Sandy • Scanning the crowd at the 100 Lions Club inside Rio Tinto Stadium, it hit Jeff Cassar.
The fact that he’s now leading the team that hired him when his playing career came to a close eight years ago hasn’t quite set in yet, but standing at the dais Thursday for the first time as Real Salt Lake’s new head coach, the 39-year-old former goalkeeper and assistant coach located and expressed what he was feeling.
Jeff Cassar file
Age » 39
Hometown » Livonia, Mich.
College » Florida International
Position » Goalkeeper
Pro career » MLS, 1996-2006, EPL, 2002 (Bolton Wanderers)
Coaching career » Real Salt Lake, assistant (2007-current)
Personal » Married with three children; lives in Sandy
"There are so few opportunities in life," he said.
Cassar jumped at the opportunity to replace former RSL coach and longtime friend Jason Kreis — who left to take the coaching job with MLS expansion team New York City FC — when the job was offered to him on Monday. Three days later, Cassar was introduced as the third coach in RSL’s 10 years of existence.
A self-described "player’s coach," Cassar grasped at his tie when describing the feeling of leading a franchise he’s helped construct from the ground up since May 2007.
"This is an opportunity of a lifetime," he told RSL supporters and news media.
RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen said he looked at Cassar’s track record as the reserve team coach for RSL, his ability to work with and develop young players, his relationship with talented core players, and the preparedness Cassar exuded during the interview process.
"To compete now requires a committed leader and coach who knows our unique RSL system and has the absolute respect of the talented team to execute it," Hansen said. "We also need a leader with an unbridled desire to win. That man, for RSL, is Jeff Cassar, our coach and new leader."
It helped having the support of a core group of RSL veterans.
Players backed Cassar, an assistant with the team for the last seven seasons who has been on the bench during the six consecutive playoff appearances, celebrated the 2009 MLS Cup victory and helped a club reach four cup finals in five seasons.
"It was unanimous they wanted Jeff to be their leader," Hansen said.
Prior to being chosen to succeed Kreis and lead a team expected to contend for titles in 2014, Cassar asked Hansen, team president Bill Manning and general manager Garth Lagerwey why they’d bother looking outside for the club’s next head coach. "I honestly felt that I was the right person for this job," Cassar said, adding that he also firmly believes he can get RSL to the next level.
"I know what this team’s capable of, and we’ve fallen short on a few things the last few years, and that’s a hurdle we want to jump," he said. "I think I can do that with this group — I think I can challenge them in ways that will get us past that last little hurdle."
The continuity expected with an in-family hire will yield similarities — and differences — between Kreis and Cassar. The possession-centric soccer will remain, but Cassar said there will be some minor tweaks.
That ultimately led management to tab the former goalkeeper to lead the club into the post-Kreis era — and more importantly, contend for more cups.
"He’s a good guy and he’s very likable and very approachable, and with that said, he’s got some steel," Lagerwey said. "He’s got some backbone, and he’s going to need that as well."
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