By Glenn Crooks
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Jason Kreis was the first player in Major League Soccer to reach the 100-goal plateau, was named Most Valuable Player in 1999, and is the fifth all-time leading goal scorer in league history.
As a coach, he helped build Real Salt Lake into a highly respected franchise, offsetting frugal spending with his keen eye for players that were tailored to his system.
At the age of 36 back in 2009, Kreis became the youngest coach to win the MLS Cup. He also reached the 2013 final. He guided RSL to the finals of the CONCACAF Champions League and the US Open Cup. Few coaches in MLS garnered more respect than Kreis.
Consequently, Kreis was recruited to become the first coach of New York City Football Club. However, after the inaugural 2015 season failed to meet the expectations of City Football Group, he was dismissed.
Poignantly, Kreis is one of the central figures in the film "WIN!", directed by Justin Webster. The documentary, which chronicles the debut season of NYCFC, premiered last week at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.
"That's the beauty of this type of filming," Webster told me after the premier. "Instead of telling a story that has already happened, you are telling a story that is going to happen. There were a lot of surprises and it was very dramatic for that reason."
Determination, commitment, elation, dismay and intense pressure are all on display through tone of voice and pictures as only film can depict.
I spoke to Kreis after seeing the flick myself and he shared his thoughts on the project and his experience with NYCFC.
Glenn Crooks: When I first heard about the film, I was a little surprised. You don't seem like the type to welcome strangers into the locker room.
Jason Kreis: "I wasn't too thrilled, to be honest. The locker room and the inner workings of the team is sanctimonious. I felt there would be added stress put on a first-year team and maybe it would have some negative impact on trying to build a team and chemistry within in the team."
So, you eventually became comfortable with the idea?
Kreis: "First and foremost, the decision was made by the club. The coach was not going to have the final say. I just figured I would have to do my best with it."
The film's director and his staff required unfettered access. Was that disruptive?
Kreis: "After I was around the group of guys for a while -- actually a really short period of time -- I felt comfortable with them. They did a great job of managing themselves and respecting our wishes if there were moments I didn't want them around. Toward the end of the year they were like a fly on the wall. I didn't really even notice them in the room."
There are locker room scenes and footage from team meetings where your language is quite salty and profane.
Kreis: "When I sat down with my family to watch the film, I hadn't even thought about it until we were watching those scenes together. To be honest, I'm not proud of that. That's not the way I present myself in front of my children. I don't want my children to speak that way or any children to speak that way. The truth is, they hear those words every day, so I don't think I have tainted them in any way. I think what they saw, which they would never have had a chance to see, is how passionate I am about doing my job."
There is a passage in the film where you meet David Villa for the first time. The only way you could communicate was through the translation of Claudio Reyna, the team's director of football operations.
Kreis: "For sure, that was not ideal. And that's something I'm trying to spend time on this year, learning Spanish. I've had those struggles before with players, but you manage to get through them with translators. One of the things I thought was interesting in the film, if you looked exactly at what I said, it wasn't being translated exactly the same way. And the same thing from David to me. When you use a translator, some of the meaning is going to be lost."
There is a section in the film when Reyna suggests that you were being too hard on yourself. He said in a private conversation you told him that the team results were your fault. You really felt that way?
Kreis: "I'm someone who takes an extremely large responsibility for what is going on. I did as a player, too. I took a lot of the responsibility for the failures of the team coming together as quickly as we all had wanted to. But it seemed like I was certainly the only one. I did feel I was a little bit on an island."
You have told me before and you mention it again in the film, that you understood it was a risk to leave the comfort of Salt Lake City, Utah, for the relative unknown in New York City. Looking back, was it worth the gamble?
Kreis: "There are two ways to look at it. From a positive perspective, I never would have been able to spend six months in Manchester, England, with my family. I never would have been able to take a European tour after that and visit some of the major cities with my family. I never would have had the opportunity to coach Villa, Lampard and Pirlo if I hadn't taken the risk to leave Salt Lake."
What's the other way to look at it?
Kreis: "From the other perspective, it wasn't positive. I got fired. Now I've been out of the game for some period of time and I don't know for how long -- it might be forever. The risk that I took to come here and build something that I thought would be a long-term venture turned out to be an extremely short-term venture. Myself and my family have had to pay the price for that."
(Note: Kreis is currently scouting Paraguay for Jurgen Klinsmann and the USMNT as they prepare for Copa America)
Justin (Webster) said you were happy with film.
Kreis: "I was pretty pleased with the way I was painted. I was very, very nervous how I would be portrayed in the film. They could have done anything they wanted to -- they could have made it look like everything was my fault. My hope is that I was painted in a good light and that future employers, if they see it, will think that they would want to hire me."
During red carpet at the premiere of the film, Reyna remarked that he was amazed by the production.
"It is incredible to get to look back and see everything we went through -- the highs and lows," Reyna said.
The darkest moment for Reyna may have been CFG's January decision to leave Lampard in place with Manchester City while delaying his arrival in New York.
"There are two scenarios," Reyna explained on film prior to the final decision. "One, (Lampard) comes back to be with us for the first game and the worst-case scenario is he comes back in the summer. We hope he does well, but not too well."
At the moment the final decision was rendered, Reyna was momentarily speechless and motionless. His countenance spoke countless words.
"That is the joy of this kind of filming," said Webster, referring to the facial miens of Reyna and the other characters. "The revelations of this kind of filming is literally a twitch or the way somebody looks at something or reacts to something or how they move. We recognize that they are all human."
Near the conclusion of the documentary, NYCFC goalkeeper Josh Saunders exchanges a warm hand shake with Kreis after the regular season finale, a 3-1 loss to New England at Yankee Stadium. As Kreis turns away, Saunders' eyes remain directed toward Kreis -- a compassionate gaze. Saunders, like the rest of the squad, recognized it was likely Kreis' final match with the club.
"I interviewed some of the players before that match," Webster said. "It was quite touching how loyal they were to Jason."
Reyna and Villa, along with Kreis, are the protagonists of the film. Reyna is presented as a caring family man. He was raised by Miguel, a former professional player from Argentina, and is introduced to soccer earlier than his friends. He is caught on camera, sharing the touching moments of the season with his parents, wife and children.
Villa is cast as a very likeable figure. Webster, who lives in Barcelona where Villa had many spectacular moments, was eager to meet up with Spain's all-time leading scorer for the production.
"David is a fabulous guy," said Webster, whose first full-length documentary was the 2004 production, 'FC Barcelona Confidential.' "He wasn't that easy to film with necessarily because he is really quite shy."
For all things futbol and NYCFC, please follow Glenn on Twitter at @GlennCrooks. You can also read more of his work at @EmpireOfSoccer
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