New York City FC should let Jason Kreis manage as he knows how to
In the 66th minute of New York City FC's 2-1 loss to Dallas on Saturday -- a defeat that surely, finally, ends the expansion side's faint hopes of making the playoffs -- Jason Kreis made a double substitution. The players he brought on were Mix Diskerud, a U.S. national team regular who has shown indifferent domestic form this season and Kwadwo Poku, a still raw midfielder who has been one of the few players to enhance his reputation in this difficult debut season for NYCFC.
There was nothing particularly remarkable about that pair of substitutions, other than the players they replaced and the player already sitting on the bench after halftime, having been replaced by a striker in his second season as a professional.
Andrea Pirlo. Frank Lampard. David Villa.
Time was, you'd have wondered what embarrassment of riches a team had that they could afford to withdraw that trio and their collections of World Cup, Champions League and domestic league titles. But that time was not a sweltering evening in Texas in September 2015.
As has been the case for weeks since his promising debut, Pirlo was more remarkable for his errors on the defensive side of the ball than anything he did with it creatively. Lampard too was following a familiar trajectory in starting strong then drifting out of the game, as the conditions and surrounding younger legs combined to marginalize him.
Four minutes after the pair went off, New York City got a goal back from Patrick Mullins, the man who had replaced Villa at the half. While Dallas would hold on to win the game and keep pace in the Supporters' Shield race, New York at least had the legs to compete in midfield for the rest of the game and produce the coach's meager consolation of "winning the half."
It's the coach who is the most fascinating figure in what is happening with New York City. In subbing out Pirlo and Lampard together, Kreis could have been making a pragmatic gesture to acknowledge the conditions and deploy livelier if less-nuanced reinforcements for the remainder of the game. But after watching the way events have unfolded between City Football Group and its New York arm, it's just as possible a frustrated coach was making his own statement about the circumstances he is coaching under.
When Kreis was appointed head coach, fresh off yet again producing a Real Salt Lake team that punched above its small-market weight to reach the 2013 MLS Cup, most neutrals regarded it as a coup. An intelligent, systematic thinker and one of the most promising of the first crop of lifelong MLS players-turned-coaches, Kreis also represented an understanding of the particulars of MLS. It was a decision that seemed to speak well for City Football Group's novel prototype of a dispersed, 21st century football organization. It still can.
But the period since his appointment has had the feel of a slow puncture for the club. The fans have been showing up -- just this weekend, the club passed 19,000 founder members, and it has averaged a healthy 29,000 at home games -- and in the period before and since Pirlo and Lampard arrived, the younger David Villa has done his best to keep the attack alive, even as the defense leaked goals at the other end. But the ongoing stadium situation (NYCFC still have no concrete plans for a move from their temporary home of Yankee Stadium) and, most worryingly, the CFG priorities revealed by the long, dragged out saga of Lampard's arrival have shifted the perception of Kreis.
One could argue he hasn't gotten the most out of the talent at his disposal. On the other hand, one could say he has been asked to build a team from scratch in a very competitive league while dealing with all sorts of unnecessary states of exception that only happen in MLS but don't have to happen at all. In short, other than Villa, it's hard to make sense of the club's choice of designated players for anything other than short-term box office appeal. Pirlo and Lampard were great, and still might be in flashes, but there's an argument that they'd be an indulgence for a more established team, not to mention one trying to forge an identity.
It took the most experienced coach in the league, Bruce Arena, not to mention a systematic overhaul of youth development, talent scouting and careful counter-balancing of player resources, to right the ship that David Beckham's 2007 arrival almost capsized in Los Angeles. That was a league-founding member with a decade of history behind it building around a 32-year-old Beckham who still had multiple seasons of, if not his prime, at least a sustainably functioning version of it in front of him.
Kreis does not have the luxury of either established team infrastructure -- and for important reasons, the City parent group's existing resources do not count in this sense, at least until time shows how their resources and priorities end up being allocated and supported -- or the time in front of him to truly develop a workable team system that fully exploits the compromised powers of his veteran stars.
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It's also fundamentally anathema to him. "The team is the star" was not just a slogan at RSL during Kreis' time, it was a practical reading of the contingencies of MLS to ensure that system, style and technical qualities drove player recruitment from youth level upward and allowed integration of players over time. The mean standard of MLS and the effect of the salary-cap restrictions tend to mean a well-drilled team that can gradually integrate a limited but disciplined player might well perform better over time than one relying on even the greatest of talents to singularly inspire them. The box office appeal at RSL, such as it was, came from consistent success, not headline names.
Yes, New York City is not Sandy, Utah, but Jason Kreis is still Jason Kreis: a coach who returned from his working sabbatical in Manchester last year emboldened in a belief not just in his own abilities but also in the track he and his immediate peers were already on as young MLS coaches shaped by the formative days of the league. When speaking to Kreis at the state-of the-art City Academy in Manchester in preseason, for example, there was plenty of respect and appreciation of the privilege of working there, but there was no undue awe.
There was also no undue awe in withdrawing his designated players at the weekend, as Kreis perhaps reaches the point -- which he has hinted at in some of his recent postgame comments wondering about the commitment of his players -- of breaking rank with the big-picture City project to institute what he knows works best in MLS over time.
New York will almost certainly finish the season below the red line, barring a dramatic climb up the table beginning with Wednesday's meeting with Toronto FC (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN). But the idea that New York would walk in and play in the playoffs in their debut season was always a long shot. Orlando, with its successful prehistory in USL, always looked marginally the more likely expansion side to become the first such team to reach the playoffs since the Sounders in 2009, but even that shallower collective learning curve has proved too steep.
In the post-2007, MLS 2.0 era, the likes of Portland, Philadelphia, Vancouver and Montreal have joined the league and eventually emulated Seattle in making the playoffs, but in that period, the Sounders remain the only one to do so in their debut MLS season. They did so with a coach with unquestioned authority and clear lines of responsibility to ownership, by the way.
It takes time, it takes a foundation, and it takes a head coach being given not just the tools to do the job but also the full discretion on which ones to use and when. If City Football Group decide Kreis' tenure has been a failure after this year, they should first look at themselves, their player acquisition and who and what ultimately determines it -- and perhaps consider letting their head coach do a job he's fully capable of doing.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.