Lehi • Much as in professional baseball, a Major League Soccer coach must be a manager of people and time.
More than any other sport in America, MLS resembles MLB in its diversity of nationalities and length of season. This year, Real Salt Lake began in February. It will, if all goes well, conclude with a league championship in November.
So, when Real Salt Lake stumbled in August, losing four of five matches, Jason Kreis' main responsibility as coach was to keep his players together and focused, to reinforce his belief in their abilities.
"I still believe that the most important job of any professional coach is not necessarily tactics or techniques of how you want guys to play," Kreis said, "but just managing people. I look at my job as a coach to try to get them to perform as close to their potential most of the time. It's never going to be perfect, but trying to get as close to perfect as often as possible."
Thanks to three consecutive victories, including two away from Rio Tinto Stadium, and what should be a spirited home game scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday against Sporting Kansas City (10-8-10), it appears that RSL (13-7-6) is close to being back in peak form.
With nine points earned in its last three games, RSL finds itself not only one point away from the league's third-best record and an automatic first-round bye in the playoffs, but in competition once more for the Supporters Shield which goes to the team with the most overall points.
The Supporters Shield carries with it a berth into the CONCACAF Champions League.
"It's easy to get sucked into the [negative] hype," said RSL defender Robbie Russell. "But we knew we were a good team and we were getting a few unlucky bounces. If you look at the scores of those games, it wasn't like we were getting blown out."
Players learned not to read or listen to the media.
"You have to believe in yourself," Russell said.
RSL is still not playing at a level where it was earlier this season, when it opened with four consecutive MLS victories and played for the CONCACAF Champions League championship an effort that fell one goal short.
In 2010, one season after coming from nowhere to earn its first MLS Cup, RSL rolled to the league's second-best point total. Real was dominant, losing just four times. But the team bombed out in the first round of the playoffs.
"Now we're getting results, but I don't think we're halfway comfortable with how we're playing," RSL midfielder Andy Williams said. "Compared to last season, we hit our valley the last three games of the season heading into the playoffs and that didn't help. Hopefully, we got our bad patch last month out of the way."
As RSL struggled in August, Kreis used video sessions to instruct on technical aspects to climb out of the hole. He did not ignore the mental side.
"It's important to remind yourself of [the peaks and valleys]," Kreis said. "It's hard for somebody like myself. I'm sure a lot of these guys have similar mentalities to me. I want perfection all of the time, so I can get down on myself. But we have to remind ourselves that that is human nature, there are going to be good times and bad times.
"We've given ourselves a chance at the Supporters Shield and if we have a chance, you know me, we're going for it."