SANDY, Utah – When Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis reminisces about the 2011 season, he feels his team did an admirable job fighting through adversity, ultimately reaching the Western Conference Championship.
RSL’s low points this past year are easy to identify: There was the loss of Javier Morales early in the season to a gruesome foot injury and the severe disappointment of ultimately falling in the CONCACAF Champions League final second-leg at home to Monterrey, twin hammer blows to the team a mere 10 days apart.
Ultimately, RSL’s 2011 was a success, all things considered. But Kreis, who is notoriously hard on himself, gave some insight into the emotional roller coaster he and his team experienced this past year in this revealing conversation with MLSsoccer.com.
MLSsoccer.com: How much did that Champions League run at the beginning of the year mean to you?
Kreis: I would say, unequivocally, it was the most important moment of our club’s history – that several-week period where everything was rolling in the right direction and everybody was full of confidence, everybody was happy and everybody was pulling in the exact same direction towards making history. It was the best month or so of my professional career, and I would be hard-pressed to think that anybody that’s part of our club could come up with a better point in their career, either.
MLSsoccer.com: How did the loss of Morales affect the squad?
Kreis: This speaks more to the emotional and psychological aspect than the actual talent that Javier brings. And to be clear, Javier’s a fantastically gifted player. There’s no doubt about it. But I would say that many of the things that he brings to our team have nothing to do with passes, shots, free kicks and those sorts of things – it’s the “glue” that he is to our group.
You see it every single day in training, that he makes the players around him better. He raises their level. He keeps a lot of people in line. So to lose that player, not just for games, but to lose that player even to be around our group for such a long time was devastating.
MLSsoccer.com: How did that affect you personally?
Kreis: Immediately when he went down, I was of the opinion that it wasn’t that big of a deal. The challenge didn’t look that dangerous. It wasn’t super high. I thought it was just an awkward challenge from a player [Chivas USA’s Marcos Mondaini] that shouldn’t be making those kinds of challenges. But it didn’t take very long for Javier to roll over on his back, stick his leg up and have his foot flop down in the wrong direction.
Everyone then recognized that it was very serious. That kind of injury raises nausea levels, emotional levels immediately. It was shortly after Steve Zakuani, too, which was pretty grotesque as well. The thing that came to my mind was, “Is Javier going to play soccer again?” And for me, that’s a big emotional deal. As somebody who’s torn an ACL twice, after the second time, I was pretty convinced I would probably never play again. That brings up a lot of personal feelings as well.
MLSsoccer.com: That came literally 10 days after the loss to Monterrey. How did the team handle that blow so soon?
Kreis: I think those two things point out how important the psyche is in professional sports. Even though we still felt we had a deep team, and Javier’s just one player and we can move past that and just getting into the final, what a great accomplishment [it was] just to get there. Those are things that with just the Xs and Os and the talent we have on the team, we’re still plenty good enough. But that doesn’t give any weight to all the emotional and mental [trauma] of those two grave disappointments in such a short period of time.
MLSsoccer.com: How did your goals change as the season progressed?
Kreis: This year, the one thing that we were completely lacking was the ability to be consistent with our lineups. It made it extremely difficult because I wanted that. And I knew that when we had our strongest team out there, individually and collectively, we were one of the best teams in the league. So trying to alter our goals and focus as the season went along was difficult because, at the beginning of the season, we would have said we wanted to win the Champions League first. But then one of my big goals was to win the Supporters’ Shield and I really felt we had the team to do that.
As the season went along, you get to the point where you have to alter that. The truth of the matter is that we’re playing with a lot of young players. We’re playing with players out of position. We’re scrambling to have enough players to make an 18. We’re calling in academy players to play in our reserve games. We’re basically plugging holes as we go along. And so the goal at that point was, let’s get ourselves into the playoffs and, hopefully come playoff time, we’ll have our strongest players out there which we feel will give us a chance to win a championship.
MLSsoccer.com: For the coaching staff, wow hard was this season to deal with?
Kreis: It was very difficult because – one of the things I have identified and the staff has identified – what you want is consistency. You want consistency in your roster from year to year. You want consistency in the core group of players. In a particular season, you want consistency in your lineup. The more times you put out the same lineup week after week after week – you get stronger as a group as the season goes on.