With new coach Oscar Pareja, shown playing for FC Dallas against Colorado in a 2005 game, at the helm, the Rapids are off to a 3-1 start in MLS play.
With new coach Oscar Pareja, shown playing for FC Dallas against Colorado in a 2005 game, at the helm, the Rapids are off to a 3-1 start in MLS play. (Brian Bahr, Getty Images file)
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COMMERCE CITY — Jason Kreis was excited when his Dallas team traded for Oscar Pareja midway through the 1998 MLS season, because he'd been admiring Pareja's midfield play for New England. Little did Kreis know that trade would transform his career, putting him on the path to becoming one of the all-time great MLS goal scorers.

"It was an interesting situation, because when he got traded, I was playing in the midfield," Kreis said. "Because we picked him up, the coach decided to put me up front. That's when I first started playing forward as a professional."

Kreis retired as a player in 2007 as the league's all-time leading goal scorer, and he's No. 5 on the list now with 108 goals. In Pareja's first full season as a playmaking midfielder with Dallas, Kreis became the league's first American-born MVP with 18 goals and 15 assists in 32 games.

Now Kreis coaches Real Salt Lake, so he will match wits with his old teammate Saturday night when RSL hosts the Rapids. Pareja is in his first season coaching the Rapids.

RSL leads the Western Conference with a 4-1-0 record, while the Rapids are off to a 3-1-0 start. The Rapids-RSL rivalry is one of the most spirited in MLS, but there is plenty of respect and friendship between the coaches.

"He was very similar to me, in that we were both fiery, fiery competitors, guys that really enjoyed working hard and enjoyed competing every single day," Kreis said. "When people ask me for my top three players that I ever played with, he's always in that list."

Kreis was traded to RSL in 2005 and was its captain in May 2007 when he replaced John Ellinger as coach. Two seasons later, at age 36, Kreis became the youngest coach to win the MLS Cup.

"I respect what he has done," Pareja said. "He started very young, and it took him a while, but after he figured it out, he got consistent results. And obviously, he has won the cup, which is huge for any coach. You've got to respect that, for sure."

Both men are intense, yet quiet. Their fire burns hot, but without a lot of smoke.

"We're both naturally introverted, but have a much different personality when we step onto any competitive field," Kreis said. "I think we both are quiet in social situations, not going to be the first one to come up and introduce ourselves and want to chat you up, but on the field we become quite the opposite — extroverted in a way."

Kreis was a hero to Rapids defender Drew Moor when he was growing up in Dallas.

"You can just tell he's got that fire in his belly," Moor said. "He's the kind of guy you want to play for, that you want to win for. You can probably draw a lot of comparisons between him and Oscar Pareja. That's a competitive duo right there. I know both of them want to win this game extremely badly."

Kreis says the RSL-Colorado rivalry is unique because it was ignited by fans.

"The rivalry was born by them, but quickly adopted by all the players, and there's no doubt it's always one of the fiercest affairs we have the entire season," Kreis said. "It's always one that's highly competitive, and it's always one that yields exciting games."

Kreis remembers Pareja as a central midfielder who loved to attack but never shied away from tackles, a playmaker who controlled games because he was all over the field. He has a pretty good idea of what to expect from Pareja as a coach.

"I think Oscar is molding that team in his likeness," Kreis said. "It's going to be a very technically gifted team, it's going to be a possession-oriented team, it's going to be a team that wants to establish the tempo and rhythm of the game. It should make for extremely exciting games with Real Salt Lake, because that's also what we're all about."

John Meyer: 303-954-1616 or jmeyer@denverpost.com


Training ground

Thirteen of the 19 head coaches in MLS are former players in the league. A look:

Oscar Pareja - Rapids

Jason Kreis - Real Salt Lake

Peter Nowak - Philadelphia Union

Robert Warzycha -Columbus Crew

Robin Fraser -Chivas USA

Frank Klopas - Chicago Fire

Jay Heaps - New England Revolution

Ben Olsen - D.C. United

Peter Vermes - Sporting Kansas City

Jesse Marsch - Montreal Impact

Frank Yallop - San Jose Earthquakes

John Spencer - Portland Timbers

Dominik Kinnear - Houston Dynamo

Goal-oriented

MLS all-time leading goal scorers:

Jeff Cunningham, 134

Jaime Moreno, 133

Landon Donovan, 115

Ante Razov, 114

Jason Kreis, 108