Robin Fraser, one of the finest defenders ever to play in Major League Soccer, might one day be considered one of American soccer's most influential and outstanding coaches.
The former U.S. national team center back, who anchored the Galaxy's backline in MLS's first five seasons, played a pivotal role as Jason Kreis' top assistant in making Real Salt Lake into the league's best club before taking charge at Chivas USA in January, and he's got the Goats playing some of the nicest soccer in the league after just a few months.
We sat down with Fraser to talk about his career, his coaching philosophy and how things are going with Chivas.
What were your expectations taking this job, and how have those been tested?My expectations were that we could implement a system and be good in no time. And the fact of the matter is it takes some time.
I was looking at Real Salt Lake's record. We were 0-2-3, so we were five games in without a win, but I knew we're playing well. A lot was being made of the fact that we're the only team in the league without a result. But I went back and I looked at Real Salt Lake for the first seven games I was there in 2007, and we lost our first seven games when I was there. And it's funny to look back at that now and say this is the best team in the league.
So it was good perspective for me, and it just kind of made me realize this is going to be a process. I've been saying that all along, but I think you want the process over yesterday, and the truth is that the process takes a long time. ...
I think the surprises are, having been through kind of a rebuilding process with Salt Lake, you have certain things in your mind that you know work, so you come in and start applying them, and then you realize it's an entirely new group of players, and the exact same things that were the cause of success there maybe aren't going to be the exact same things here. It's an interesting challenge to figure out what buttons to push and how to tweak things to get them exactly how you want them.
The fact is you want it to be perfect, but it takes a long time.
Does the process ever really end?No, never. It's a never-ending process. You're never satisfied. If you think the process is over, then you may as well retire and be done, because you've stopped being open-minded and you've stopped looking for answers, and I think you can never get to that point, because there's always somewhere someone else can be doing it better. Unless you're Pep Guardiola and you're Barcelona, maybe.
What must you do to get it right?It's interesting, because I think the right mix of players is so much more than a talented group. It's the personalities, it's the leadership, it's attacking- vs. defensive-minded players, and how they mesh and how many you have on the field of each. There's so many different things.
And when you're close to being completely satisfied -- and maybe you never actually get to that point -- you've got that good balance of all those things.
Is chemistry and character most important?Yes. Taking away ability and that sort of thing. Chemistry and character are huge. I'm a big, big believer in that, that you have to have the right people in to create the type of environment that you want, that's competitive yet respectful.
FROM PLAYER TO COACH
How much did you grow as a coach at Real Salt Lake?
A pretty good amount. I came in with a number of ideas, was able to put most of that in practice, and, obviously, the team responded well and we ended up doing extremely well. It was good to confirm a lot of my thoughts, my approches to the game and that sort of thing.
But you have moments of adversity, and I think that's maybe where you learn the most. You look at a team that's doing very well, and they slip off the rails for a couple of games, and why did that happen, and can you figure it out and can you fix it?
Who were your coaching mentors?I think if you're a thinking player, then you're always looking for answers, you're always trying to figure out why. Then I think if you play as long as I did, then you get to formulate some ideas, so a lot of my coaching, my methodology and the way I feel you should approach the game, that's just things I've learned over the years.
But in terms of personnel management, I think Bruce [Arena, the Galaxy's coach] was really good with the national team. He's one of the guys I admired a lot when I played for him.
Did you feel like a coach on the field?I certainly felt like I had a good idea about how things should be done, and I tried like hell to get [teammates] into the positions I needed to get them into and get them into the mindset that I thought I needed to get them into.
Does that make me a coach on the field? I don't know. It made me someone who wanted to win, and I think I knew ways to make us win.
Were you a thinking player from day one?I think I was fairly fortunate, because I was extremely gifted and extremely athletic, and a lot of things as a youth player came pretty easily to me. I didn't really develop probably a sense of how to train until I was in college. Approach to the game and that sort of thing. And then probably in my 20s, athletically, I was still so good that a lot of things came fairly easily for me.
And then playing with the national team and being put in some pretty high-level positions, you realize you have to think the game more. If I thought the game at 23 as I did at 38, I would have been unbelievable. You get older and you find other ways to get it done rather than being athletic, so I think I actually got better as a soccer player as I got older even if physically I got worse.
What were you best at as a player?In the beginning, I was purely physically very, very difficult to beat as a defender, because I had pretty good anticipation, good reactions, I was extremely athletic and quick and extremely fast. As a defender, I was extremely comfortable on the ball.
As I got older, the best things about me were that I could see plays happening five passes ahead and defensively be able to put people into spots to prevent things. By the end, I would say my best asset by far was my abilily to read the game and think the game and solve problems.
To be a good defender, do you have to be smart?Yeah. No two ways about it. You can be a forward and not be particularly smart, but if you're ridiculously gifted, you can be a great forward. But to be a defender, it's just so much thinking.
You find places to take physical breaks as a defender, for sure. But as a center back, you don't ever get a mental break. You never, ever get a mental break. And I think at the end of the day, the best defenders are the ones who can think and are athletically up for the challenge, and you put those two together, you've got some pretty good players.
GREAT GALAXY TEAMS
Do you miss playing?I don't. Playing by the end [of my career] became much more physically challenging, and I would put so much pressure on myself on game days. I had these routines, all these different things I did. Game preps for me became so long.
My wife used to say, "It's nice to see you on Sunday." Sundays were the only days I wasn't so focused on playing.
I liked playing with a team. I have absolutely no desire to play men's league soccer -- like someone who misses it and wants to go out and play in a Sunday league. ... I have no interest in playing soccer where you can't yell at somebody if they won't do the right amount of work.
Those early Galaxy teams you played on were outstanding, especially in the back.The early Galaxy teams were pretty damn good. And I think Lothar [Osiander, L.A.'s first head coach] had a great demeanor in how he dealt with the players, and we had a lot of very experience players in a very young league. Look at myself and [Mauricio] Cienfuegos and [Eduardo] Hurtado and Cobi Jones and Dan Calichman and Mark Semioli ... guys who played for a long time.
And we were fortunate to land some young players like Greg [Vanney, now my assistant]. I mean, Greg was a thinking player from day one. And he just fit right into the fold. And Chris Armas, another young player who came in at that time. It was awesome. It was really, really good.
I mean, I think the D.C. United folks [who beat the Galaxy in the 1996 and 1999 MLS Cup finals] will never admit how good that team was, and rightfully so. We didn't win with that team, but I certainly think that team is among the best teams -- the first five, six years of the Galaxy were phenomenal. Certainly, some of the best teams I played on.
You're certainly in the conversation about the best defenders in MLS history. Where do you stand?That's probably for someone else to judge. At the end of the day, I felt like I added a lot to the league, and I grew leaps and bounds in my time with the league. But there are a number of guys that come in that conversation.
I didn't know how good Eddie Pope was until I played with him on the national team. He was a helluva player. Carlos Bocangera has gone on to do very well for himself. He also started as an athletic defender and has become an extremely smart defender. I think there are a number of people who could enter that conversation, and it's good company to be part of, that's for sure.
When you retired, were you satisfied with your career?I was. I would have liked to go to a World Cup, but I'm not the type of person who spends a lot of time looking back on what if or woulda, coulda, shoulda, because you can't do anything about it.
I was in the mix for four World Cups -- always a bridesmaid, never a bride. And it would have been nice to have gone, but that's the way it goes. Coaches make decisions, and you have to accept them and move on. You don't waste a lot of time thinking about it.
Looking at my career, I was able to travel a lot and see a lot of the world and support my family and buy houses and take care of my wife, take care of my kids. I look at it, and I look at where I'm sitting today, and I'm extremely thankful for everything soccer has gotten me.
When did you know you'd be a coach?By the time I was done playing, I was extremely frustrated with the lack of preparation of some of the young players who were coming into the league and were supposed to be pretty good players, and their understanding of the game wasn't where it needed to be.
Soccer to me is like a chess match. If you get a group of guys together who can think, then you can outthink the opponent, and then you can gain success that way for sure. And I just think all along that in the grand scheme, I wanted to be able to influence the development of soccer in the country. In the midst of all that, the opportunity came up to go to Real Salt Lake, and it was just something I couldn't pass up. It was so exciting to be back in the league.
I've been coaching since the early '90s. Coaching youth players, helping out college teams. And I do think coaching made me a much better player. Because when you actually have to clarify things for others, in doing so, things become clearer for you.