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.
Lagerwey and Kreis also played together for three seasons at Duke and two seasons with the minor-league Raleigh Flyers and New Orleans Storm. The upshot of all this is that the three of them formed a friendship that would serve them well once their playing careers ended.
Kreis and Cassar were best friends and roommates during their playing days — “He stood up in my wedding,” says Cassar — and they and their families remain close. “We used to talk about what we would do when we were done playing,” says Cassar. “That was already in the works when we were players. We remember staying up late and talking about how we would do things our way and what we had learned positively and negatively from all the coaches we had had. We were going to coach the way soccer players would want to be treated.”
Cassar retired as a player after the 2006 season and was hired by Dallas to coach goalkeepers, but it was a short-lived job. Days after Kreis retired as a player during the 2007 season to become the RSL head coach, he called Cassar to hire him as an assistant coach — not just a keeper coach, but a full-fledged field assistant. The call actually violated league rules because Kreis hadn’t asked permission from Dallas to discuss the hire. Kreis had to give up an RSL draft pick to bring his friend to Salt Lake City.
“There are rules you have to follow,” says Cassar. “We were both new to our positions. I had a job with Dallas, and they wanted compensation for losing me.”
The reunion was completed four months later when Kreis recommended his old teammate, Lagerwey, for the GM position to owner Dave Checketts.
The trio of Kreis, Cassar and Lagerwey helped RSL qualify for the playoffs six straight seasons, which included two appearances in the MLS championship finals and one MLS championship. Last December, Kreis accepted the head coaching job with the expansion New York City FC. Not surprisingly, he invited Cassar to come with him.
“There were definitely talks about that,” says Cassar. “It was something if things didn’t work out with RSL.”
Given RSL’s success, there was good reason to maintain the status quo by finding Kreis’s replacement in-house. During the interviewing process, Cassar presented a plan that would retain as many of the team’s core players as possible to ease the transition and build on the relationships he had already developed as an assistant.
“I feel very lucky to be working with a friend,” says Lagerwey. “We go pretty far back, and I’m very comfortable with him. Everyone has always liked Jeff. He’s held a lot of leadership positions, and he’s a guy others turned to for guidance and wanted to emulate his performance and work ethic.”
So there it is, two former goalkeepers — and longtime friends — will lead RSL, one from the sideline and one from the front office.
“Having a goalkeeper as a coach is more common in other countries — it’s not like a white tiger — but it is a first in our league,” says Lagerwey, who notes that RSL has established a coaching staff along the NFL model, with coaches for each position — goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders and forwards.
“You would think there would be more (goalkeepers) as head coaches,” says Cassar. “Maybe if I’m successful there will be."
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org