Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Somewhere it is written that goalkeepers are not head-coaching material in Major League Soccer. Midfielders, forwards, defenders, yes, but not the guys who watch the game from the end of the field and throw their bodies at the ball.
So, placed in historical context, it was an unusual move when Real Salt Lake named Jeff Cassar its head coach in December following the departure of Jason Kreis. As near as anyone can determine, Cassar is the first MLS goalkeeper to become a full-time head coach in the 20-year history of the league.
There are two caveats: Walter Zenga became a player-head coach for the New England Revolution in 1998 and held the job one season, the distinction being part-time coach. And Bruce Arena, the L.A. Galaxy's accomplished head coach, was a goalkeeper in his playing days, but that was long before the creation of the MLS.
Otherwise, goalkeepers have been shut out. “Every team has a goalie coach, but there is this thought that goalies don’t understand the other nuances of the game, not enough to be head coach,” says RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey, who, by the way, is a former MLS goalkeeper.
“I’m not sure why,” says Cassar when asked to explain the dearth of goalkeeper-head coaches. “It’s a tough position and it doesn’t have a ton of glamour to it. When you think of goalie, you think of a hard worker, a person who does everything for the team.”
Who would want someone like that for a head coach?
Maybe it’s because goalies are simply too beat up. Cassar, who is only 40, already has an artificial hip because the one he was born with was battered by years of collisions. He also has a damaged knee and a damaged elbow, but more on that later.
Cassar, a 6-foot-2 Michigan native, came to Utah seven years ago to be Kreis's right-hand man. He immediately embraced Utah's family-oriented culture and settled in his with his wife Jennifer and their three children, Sloan, Dylan and Luke. Jennifer teaches first grade, he coaches the city's soccer team and the two of them attend their kids’ ballgames and dance recitals.
Cassar, who has a reputation for openness, work ethic and people skills, began planning for a career in coaching during his days as a player.
“I always thought I would coach someday and I felt like I was a student of the game,” says Cassar. “It was something I was passionate about. (As an MSL player) I was learning the game, the systems, the tactics and, on top of that, the league.”
He grew up in Livonia, Mich., the youngest of three children. Like his siblings, he began playing soccer about the time he started school. He went on to play for Florida International University and then for a handful of MLS teams during an injury-riddled, 11-year professional career.
Along the way, he played on youth national teams, as well as brief stints with the senior national team and Olympic team. His progress was slowed by a series of serious injuries. The eighth pick overall in the 1996 college draft, he missed most of two MLS seasons with elbow and knee injuries. He deflected a shot that was so powerful it hyperextended his elbow, tearing the ulnar collateral ligament. A midair collision while blocking another shot left him with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. By 2000, he was struggling to stay on the field because of severe hip issues. His right hip would be replaced two years after he retired because of the abuse of repetitive kicking and collisions, which wore down the cartilage.
“It was very painful,” he says.
While playing for the Dallas Burn in 1997, Cassar’s teammates included Lagerwey and Kreis. Years later he would split goalkeeping duties with Lagerwey during two seasons with the Miami Fusion.
“I got to play because Jeff got hurt all the time,” says Lagerwey dryly.
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