On Sunday night, New York City FC celebrated their fourth founding day anniversary with a convincing 3-0 win against Orlando City – their first conquest in four tries against the coach who initially guided the nascent franchise.
On December 11, 2013 – a little less than six months after New York City was founded – Jason Kreis was selected head coach of the MLS expansion side. Four days earlier, his squad at Real Salt Lake lost the MLS Cup final to Sporting KC. Kreis had spent nearly a decade as a player then coach with the Claret and Cobalt where his activities outside of soccer included mountain biking on paths behind his house in Park City.
“I love the mountains and I loved living in Park City,” said Kreis. “There aren’t any mountains in Orlando but it’s nice weather all year round and my family is really happy here. My wife (Kim) was born and raised in the south so it’s been a long time since she’s lived in the south. When your family’s happy, it’s easy to be happy.”
Regardless, the instability in recent years was neither desired nor anticipated.
“Its absolutely been crazy to move from where I had been for nine years, then spend six months in Manchester and almost two years in the New York area and now Orlando,” said Kreis, whose first NYCFC match was against fellow expansion mates, Orlando City. “Things in the soccer world caught up to me. I always thought I was somebody who would stay in places for a long time.
“It was nine years in Dallas (as a player), nine years in Salt Lake City and I was looking for nine years in New York but it didn’t work out that way.”
NYCFC dismissed Kreis after one season.
Orlando City owner Phil Rawlins, who personally delivered Adrian Heath to the Lions when they were still a USL member, fired Heath in favor of Kreis following the midway point of the 2016 season. Kreis, with an MLS Cup title at RSL featured on his coaching resume, warned supporters at his initial press conference that there was no mystic tonic to transform the fortunes of his new team.
“Nobody gets a coaching job for a team that’s won everything or a team with a tremendously successful recent history,” said Kreis. “It doesn’t normally happen that way.”
However, Orlando City supporters had high hopes that Kreis and his new staff could still deliver a playoff berth in ‘16.
“Well, I think those people give coaches too much credit for what we do,” said Kreis.
Year three began impressively for Kreis and the Lions. With a secure rear guard fortified by the arrival of Premier League veteran Jonathan Spector and returning MLS Save of the Week maestro Joe Bendik in goal, Orlando City were top of the table with six wins through seven matches and a stingy five goals permitted to open the season. Conversely, 12 goals conceded in the last five matches serves as a reminder of the ghosts of leaky past.
Orlando City yielded a league high 60 goals a season ago and Kreis bears responsibility to re-focus a group that was shredded by NYCFC.
“We started out the season really, really strong from that point of view,” said Kreis. “We were focused and committed to know that’s where we really needed improvement.”
“That’s one of the jobs of the coach to deliver a consistent message and keep delivering it,” he said. “You’re going to have ups and downs – just be consistent with your message.”
Kreis’ message to talisman Cyle Larin has a refrain of reliability and ruthlessness. The Canadian international was not threatening on Sunday despite nine goals in his previous seven matches against NYCFC. Larin has but one finish in his last six matches.
“If he wants to be a world elite player he has to be an absolute killer all the time,” assessed Kreis. “There have been a few occasions this year when I feel like he’s almost relaxed a little bit – he needs a little more killer instinct around the goal.
“Tactically his identification of when and where he needs to run and what spaces to try to exploit needs improvement,” continued Kreis. “And he needs a little more appreciation for involving more players around him when the ball is played to him.”
Despite declarations that up to four clubs outside MLS have shown an interest, Kreis is not describing a player that is ready for Europe.
“Cyle has two and half more years left on his contract so I don’t think its as big a deal as everyone is making out of it,” said Kreis.
Kreis operated with the MLS leader in goals since 2015, David Villa, in his lone season with Manchester City’s sister club. He remains resentful since his removal but appreciates the remarks from his current players whenever the Lions encounter the team from the Bronx.
“We can all say it is just a regular game, but there is definitely something on the line as far as when you go up against your old team,” Bendik said. “We are aware of the situation and we want to play for him and get him that ‘W’.”
“I guess you want to have players that care about you and want to do well for you – you see those kind of quotes and you like it,” said Kreis. “But it’s not something we’re running around here talking about.”
Although part of the post-match discussion centered on previous comments from NYCFC’s second-year coach, Patrick Vieira, who had been 0-3 versus Kreis prior to Sunday – including a pair of losses in ’17.
“When you look at those games and you look at the chances we create and you look at the way we played – I think in both games this year we deserved more than a loss,” said Vieira.
“I think that we as coaches need to do a better job in respecting our opponents after performances,” said Kreis.
Orlando City had defeated NYCFC, 1-0 and 2-1 before the 3-0 home loss – their first set-back in the new stadium. Larin scored all three goals in the victories.
“I’m not going to stand here and say anything crass and disrespectful, as if we were the better team (tonight),” said Kreis.
With the regular season series compete between the “Cities,” Kreis is attentive to the reality of MLS parity and what remains a project in Central Florida.
“The difference between the top and bottom teams is minimal,” said Kreis. “I knew it was going to take time to build it. There is no replacing time. Now it’s an interesting conversation because despite the good start, we’re a team that needs to improve.”