If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That formula led to Mike Kraus' current position as director of one the oldest MLS residency academy programs. At the end of his stint with the Sporting Kansas City, the former Creighton University captain moved to Arizona in 2010 with his wife, who had finished medical School and matched with Phoenix’s Mayo Clinic. Upon their arrival, Kraus discovered that the nearby city of Casa Grande was home to Real Salt Lake-Arizona. He sent his resume to Martin Vazquez, RSL’s then-academy director, every month for over a year. In the meantime, he coached Phoenix-area boys and girls teams.
In 2011, Real Salt Lake looked to add some age groups to their academy, and Kraus finally got a call back.
“Ultimately, I proved I was hardworking, wanting to learn, and all that," the Memphis native says. "So I joined the staff in 2012 and from there my learning took off.”
In 2018, RSL opened its privately funded, $78 million academy complex and high school in Herriman, Utah. Kraus stayed in Casa Grande as academy director of RSL-Arizona.
SOCCER AMERICA: You’re entering your fifth year as academy director for Real Salt Lake-Arizona. What has that role been like for you?
MIKE KRAUS: My bosses said, "You've been in the market in Arizona for the last six years, working with the academy, so you tell us the best way to manage it." We struck a partnership with [Sereno Soccer Club] and it has evolved into the big organization that Real Salt Lake-Arizona is now. The role essentially is looking to continue to facilitate top players and top talent up through Utah and continue to have a good presence here in Arizona."
Ultimately, my role is helping to filter and develop our MLS Next teams. The big emphasis is on our younger age groups, the U-13s and U-14s, and working to identify and develop those players to hopefully have the opportunity and be ready to join our academy in Utah with the U-15s.
SA: Tell us about starting with RSL in 2012.
MIKE KRAUS: I joined in Year 2 of the academy in Casa Grande. Back then, all we had was a U-19 and a U-17 team. We were fortunate to have a leg up on a lot of other clubs with residency there, dorms, and to be able to have an immersive soccer and school locker room. We were at the tail end of development because a lot of the guys we got were 16 and 17 years old. It's great that we were able to create a culture of mentally strong players that are able to grind every single day. Because that's the pro environment.
If we're wanting to develop world-class players, that development starts way earlier than 16. There are clubs that are doing a great job, but ultimately many of the clubs that are tasked with developing players before they get to MLS academies don't necessarily have the resources of professional clubs. We've tried to create a network where we're able to influence the development at a younger age.
We want to put these players in a path where they're able to dream and see guys who have gone through the process and know that there's light at the end of the tunnel if it's earned and if the work is put in.
That's where we've branched out and reached out and created a network of affiliates. Ultimately, you cannot have those partnerships unless there are good people involved. Everyone understands that there's another rung on the ladder and the top of our ladder is the first team at Real Salt Lake.
Everybody that's involved in our partnerships and network has an understanding of that and a goal to hopefully see some of their players get there and wear the jersey.
Mike Kraus with Julio Benitez at a U.S. U-15 training camp.
SA: Talk about some success stories from RSL’s affiliate clubs?
MIKE KRAUS: In the last three years since building these networks, we're just starting to see the fruits of that labor. Ultimately, these players are still unproven — but Julio Benitez is a 16-year-old who was announced in January as a Homegrown Player. He's a kid from Phoenix and was with Real Salt Lake-Arizona for a couple years. He was able to make the jump to academy at RSL and was involved with the U-15 national team at a couple different events and levels.
We have a partnership and affiliation with City Soccer Club in Carlsbad, which used to be with LA Galaxy. One of the first guys they had was young Axel Kei, who last year at age 14 became the youngest player to ever [play in a U.S. pro sports league]. He's also signed a Homegrown contract. Our club has a history of investing in the youth and so ultimately for me, and for the networks and the affiliations, our job is done on those guys. They've gotten to where they need to go and now they're in the hands of the professionals. Now, it's about sustaining longevity. Obviously, they are young guys and have plenty of space to develop, but they're in a great environment with great people working with them every day.
SOCCER AMERICA: Let's talk about Axel Kei for a second. What was your relationship with him like?
MIKE KRAUS: I know the club he was at and the directors, Paul Ritchie and Steve Cowell, who are in City Soccer Club and have great relationships with them. Ultimately, they were the ones working with them for a number of years. I saw him from afar, playing as a 13 year-old against the U-17s and dominating those games. Those guys from City Soccer Club did a great job at development. Ultimately, it was more about identification and talent scouting on our part and our scout's part within the academy.
Our coaches within the academy, especially Andrew May, who was our U-15 coach [now with the RSL Academy in Utah], did a great job with the year that they had him: he added a little level of maturity to him on and off the field. Obviously, on the field he's a presence. Ultimately, it was our networks that were able to facilitate him and getting him to where he's at with the contract.
SA: How did you get involved in soccer?
MIKE KRAUS: I'm the fifth of six children — my grandfather partly owned a AA baseball team that used to be called the Memphis Chicks. My family all played sports growing up — basketball, baseball, soccer. I was the first one to play soccer and I have a first memory of having a ball at 3 years old at one of my older brother's games. My mom was probably the only one who could juggle the ball. My dad couldn't — he stayed away from it. I didn't have a real parental influence; it was just a sports family. I played all of them growing up — baseball, basketball, soccer. Soccer was the one that stuck.
SA: Why did it stick with you?
MIKE KRAUS: I was quick, fast and undersized. I had similar stories to a lot of guys who were overlooked. Even in soccer, as I was playing, I was small. In basketball, I was a point guard but you only got so far to go if you're 5-foot-9. I found baseball boring. Soccer was nonstop and I was quick and fast — it helps if you're good at things and it gives you confidence. Soccer was what I was best at.
SA: What was the soccer culture like in Memphis in the 1990s?
MIKE KRAUS: A big, big influence in Memphis was coming off the 1994 World Cup. In the 1980s we had a professional indoor team when we were little. There were a couple of coaches who played on that team who ultimately became big coaches within the city and the club.
One was Argentine, Toni Carbognani and one was Polish — former Polish [pro] goalkeeper, Richard Bute. He defected in the early 1980s while his club was on a U.S. tour. He made his way to Memphis and started a youth club, Memphis Futbol Club. He was very rigid and strict — he coached a lot of guys who went on to have great careers from there.
[Editor’s note: Richard Bute, from Szczecin, Poland spent a fall in Chicago in 1980 and was offered a contract by the Hartford Hellions of the MISL. The Hellions were sold to Memphis in 1981 and renamed the Memphis Americans. His wife, Viola, joined him in Memphis and a month later Poland closed its borders and established martial law, leaving their two kids stranded in Poland. After help from local and national officials, the kids were granted leave and reunited with their parents in 1982. In 2013, Bute was inducted to Tennessee’s Soccer Association Hall of Fame, whose members include Carbognani and Cindy Parlow Cone.]
SA: A pathway to the pros in Memphis...
MIKE KRAUS: Some of those guys were my older brother's age and ended up being friends — one of them, Richard Mulrooney, was good friends with my older brother. When I was 8, 9 years old and they were 16, 17, 18 years old and had a path to good Division I schools and ended up making it to MLS.
That was the first path I saw — you can be from Memphis and professional soccer can be attainable. Carey Talley [316 MLS games, 1998-2010], Ross Paule [196, 1997-2005], Mulrooney [295, 1995-2010]. Those were some of the big names and they had some great college and MLS careers.
Ultimately, Memphis and the south as a whole is SEC football country. Soccer was not something that was highly touted. After the World Cup, the craze hit the whole country a little bit, but it was really a small culture within Memphis and a few guys made it and gave hope to the next generation.
Mike Kraus was drafted out of Creighton by the Kansas City Wizards (now known as Sporting Kansas City).
SA: Role models outside of Memphis?
MIKE KRAUS: Like a lot of guys my age, soccer wasn't super regular and I didn't have a soccer family. On TV, there wasn't a whole lot. My favorite team was Arsenal. Watching Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, watching them at Highbury and seeing the beautiful game for the first time, that was who I grew up watching. In Henry, I saw someone who was fast and that's what I saw in myself.
I started watching soccer later than I should have. It was the early days of the Fox Soccer Channel. Ultimately, one of the biggest influences I've had is Peter Vermes from Kansas City. He took over at the interim in my second year and was there for my third year. Just the absolute attention to detail from minute one until you leave the facility.
He was very much about culture, culture, culture. And that's evident now at Sporting. His intensity and attention to detail really rubbed off. Nothing should be overlooked and every piece of the puzzle is important — otherwise the puzzle is not complete.
SA: How did you get your start in coaching? What were some of the challenges you faced coaching early on as you were getting to know that side of the game?
MIKE KRAUS: I started coaching in Omaha, Nebraska, for a year. I came back after playing at Creighton for my undergrad, and I found some teams: a U-13 girls, a U-10 girls and a U-14 boys team. I just kind of dove in. I started learning then. I moved out to Arizona and coached within a club and began to understand the youth culture and youth clubs and the obstacles that we face: We have a giant country where our sport is fifth in popularity — or was when I started.
I knew that from playing in MLS I wanted to be around those top levels. How can I help kids reach that and attain those goals while ultimately knowing it has to be earned and only a few are able to earn it? I was fortunate enough to be in Arizona and did not know moving out to Phoenix that Casa Grande and the academy there existed.
Getting his start at RSL...
I sent my resume every month to Freddy Juarez and Martin Vazquez, who was the academy director at the time. After a year of sending my resume over every month, they were looking to add some age groups and needed to add some staff. I paid my dues with eight straight weeks of summer camps and 115 degrees and ultimately proved I was hardworking, wanting to learn and all that. So I joined the staff in 2012 and from there my learning took off.
Martin Vazquez had just left Bayern Munich and was still a part of the national team staff with Jurgen [Klinsmann]. Obviously Freddy Juarez has made his way up the ranks and is now with Seattle. Being around those guys and another coach, Tony Bruce, who was an older Scottish guy but is now in California. But he played with George Best with the LA Aztecs and has been in the youth game for 40-plus years.
Being around such experience and professionalism was big — I saw it with Peter Vermes as a player but once you're on the other side of the line, then you see the amount of detail that it takes to do training sessions, to prepare video and presentations and all the things it takes to develop the high level talent.
SA: Advice to coaches at the youngest ages?
MIKE KRAUS: Be open-minded and confident. Be willing to accept criticism and be able to completely and honestly self-evaluate your training sessions. A coach shows his worth in training sessions. How can you recognize what went well? How can you recognize what the deficiencies in this particular training session were? Sometimes it's difficult to hear. As a coach you may think it is the absolute truth. But nothing is perfect and it's more about how you take the critique and self-evaluate yourself on how you're doing.
Mike Kraus’ favorite soccer book:
José Mourinho - Made in Portugal By Luis Lourenco
Favorite soccer movie:
Good piece. Success stories of MLS Academies working with local clubs, are the exception, not the rule. It is not easy for the MLS clubs, building relationships with local clubs. Just ask LAG, as mentioned they lost a club to Mike and his team. The MLS side has to bring tangible value to the table, consitently, and not be seen as a threat parachuting in to take talent. More than good people you need a strategy, a ground game and execution, and you need to be dymanic and able to adjust. I am sure Mike has some great stories on this front, how they iteratively developed/built relationships with the clubs. Where I am it is a mess, a bloody mess and it's a shame. Hat tip to all the folks toiling away in RSL, like Mike, that are dedicated to the youth and passionate about the sport, and tolerated the nonsense in that organization for a long time. Think they are good hands now. Keep it going! Onward!