.
"There's really not a lot of time for them to sit and say 'Let's figure this out, fit in where you fit in,'" Brown said. "It's just like 'Hey, we're in it, let's get after it.' Jason runs a pretty tight ship in trainings, and I've been very happy. He wants me to speak up and give my opinions and he obviously has the ultimate decision at the end, which is right, but he wants ideas and I feel comfortable with that part."
Brown is already adjusting to his new role well, a role that includes being on the other end of coaching staff pranks on players, like the one RSL coaches pulled in camp recently.
Brown and the rest of the RSL coaching staff knew that RSL's players were exhausted after three days of hard practices in training camp. So they devised a plan to make it look like last Thursday's practice was going to include grueling fitness tests.
Cones were set in place. Fitness stations were set up on the field. Kreis went into a full sprint, trying to sell it. The players stood shocked, wincing at the thought of more hard running.
And then Kreis called it off. Players celebrated like they'd won a championship, rejoicing at the thought of a day of rest.
"We knew they needed a break," Kreis said, referring to he and his staff. "I thought, I'm going to wind them up a little bit… we played it up a little bit and then jogged around and showed them here's what you're going to do for this fitness exercise…"
After stretching and observing how nervous the players were for the testing, Kreis announced he was just kidding.
Such is the type of atmosphere Brown has walked into with RSL. Business-like, but mindful of keeping the players rested and loose. Brown, three months removed from his playing days is fitting into his new gig as a coach.
This is the next phase in the life of Brown, a Fire original who took the spot on the RSL staff vacated by Robin Fraser when he was hired to coach Chivas USA.
"You want to be put in the right situation. This is a great opportunity for me because Jason and them, they have a goal to win championships, but they're also willing to help people learn," Brown said. "I need to be in a situation where I can learn, one, to be a coach at this level, and also be with a good organization that's in a good state to win games and be at the highest level."
RSL has a large core of players who've played together for several years and very good depth on the roster. It figures to be an MLS Cup title contender in 2011.
Kreis said he was seeking a new assistant that fit the mold of the kind of coach Real Salt Lake has hired in the past.
"We wanted somebody, probably more of a defensive-minded player because we were losing Robin (Fraser) and we wanted somebody that was really hungry for the job and really wanted to work hard to improve himself and to learn as a coach," Kreis said. "We have some success under our belt as well, and we feel like we can bring a guy that's just stepping into it along as long as he wants to work very hard, and C.J., there's no doubt in my mind he wants to work very hard."
Brown earned that reputation as a defender in Chicago.
"It was always tough to play against him," defender Nat Borchers said of Brown. "I'm looking forward to learning from him and seeing his perspective of the game."
Brown was asked if he thinks about playing again when out at practice.
"Watching Jason's training, the way he sets his training up… I come back going 'Wow, I could still play if trainings are like this, the way they're working,'" Brown said. "But I look at it also going 'I really don't feel like running right now.'"
Coaching has been part of Brown's life since he was 18, when he worked with youth. In Chicago he worked with academy teams and was assistant director of coaching for the Chicago Fire Juniors last year. He said he began to think about coaching in MLS about five years ago.
"I love the game. I'm always around it. I want to be around it all the time. I'm always watching kids play and it's something I want to do," Brown said. "My wife [Kim] knows that. My kids are all into it now. So it's like something I want to stick with for a long time."