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Home / Articles / News / Cover Story /  The Real Deal Page 2
Cover Story

The Real Deal Page 2

From underdog to goliath and back again, the Real Salt Lake brotherhood is still fighting for the perfect game

By Stephen Dark
Posted // November 6,2013 -

ALPHA DOGS
Hansen, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, grew up in rural southern Utah. He served his LDS mission in Spain—he still speaks “perfect Spanish,” he says—and over the past few decades has built a residential and commercial property portfolio currently valued at $3.8 billion.

In 2009, Hansen acquired a minority interest in Real after listening to Real’s New York City-based founder and veteran sports-business entrepreneur Dave Checketts’ pitch to then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner to invest in the team. In the following years, Hansen witnessed bills stacking up as Real “suffered huge economic deficits getting the stadium built.” Subsequent revenues from the games and sponsorship failed to adequately service Real’s debt. “Three years, I wrote checks to the point that I bought 62 percent of the team, which at 60 percent gave me the right to manage,” Hansen says.

Real President Bill Manning jokingly compares Checketts and Hansen to two “alpha dogs” in a dog park—“eventually, they’re going to fight.” There were conflicts over “how best to invest, do we pay down our bills, do we invest in the team.” If Checketts was the visionary, then Hansen is the details man. “Dave would say, ‘I want you to score a goal’; he’s not going to tell you how to get there,” Manning says. “Dell Loy would tell you how to get there and score.” Both dedicated family men, both strong, controlling personalities, Manning says, “at some point, I knew one or the other would be sole owner.”

In December 2012, Hansen and Checketts submitted sealed bids to the MLS to buy each other out. In early January 2013, Hansen learned that Checketts’ bid for the team was higher than his and assumed he had been bought out. But, he says, MLS commissioner Don Garber told him Jan. 15 that the league preferred his offer because his independent financing would make Real a stronger franchise. Checketts told The Salt Lake Tribune that he decided after he had won the auction that he did not want to continue with the franchise and sold to Hansen.

RealTeam_field.jpg
Eyes on the prize: While off the field, Real players get together for bowling and barbecues, but during practice it’s all business.

Kreis’ relationship with the new owner had to be built from scratch. “He was a financial backer, but had no role on the soccer side at all,” Kreis says. Kreis had an emotional connection with Checketts; the “spiritual leader” of the team, as Manning calls him, had plucked Kreis from a player to be Real’s coach, just as he had plucked former professional soccer player Lagerwey from being an associate in a Washington, D.C., law firm to be general manager. Those were acts of faith that both men still cherish to this day.

“I’m the stepdad,” Hansen says about taking over after Checketts.

Checketts liked to rib Lagerwey good-naturedly in public, and Hansen has continued that tradition with Kreis. At gatherings of staff and players, Hansen routinely brings up a three-page, single-spaced list that Kreis gave Hansen after the new owner asked Kreis what he wanted. “I always call him out, I embarrass him,” Hansen says.

Kreis shakes his head and says ruefully, “It’s unbelievable.”

Part of the difficulty of having a new owner, he says, is “to not know how he feels about you. ... I knew 100 percent how Dave felt about me and was very comfortable in it, and so to have that change all of a sudden has been a trying process.”

NARROW MARGIN
In June, MLS announced a new franchise in New York City, financed by the owners of Manchester City. “That creates an interesting possibility,” Hansen says, in reference to Kreis. “When you’ve been playing soccer since you were 5 and always doing the right thing, the time to have a nice midlife crisis is right now.”

Kreis traveled to England in September to discuss the new franchise with its owners. Hansen sees New York as akin to an attractive young woman in a red Corvette pulling up in front of the coach “and the chance to go with her is because the wife gave you a pass that week.

“This is a respect issue between Jason and I,” Hansen continues. “After you’ve gone to the playoffs six times, you’ve won the MLS cup, you’re considered one of the top coaches in America, where’s the next mountain, what are you looking at?”

In his career as a player, Kreis says there were three or four times when he had to make big decisions. He cites as an example whether or not to stay in the United States with the evolving national league, or to take a chance with trials in Europe. “Every time I had this opportunity to take a little bit of a gamble, my wife and I decided to take the safe route and stay where we’re comfortable.”

When the new franchise owners approached him about coaching their prospective team, he faced a similar decision, this time as a coach. He could stay at Real with the contract Hansen offered him in August, which, Hansen says, would make Kreis the first- or second-highest-paid coach in the league.

Or, Kreis says, he could bet on “a team with a strong affiliation with a Premier League club, in one of the biggest cities in the world, in the one of the biggest markets in the league.”

In a September 2013 column in The Salt Lake Tribune, Gordon Monson, co-host of a radio show with Dave Checketts’ son Spencer, wrote that Hansen had endangered Real’s future by not securing a contract with Kreis early in the season. According to the column, rather than re- sign Kreis promptly, Hansen effectively wanted one of the top coaches in the MLS to prove his mettle. Monson wrote that if Kreis left, it would be Hansen’s fault.

Hansen dismisses the article as “missing by a country mile.”

Some Real veterans viewed Monson’s column with trepidation. “It’s definitely on the back of all our minds of the guys who are aware of it,” veteran defender Nat Borchers says. “In my opinion, losing Jason would be devastating for the squad. He’s really the linchpin of the success this club has had. He sleeps, eats and breathes Real Salt Lake. Everything we’ve done to this point is because of Jason. I think it would be really tough for this club to move forward without him.”

A Kreis departure would put Real’s subsequent decision-making under a microscope, Manning acknowledges. “Clearly, to lose Jason Kreis as head coach is a step backward. Jay is the leader. It would put a lot of pressure on the organization to make a good hire. The room for error is slim.”

A GOOD GROUP
While other professional-soccer locker rooms, Manning says, often see veterans turn their back on rookies, Real’s veterans took some of the younger players under their wings.

Morales not only helped Sebastian Velasquez feel at home when he joined in 2012, but mentored him also.

The Argentine “taught me positioning on the field, always play forward, something I needed to learn, since when I came in I always played simple balls to the back,” Velasquez says. “He’d chew me out in practice, telling me I have a lot of skill on the ball, to use that, to get the ball forward, to get assists [on goals]. Last year, I didn’t have any assists; this year, I had a couple and I got to get my first goal.”

Wingert says that right from the start, the new players brought a high level of energy to the game. “The young guys had great attitudes, they were really trying to buy in to what we were trying to accomplish as a group. Real was trying to bring in guys that were not only great players, but also a good group of men.”

Hansen is especially drawn to the Hispanic team members. He taught English to rookies Olmes Garcia and Joao Plata. The Latinos, he says, “are away from home, out of their element more.”

After Real beat the San Jose Earthquakes 2-0 in the March 2013 season-opener, rookie forward Sandoval says, “I saw we could be good; I didn’t see any reason why we couldn’t win, be top of the league.” Indeed, “playing with all these guys, as good as they are, I had to raise my game, I had to become better.”

THE HARDEST LOSS
By September, Real’s investment in extending the depth of its attack had worked. “So far, so good,” Lagerwey says. “We’re the highest-scoring team in the league.” But that emphasis, Morales says, may have led to some imbalance, compared to previous years, with problems in defense and offensive play.

Along with reaching the MLS playoffs, Kreis had his eyes on the 2013 Open Cup. Real had “a very realistic chance” to win the trophy, he says. After having won only one cup in seven years as coach, Kreis says, “it is a little bit difficult for me to look at everything we’ve done and only have one thing to show for it, a MLS cup.”

Real marched onto the home pitch for the Open Cup final as clear favorites against D.C. United.

But after a D.C. ball bounced off Real defender Carlos Salcedo into the Real net seconds before the first-half whistle, Real never recovered, despite two rookies—Sebastian Velasquez with a blast to the left goal post and an ambitious bicycle shot by Devon Sandoval—going for broke.

As D.C. United hoisted the cup, Velasquez cried, his jersey pulled over his head. Kreis watched the D.C. United players dancing with joy on Real turf as if he were etching the scene on his retinas. He told the press corps later, “I stayed out there to watch the third team celebrate a trophy on our field.”

After the D.C. loss, the Real locker room, Lagerwey recalls, was dead silent. “People were staring at the ground, there was nothing to say. It wasn’t lack of effort or lack of heart, we just lost the same game four or fives times now.”

The Open Cup was one of a handful of crucial matches at the home stadium, Kreis says, where Real was expected to prevail, but “we haven’t figured out a way to make that last step.”

BROTHERLY LOVE
After losing 0-1 to the far wealthier L.A. Galaxy in Los Angeles on Nov. 3 in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals, Real is in the position the team has always responded to best: underdog. On Nov. 7, Real will host Galaxy for the second game of the semifinals in Rio Tinto Stadium.

“For me it’s all about opportunity, a great chance to knock somebody off, that has nothing to do with expectations or disappointments if we don’t win,” Kreis says.

Hansen sees the upcoming game as also being about Utah. In his role as “caretaker,” assuming the responsibility of “managing this for the community,” he knows “the community will have a ton of pride when the headline goes, ‘Salt Lake crushes L.A.’ ”

As to the other opportunity Kreis has to decide upon—New York—“there’s no deadline,” Kreis says. “We’ve agreed that as soon as the season is over, I’ll put all of my efforts into making that decision as soon as possible. If I’m not going to be head coach, they are going to have to have a Plan B in place.”

He has to weigh up several factors. One is the discomfort of going to a new franchise where he may not have the control over players he has at Real. “There’s a lot of uncertainty that comes in.”

Real_stadiumseats.jpg

Staying at Real would require commitments regarding “what this club is willing to do and going to become,” in terms of resources dedicated to both players and fans. “Most of the clubs are doing a lot more for their players than we are.”

Hansen says once the season is over, it will be time to sit down with Kreis again and say, “that red Corvette with the gal in it, does it really still look that good or can you stay at home in the cottage with us?”

Where they have found common ground in recent months is a communication comfort zone through texting. “I feel very, very comfortable with him,” Kreis says. “It’s got to a good point now where we understand each other.”

Lagerwey believes that 2013 has been Kreis’ finest year as coach. In the past, Real has signed many young players, he says; some worked out and some didn’t. But in 2013, Lagerwey says, “arguably for the first time, everybody succeeded. We have six players under the age of 23, and they all make it; I’ve got to tip my hat to the coaching staff.”

Kreis says what he’s most pleased about is the camaraderie that has emerged on the field and in the locker room between the veterans and the young players. He sees it in so many little moments, when a player who scores rushes to the bench to celebrate, and when players, upset to have been benched, nevertheless react with joy when the team scores.

“For me, it’s team chemistry, it’s a real togetherness,” he said after the Chivas game. “It’s these guys, I think they love each other.”

But even love isn’t enough to staunch the pain of lost chances at glory. Several weeks after the Open Cup, Morales says he still loses sleep over it. “I’m tired of getting to finals and not winning,” he says. Reaching the finals should mean the opportunity to “celebrate being champion.”

Lagerwey argues that will happen. “As long as we believe in ourselves collectively, believe in all the things that make us a really big team, we can find the courage internally and collectively to win the biggest games.”

But for Kreis, as much as its about winning and cups, as much as it’s about the fellowship of his restructured team, it’s finally about pursuing that one elusive gift. “I’m still after that perfect game.”

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