Real Salt Lake: The spotlight shifts to Jeff Cassar
Casa Grande, Ariz. • It's dusk in the desert and Jeff Cassar's face balloons red with laughter. He consoles friend and assistant coach Andy Williams moments after Javier Morales bests the former Real Salt Lake midfielder in a game of soccer tennis.
On a Thursday night at Grande Sports Academy, where Real Salt Lake convenes in the wintery months to prepare for another long season of Major League Soccer, it's another round of preseason training. Waiting for separate groups of players to walk out to the training fields is Cassar, the man tasked with following in the footsteps of a local legend, of tasked with contending for and winning a championship in his first attempt as a head coach.
But when it's time to laugh, Jeff Cassar does exactly that.
When it's time to have fun, Jeff Cassar has a riot.
In fact, he runs with these opportunities. Cassar teases Williams as Morales jogs back toward the group on the fields amid silhouettes of towering palm trees, both arms raised in triumph.
Cassar, who recently turned 40, is one of the guys. He'll tell you that, his general manager will tell you that and the locker room he's now in charge of will tell you that.
"Jeff is an intense guy, but he's also very laid back," said defender Nat Borchers. "He's able to switch it on and off. He's got this great sense of humor and personality, gets along with everybody, but he can also challenge us to get better."
That is Cassar's objective, one the club and fan base dream he can achieve this season and in the seasons to come.
For seven years as Jason Kreis led the franchise, Cassar worked behind the scenes as a goalkeeper's coach and eventually first-assistant to the perfectionist Kreis. Now Cassar leads the drills and blows the whistle and barks out the orders during various training and tactical exercises.
It's a job he fought for in the interview process when he challenged the RSL front office to keep the continuity which had been cultivated with success since 2008. It's a job that on the day he was introduced would be validated by what he described as seeing the guys smile and winning games.
"He's just a different man than Jason is," defender Tony Beltran said. "Not saying he's not a great man, he's just a different man. His personality really radiates throughout the group."
If he's is in fact different from Kreis, then who is Jeff Cassar?
He enjoys barbecues, spending time with his wife, Jen, and his three children: Sloan, Dylan and Luke. He attends soccer games, dance recitals and Girl Scout activities. He's an emotional guy, a giving person "maybe to a fault," he says and someone who tries to restrain himself from cheering to loud at when 7-year-old Dylan dances or when 5-year-old Luke makes a play on the field.
"I want to make people happy," Cassar said. "I want to please, and that's something I might have to learn to actually taper back a little bit. I just don't want to overextend myself."
But he won't be afraid to turn it up to 11 if need be. Cassar said he's learned to implement much of the approach to each match in training every day. The hard work and game-planning will always come in the days leading up to most Saturdays. He preaches preparation.
And as comes with the territory, 2014 and beyond will draw inevitable comparisons and criticisms compared to Cassar's close friend and mentor Kreis, off to expansion franchise New York City FC set to join the league in 2015.
"Jason wasn't a prototypical player's coach in the sense of he was in charge, and himself personally, a very disciplined person, very much of a fiery, intense personality that typically doesn't identify as a player's coach," said RSL GM Garth Lagerwey. "Jeff is more of a prototypical player's coach Â more of a Pete Carroll type."
That could bode well, but the dilemmas will be there. Cassar inherits a roster he's essentially completely familiar with, having returned 25 players from last year's Western Conference title group, a side that made it to two cup finals last year and came up short each time.
"If you're losing three games in a row, if you hit that bump, which is inevitable for anybody any GM or coach what happens then?" Lagerwey explained. "What will that adversity reveal?"
Cassar, a longtime MLS goalkeeper, understands the pressures of this gig, saying it was something he wanted for himself and for his shoulders to hopefully lift.
"There is pressure, for sure, just because everyone is used to a certain standard," Cassar said. "Will we have our dips? Sure, absolutely, but I think with the players and the personalities on this team, that we'll always come out on top."
It's his faith in being a "team guy" that has him on this path. Growing up outside of Detroit, Mich., he played soccer because his brother was a defender, his sister a winger and Cassar found goalkeeping to be more of a team position. The only solo sport he likes is tennis and even then "I like doubles more than singles," he said.
It's what has made him one of the guys, which has kept him in that bubble of trust between players and coaches. When he sees a gap in warm-up drills, he jumps in and tries to do it better than the young guys. When a shot is skied or ball miss-timed, Cassar encourages to get it right.
"Instantly, he's someone you want to play for, someone you want to do well for," Beltran said, "and someone you want to fight for."
RSL is less than four weeks away from its 2014 opener at the StubHub Center against Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Omar Gonzalez and the L.A. Galaxy.
But as Cassar's emotions lood in the hours leading up to kickoff on March 8, he can't take his eyes off of the preparation, because reality spells out a sentence of high expectation.
"Jeff is the guy who's doing the day-to-day, and he's in the trenches and he's in the locker room and we're asking a lot of a first-year head coach with a veteran group with a limited window to win," Lagerwey said.
To which Cassar just smiles.
Jeff Cassar file
Age Â» 40
Hometown Â» Livonia, Mich.
College Â» Florida International
Position Â» Goalkeeper
Pro career Â» MLS, 1996-2006, EPL, 2002 (Bolton Wanderers)
Coaching career Â» Real Salt Lake, assistant (2007-current)
Personal Â» Married with three children; lives in Sandy