Halfway through the 2008 season, and 14 months into his coaching career, Real Salt Lake's Jason Kreis remains the proverbial student of the game.

That's him figuratively chewing his pencil to the nub and raising his hand to ask questions. Him, too, drawing diagrams at the chalkboard.

Oh, and that's him in real life, raging at the officials at the end of the latest match.

It's a tough place, the School of Hard Knocks.

And the thing is, there's no early graduation.

You just have to grind it out.

Thursday at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the education of a young coach continued. With a chance to claim first place in the standings for the first time in its history, RSL struggled to a scoreless draw with Houston. For the third time this season, Real was within a win of first place. The first two were losses. Now this.

Just what he wanted — more character-building.

Somewhere along the line, you have to say to heck with character, how about a few more wins?

So here Kreis is again, just short of a breakthrough.

Which can't be easy. The frustration is there, just below the surface — and sometimes above. After games, in the interview room, the soft-spoken coach sometimes seems to slightly tremble. Not from fear, but from energy and anticipation and indignation.

Rumor has it he's already banned in three Utah counties during July.

You know, combustible material.

Why shouldn't he be frustrated? Thursday, his team outshot Houston 16-10 and recorded more shots on goal, yet still ended up tied.

Kreis agrees that patience is a virtue coaches need. Yet you get the sense he'd rather have his appendix removed with a garden tool than wait forever. Asked this week about what he's learned in 14 months as a coach, Kreis said, "Is that how long it's been? Feels like 44 months."

So the learning curve has been steep.

"It's not always easy for superstar players to transfer that drive to players who don't have the ability you had," said RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey.

Kreis, the third-leading scorer in MLS history, has always been a fierce competitor. When John Ellinger was fired five matches into the 2007 season, Kreis was an intriguing choice. What if he actually could pass his desire to others?

His record as a coach is 11-19-12, though he is a respectable 5-6-6 this year. So obviously RSL is progressing. Entering Thursday's game against two-time MLS champion Houston, his team was tied for second place. At the same juncture in previous years, Real was in fifth or sixth place.

Along the way, Kreis's competitiveness has occasionally simmered over. In his first season as coach, he received a red card for yelling at a ref and was suspended. This year he was suspended and fined for criticizing officials in the media.

After losing RSL's home opener in stoppage this year — similar to the 2007 opener — Kreis opened the press conference by cutting off a reporter's question.

"You're going to ask me what?" he said. "You're gonna ask me, 'Just like last year, right?"'

Probably not the best way to start out a season.

But Kreis quickly explained the adrenaline was still flowing.

When Thursday's match appeared to have been halted after 2 1/2 stoppage minutes, rather than four minutes — which had been announced by officials — Kreis was clearly upset, but joked to reporters afterward, "If you guys want to chip in on my fine, go ahead."

So he's finding when and where to unleash the emotion that drove him as a player.

"I'm still learning, as witnessed by my ejections and emotional outbursts on the sidelines," he said, earlier this week. "But you know, I watch the best coaches in the world and there's plenty of emotion on the sidelines — and that's just me. I'm a competitor and I'm passionate about this game. I love it, and I love it deep down, and that's just not going to change."

That's not necessarily bad news. While his predecessor, John Ellinger, was calm and measured, Kreis is edgy and enigmatic. Even so, this year he has carefully avoided making predictions.

Thus, when asked this week about the possibility of being in first place, he answered cautiously.

"I hate to put too much weight where we're at in the standings, or how many points we have right now," he said.

It's a long season.

And building a franchise is a long process.

Meanwhile, Kreis keeps working on patience and timing, while maintaining the attitude that made him a fearsome player.

"It's been trying and difficult and an extremely huge challenge — and I've liked every part of it," said Kreis. "When I look back at it, I think I've come a long way and learned a lot. ... So it's been fun. But it's been very, very difficult. I would never downplay that at all."

Besides, who knows.

Graduation day could be right around the corner.


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