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Tuesday 12 July 2011

The Retirement of Jason Kreis’ #9 by Real Salt Lake

    Real Salt Lake retired Kreis’ number the night of the 3-3 draw with New England. When it was originally announced at the end of March there was much debate over the merit of such an action.

    The act of honouring a player through the retirement of their number is a long-practiced tradition in North American sports, though at times it is not made official, just understood. Some of the noblest examples are league-wide recognition such as with Jackie Robinson’s #42 (see note 1) and Wayne Gretzky’s #99.

    The first ever retired was Ace Bailey’s #6 by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1934, following a career-ending skull fracture. For a club as storied as the Maple Leafs (and as messed up, organizationally speaking) they have the right idea when it comes to number retirement. Only Bailey’s #6 and Bill Barilko’s #5 – who four months after scoring the 1951 Stanley Cup winning-goal disappeared when his single-engine plane crashed (2) - have actually been removed from circulation. The numbers of other important players are honoured with ceremonies and banners rather than being removed thus allowing current players to still wear them.

    The long-time joke of future players wearing uniforms in the triple digits is a possibility if clubs were to continue to remove too many out of the rotation. For something such as sport, that has the ability to regenerate itself into an endless stream of existence, having too many numbers off limits should be of some concern.

    In soccer there is the added issue of the tradition of certain numbers being associated with a specific position or role in the team. Toronto FC coach Bob de Klerk has said that he prefers that old system and finds players with random high numbers disturbing (3). He states that wearing a particular number symbolizes achieving a permanent place in the first team - one would start out as a squad player in the upper ranges of jersey numbers and earn the starter’s jersey; an honour that comes with achievement and time. Add that with the inherent superstition of professional athletes and to remove an important number such as 9 could have a detrimental effect.

    Would a player not join a club if he could not wear his favoured number? RSL is not the sort of club to turn around and start retiring every number just for the sake of it.

    Kreis, after all, only played two and a bit seasons for Salt Lake largely earning his reputation as a striker from his time in Dallas with the Burn. So this recognition had as much to do, if not more, with his exploits off the field – guiding the team to a championship and establishing a philosophy they can take forward - as with those on it.

    Though mostly a North American tradition it has been recently adopted in some soccer circles, usually for instances of tragedy: Marc-Viven Foé and Antonio Puerta for example. The Finnish tradition of a retired number being re-instated for a family member has been adopted by AC Milan for Paolo Maldini’s #3 which would be made available for either of his sons should they make the first team.

    Toronto FC much like their sibling club – the Maple Leafs – has chosen to go the route of honouring rather than retiring. There has even been some criticism of those decisions to honour Danny Dichio and Jimmy Brennan.

    Would it have been a grander notion to make this gesture of gratitude towards Kreis after he had left the club – perhaps to take over the national position – rather than in the midst of just another season of his reign?  Perhaps, but MLS enjoys and craves what Don Garber describes as ‘moments’, something to draw in the fans, something to hang one’s hat on.

    That is what this was. An event, prompted by past success and future expectation; some manufactured history at a time when the club was looking to make real history in the CONCACAF Champions League. Does that matter? Did it all go wrong with the devastating loss in the Champions League Final?

    In the end it won’t matter whether it was odd, or manufactured, it will be one of many building blocks in the construction of a club’s history.

    MLS needs to spend more time recognizing its history – and that of soccer in North America in general.

1 – The retirement was instated in 1997 so Mariano Rivera – who was wearing it at the time – has been allowed to retain it for the duration of his career.

2 – The story of Barilko served as the inspiration for the excellent Tragically Hip tune “Fifty Mission Cap” which was recently #6 on SPORTS ILLUSTRATED’s Ultimate Playlist.

3 – Pulled from one of those video segments run on GOLTV at halftime of matches or during those TFC devoted programs.

     Interesting aside Kreis was selected by Toronto FC in the 2006 MLS Expansion Draft only to be returned to RSL for allocation money. One of those Mo-Moves that may have led to him becoming such an unpopular character around the league.

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