SANDY — When Dave Checketts tabbed Jason Kreis, 34, as Real Salt Lake's new coach back in 2007, it was a bold move that many criticized as foolish.
The results over the past four years speak for themselves, and other teams have taken notice. Last fall, D.C. United named 33-year-old Ben Olsen as its interim coach and then made the hiring permanent at the end of the season.
Kreis and Olsen were two of the hardest-working players during their MLS careers, and as coaches they've demanded the same from their players.
That's why in many ways, when Real Salt Lake hosts D.C. United tonight at Rio Tinto Stadium at 7 p.m., it will be playing against itself circa 2007.
RSL lacked a lot of things when Kreis took over, but he quickly molded the team into a hard-working team. Players who didn't fit the mold were traded or released. RSL fought and scrapped in that first year, and in Kreis' first 25 games as coach, his team posted a 5-13-7 record (22 points).
During Olsen's first 25 games as coach, D.C. United is 7-13-5 (26 points).
"Ben has got those guys to work hard and believe and knowing it's not a quick turnaround. But getting the team to buy into the fact that the team is important, kind of the way we turned things around here in Salt Lake," said RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy.
Just like Kreis in his first year, Olsen overhauled D.C. United's roster in his first year as well. With a collection of players more suited for his coaching style, Olsen has tradition-rich D.C. United pointed in the right direction.
D.C. was the worst team in MLS last year with just 22 points, but in just 13 games in 2011 it is 4-5-4 with 16 points.
Just as Kreis talks about the 2008 preseason — his first as head coach — as laying the foundation for Real Salt Lake, he believes D.C. United has benefitted from Olsen's first preseason as head coach as well.
"We saw during that year we'd have some real highs and some real lows, and I think that's what D.C. United has had," said Kreis. "We've got to prepare for them to have a high in order to get all three points that we desperately need on Saturday."
After starting the year 4-0, Real Salt Lake is just 2-3-3 in the past two months and now sits in fifth place in the Western Conference. RSL has the luxury of having played at least three fewer games than the teams it's chasing, but it needs to starting bridging the gap soon to remain in the hunt for the MLS Supporters' Shield.
With six of its next eight games at home, now is the perfect opportunity to make a push up the standings.
D.C. United is 2-1-3 in its past six matches, but that lone loss during the stretch was a 4-2 shellacking at home against San Jose.
Real Salt Lake has won five straight at home against D.C. United, and should get a boost as well with the return of Will Johnson, who missed the past three games while away with Canada for the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
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