ORLANDO, Fla. – It has been a stop-start process, but the conversion of Orlando City SC into a team that more closely resembles the Real Salt Lake side that Jason Kreis used to coach is now well underway.
There are still differences. Yet the full implementation of the midfield diamond, the tough home mentality, and even some of the same personnel are all significant signposts in Kreis’ bid to return to the heights that he so consistently reached at Rio Tinto Stadium from 2007-2013.
Will Johnson was an essential part of that RSL team and now, reunited with his former boss in Orlando, he sees quite a few parallels.
“There are definitely similarities,” the midfielder said. “Most will say it’s the diamond but for me, it’s more of an overall feeling of professionalism and perfectionism, trying to make Orlando into a place where standards are high and accountability is very important within the squad.
“Then you move on from the general identity we’re trying to build into the tactics, and you see more similarities, going back to the diamond formation. Personnel-wise, you also have a bunch of guys who are willing to put in the work selflessly and get things done, and that’s very similar to Salt Lake.”
On top of the personnel and coaching situation, Johnson sees a strong stadium comparison, where the Utah team turned the newly-built Rio Tinto into a fortress.
“Over time at RSL, it evolved into something special, with a good home-field advantage, and that’s similar to what we’re trying to build here with a brand new stadium,” Johnson explained. “We want to ensure everybody knows how important it is to us that we defend our home field with everything we’ve got.”
While the work and tactical ethos may be the same, the Canadian sees a different Kreis these days, now 11 years into his coaching career and with a sobering, solo season with New York City FC in the rearview mirror.
Johnson believes the head coach learned a valuable lesson the hard way: that the league has become much more results-driven in recent years.
“We had time to evolve at Salt Lake,” Johnson said. “I think Jason is now very aware that not every owner is going to be as forgiving with results as [former RSL owner] Dave Checketts was.
“In many ways, Dave was a father figure to Jason, and that relationship was pretty special. Then obviously he had the other side of it with New York City. There is a ‘win now’ pressure, more demand on the players to get it right quicker, compared to when he started at Salt Lake.”
Johnson also recognizes the process has resulted in a tougher, more focused approach from Kreis in his return with Orlando.
“He is even more detailed and demanding here,” the veteran observed. “We had a bit of an older group there, and here we have some younger guys who we are bringing along, guys who haven’t had a ton of success in MLS, so I would say this is an evolved version of Jason from Salt Lake.”
There are also stark differences that Johnson is quick to acknowledge.
“Obviously we have a very well-known player in Ricky [Kaká], who gives this club more of a presence than we had in Salt Lake,” noted the Canadian international. “This market feels bigger and the league is 10 years down the road, so there is no sneaking up on anybody.”
Kreis himself is stumped when asked to compare the two teams.
“It’s an impossible question to answer,” he said. “For me, this team has its own identity, its own character and its own leaders, so I don’t know there is any comparison there.
“What I can say is this group is incredibly fun to work with. I enjoy showing up for work every day and I get a good sense of what we’re about every day in training. And I leave work every day feeling very happy that we’ve put in a good shift and have spent our time here well.”
He does admit to a similar feeling with the Salt Lake teams of his first head coaching experience, and he also sees a comparable growth curve that is equally satisfying.
“There is something about being a coach when you are conveying messages of what you want to see, and then to see little things show up in games is really rewarding,” Kreis said. “Right now, we’re seeing a lot of signs of what we’re after, what we’re trying to do and who we’re trying to be. And that’s the most important thing.”