One of the most interesting developments at Manchester City in recent times has been the creation of the City Football Group, a collective of clubs across the world that bear the City name and wear the famous sky blue shirts.
City Football Group have acquired Melbourne Heart in the Australian A-League and rebranded them as Melbourne City FC, and Yokohama F. Marinos in the Japanese J-League. Perhaps the most well-known addition to the group, though, is New York City FC, a brand new franchise that will begin competing in this season’s MLS when it gets under way in March.
Jason Kreis was the man headhunted to take the role of head coach at NYCFC. He is known for his work at Real Salt Lake, where he enjoyed a successful seven-year stint in charge, winning the MLS Cup in 2009 and finishing runner-up to Sporting Kansas City in 2013.
He plays an attractive, possession-based brand of football, in keeping with the style and ethos City said was such an integral part of the club’s “holistic” approach when Roberto Mancini was sacked in 2013. It seems their holistic remit has been expanded to encompass all aspects of the City Football Group.
Since his appointment there’s been a real excitement about the club’s prospects in their debut year. They have signed David Villa and Frank Lampard, with the latter involved in a controversial decision to delay his move in order to continue at City and try to help Manuel Pellegrini defend the Premier League title, as well as Mix Diskerud, a USA international midfielder with an ability to dictate play from deep.
Despite the rancour over Lampard’s decision, it’s clear they have secured some fine players capable of having a significant impact in the MLS. And now, with the Expansion Draft complete, NYCFC are in the midst of their preseason preparations ahead of their MLS opener against Orlando City on March 8.
As part of those preparations, the squad headed over to Manchester to make use of City’s £200 million state-of-the-art academy and training facility, playing matches against St Mirren and Brondby as part of their programme of fine-tuning. They beat St Mirren 2-0 and impressed with the pace of their attack, but a 2-0 defeat to Brondby, who are in the middle of their domestic campaign, highlighted the lack of match sharpness in their squad.
It may be early in their preparations, but Kreis feels his side are making real progress. During a long conversation at City’s wonderful training complex, he said:
"I think we’re in a good place, I certainly do.
"The team is working extremely hard in the training sessions. The team seems to be coming together from a team chemistry point of view and bonding well together and the team seems to be showing some understanding of what our path should look like and how we want to try and play. So from those three perspectives, I think we’re in a really good place."
It’s refreshing to hear Kreis talk. Clearly buoyed by his new challenge and being part of a growing organisation, his enthusiasm is infectious. He can’t wait to get the new season under way, but he’s under no illusions just how tough their opener against fellow new franchisers Orlando City will be and believes there are a number of sides who start the season as favourites to win the MLS:
"I don’t think there are any easy trips, I really don’t. In our league I don’t believe there are any places or opponents that you would say I prefer this one over another. So, from my point of view, it’s terrific, because it’s two brand new teams coming together in front of what should be an excellent crowd, so I think it’s a positive thing.
"You would have to talk about the likes of DC United and the New England Revolution on our side of things [as strong sides], certainly with the Revolution making the final and DC having such a strong year in the regular season last year.
"Then you have to look at Toronto with all the additions they’ve made and what should be an extremely talented team. Then on the Western Conference, everybody’s good, but you can’t look much past the Galaxy and Seattle Sounders for all their accomplishments last year and, really, no changes to their group [of players]."
It would be easy for Kreis to get carried away. After all, he has resources to fall back on that other MLS sides could only dream of, and there’s a real excitement about what NYCFC can achieve in the coming months and years, but he’s refusing to set targets for himself or his players ahead of this campaign:
"That’s not something that I do, and it’s not something that I prefer to do. What I will say is that I expect this team to compete every single week. I will expect that these guys will come out and give their best effort every single week. I would expect that we’re trying to improve every single week. And I expect that we will be looking for the same things in our performances every single week."
For those not used to the idea of a new franchise springing up from seemingly nowhere, it’s fascinating to observe the process a manager goes through to put together a team from scratch. Would formation and tactical ideas come first, or is it a case of finding the players you like and coming up with a system to suit them?
"This is my second club I’ve been with as a head coach and I can tell you that the first one we nearly started from scratch. I took over a team sort of in the middle of the season, but that very next offseason we changed about 20 more players. During that season and the offseason following it, it was literally 25 of 28 players were new. So in some ways we have kind of done that twice now.
"But with the first job at least there was five or six guys that we said: OK, these are the guys we’re gonna build the team around. Here, we didn’t have that, we literally had a clean sheet of paper and had to decide, first and foremost, who are the guys that we’re gonna try and build the team around.
"So to be able to make the signings of Villa and Lampard really gave us some direction and we were able to start to think about what are the pieces we can add around those guys. But a big chunk of our team, actually, the ones that are the experienced guys, are the ones, I would say, are going to be the leaders at the core of this group, came through the Expansion Drafts. And with that process you literally have no idea until it’s over who exactly you’re going to have in your group.
"That did change a lot of things about how we had planned to build a team because we got a lot more guys out of that that we really, really liked than we thought we would have.
"My thinking was to find the right style of players who had the right attributes to play the way we want to play and then decide what’s the best system for all the players. And we’re still not there yet. I really think this needs to be a group that can play a few different ways—a few different tactical systems—and I think we’re going to try to play the same way, with the same methodology, all the time."
The development of MLS over the last 10 years has been remarkable. The speed and technical quality of the league has improved so much Kreis isn’t even sure he would have made a career if he was a player now.
"It’s coming on leaps and leaps and leaps and bounds. If you’d looked at it 10 years ago compared to now, we’re in two different stratospheres. The easiest way for me to say it is I was actually a successful player 10 years ago, I’m not sure I could even get a minute now in this team [laughs]."
For Kreis, one of the most significant benefits of being part of City Football Group so far came last year when he spent a six-month period shadowing Pellegrini and City’s Elite Development Squad coach, Patrick Vieira.
It’s a unique position for an MLS manager to be in, and Kreis feels he benefitted hugely from the experience.
"It involved observing and being a part of all the training sessions with Pellegrini for a long spell, and also with the EDS squad with Patrick for a long spell. I kinda split my time amongst the two. There were some great things about seeing the way other coaches run their team, and the different exercises they’re trying to do.
"But probably the biggest thing I gained by being here was learning about myself and learning about what I really like to do and what I like to be a part of, and being able to take a step back and reflect on the prior seven years before that, coaching a team and thinking about how I could improve.
"You would think you would come over here and there would be egos everywhere, because these are obviously the elite people in the world in their respective fields, but what I saw was that everybody here at the very base of it was a really good person, and that was excellent to see.
"It had been my belief for a long time that you can build successful teams if you start with good people, so it's really humbling and rewarding to see this club, one of the best clubs in the world, and have all these incredible people part of it."
But it isn’t just his own insight that the City Football Group supports and develops. His squad and staff are set to benefit from the collective in myriad ways.
"Look at the first six months of my job—I had the opportunity to come over here and be involved with a Premiership team. This doesn’t happen for most coaches, usually. For the prior five years before that I had been spending time just trying to get to observe a Premier League team, or a team in Germany, or a team in Spain, for a week, and those opportunities don’t even exist. So to have the ability to spend six months with a team behind closed doors was amazing.
“I think there's gonna continue to be learning opportunities like that every single year going forward for the coaches and the players. In December, we sent two of our players over here to train for two weeks, to get some physical fitness work done with the sports performance team here. There’s going to be opportunities to go down and see what it’s like in Australia, to go and see what it’s like in the J-League, so those opportunities are immense for us to learn in our individual fields.
"Then from a scouting and performance-analysis perspective, we have all of this support that we can lean on. If we can’t get something accomplished that we need accomplishing in New York City we just pick up the phone and talk to City Football Group and say here’s some things we need help with and it’s right there for us."
And what a boost it must be for the rest of the squad to line up alongside Villa, a player who made his name as one of the most feared marksmen in Europe during his time with Valencia and Barcelona, as well as with the Spanish national side.
"I’m thrilled, I’m absolutely thrilled [to have signed Villa]. I mean, to have the opportunity as a coach to think about signing David Villa and Frank Lampard—from a soccer perspective you’re just over the moon.
"You’re over the moon about having the opportunity to work with some of those guys as a young coach. But when you actually sit down and meet them, from a character point of view, again, just blown out the water that these top world talents are just good guys.
"Being around David for the last six or seven months, seeing him work in some training environments where there’s guys that probably don’t deserve to tie his shoes out there training with him, and he’s just going about it the right way, professionally and working hard, it’s unbelievable.
"I just couldn’t be happier about their character and what that’s going to mean for our young players and what’s that’s going to mean for them being extensions of myself on the pitch.”
The only sour note of NYCFC’s existence so far has been the furore surrounding Lampard’s move. Initially it seemed Lampard had signed for NYCFC and then loaned to City, but it transpired his deal at City was a short-term standalone deal, which was then extended after he had scored six goals and played a key part in their season.
So has that disrupted Kreis’ plans?
"You know, I think we could look at that from a very negative point of view and say this is going to be really difficult and we had him pencilled in one way or another, or we can look at it from a positive point of view and say, OK, well, this means that some other guys are going to get meaningful opportunities to make significant contributions in his position for the first four or five months of the season, and you need that in our league.
"When you get to the end of the season and there’s some real fatigue, injuries and suspensions, you need guys to be able to step in and not miss a beat. I think this affords us that opportunity. We’re gonna be having a player that’s gonna be at the top of his game, extremely fit, coming right out of a Premiership season, which hopefully will he will have another medal to put in his pocket, and we can have a really significant, positive boost in the middle of the season."
All the signs are that Lampard will go there and provide the boost Kreis wants. He has excelled at City. What initially looked like a deal to provide Pellegrini with some experienced cover and allow the player to remain fit has turned into something altogether more positive thanks to the technical quality the 36-year-old still possesses.
Villa and Lampard can bring qualities and hopefully take some opportunities to gain us points. That’s clear and simple, but a lot of time what’s even more important is what they can give you on a day-in-day-out basis on the training pitch, teaching the younger players around them, making all the players better.
Finally, I ask him what makes a good head coach, and, as was the case throughout our time together, his humility and desire to continue learning was at the centre of his answer:
"Honestly...I don’t know that I know what it is to be a good head coach, I only know what it is to be myself, and I’m hopeful that some of the qualities I bring to the table are regarded by other people as qualities which make up a good head coach.
“I will say that one of the great things about being here last year was to be around what is clearly a fantastic head coach in Manuel. And one of the things that really struck me was that they went through some really difficult patches while I was here. Right after I got here, it seemed like they were going in a very negative way, so much that I thought it was a little bit my fault, but to see how calm he was, and what a calming influence he was for the entire group, was eye-opening for me.
"And I think I learned quite a bit about that and how the lead guy, if he’s all over the place and frantic and visual about the pressures upon him, that can really spread out to the rest of the team. I think that’s one of many fantastic qualities about Manuel Pellegrini and the best coaches in the world.”
For more information on New York City FC, visit their website.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2014-15 season. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter: @RobPollard.