In 2007, not long after deciding his team was "the laughingstock" of MLS and cleaning house, Real Salt Lake owner Dave Checketts called his new coach, Jason Kreis, to deliver a message. Checketts had watched in dismay as Salt Lake retreated into a defensive shell to salvage a 0--0 tie on the road after a seven-game winless streak that summer. It was "the worst thing I have ever witnessed," he told Kreis.
"I never want to take our foot off the gas pedal."
Four years later, Kreis has not only turned Salt Lake into the class of MLS but also helped the club make history. As the first MLS team to reach the final of the CONCACAF Champions League, Salt Lake is scheduled to meet Mexican champion Monterrey on Wednesday south of the border and will host the return leg in Salt Lake City on April 27. The winner advances to the FIFA Club World Cup this December in Japan along with six other championship teams.
"This is a huge platform for MLS to prove that we aren't the whipping boys of this region," says RSL defender Nat Borchers. At week's end RSL had the only perfect record in the young MLS season (4--0), and its 34-game home unbeaten run in all competitions is the longest among the world's top 20 leagues. What's more, Salt Lake has won while playing an entertaining brand of soccer that's rare in MLS.
"We have a style that I would call mixed between American and Latin, a new style," says Argentine playmaker Javier Morales. "We work very hard in the American way, and we have a Latin game where we try to take care of the ball."
Befitting a coach whose motto is The team is the star, the 38-year-old Kreis built Salt Lake with the care of a master craftsman, traveling to South and Central America to interview prospective players before deciding if they fit. Only then did he add Argentines Morales and Fabiàn Espíndola and Costa Rica's Alvaro Saborío, who have become cornerstones of the Salt Lake attack. "Jason made the right choices," says goalkeeper Nick Rimando. "We have South Americans who defend, want to get back and buy into the whole team concept."
If anyone steps out of line, Kreis is quick to intervene. "I don't think every professional athlete could buy into our philosophy as a club," he says. "Professional sports lead to big egos. We don't have room or time for that." An overachiever as a player who scored 108 league goals in 12 MLS seasons, Kreis likes to scour Amazon.com for foreign books on soccer coaches—he has read two biographies of Real Madrid coach José Mourinho— and he freely admits to being obsessive about preparation. "I don't think he watches other sports," midfielder Kyle Beckerman says of his coach. "He just met [BYU's star guard] Jimmer Fredette the other day, and he didn't know who Jimmer was."
That single-minded approach has a payoff: If Salt Lake can reach the Club World Cup, the international soccer community will start learning about the U.S.'s top team.
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Real Madrid's taut 1--1 tie against Barcelona last Saturday was the first episode of a soap opera that is convulsing Spain: four games in 18 days between two bitter rivals fighting for soccer supremacy not just in Spain but also in the world. The two clubs were set to meet again on Wednesday in the final of the Copa del Rey knockout tournament, with a two-legged UEFA Champions League semifinal to follow on April 27 and May 3. Will Barcelona prove that it's the world's best professional team? Can Real Madrid coach José Mourinho hatch a game plan to stop Bar√ßa forward Lionel Messi, who scored on Saturday? Each game will be must-see TV for sports fans.
GEORGE FREY (MORALES)
Style Points Morales (in red) exemplifies RSL's new, entertaining brand of soccer.
DANI POZO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (MESSI)