SANDY — After two up-and-down years as head coach of Real Salt Lake, Jeff Cassar has guided the Claret and Cobalt to the third-best record in Major League Soccer.
The strong start is especially surprising since his team played five straight road games. RSL returns to Rio Tinto Stadium Tuesday to host minor-league Wilmington Hammerheads in a U.S. Open Cup game and will resume league play against Portland June 18.
Cassar played goalkeeper professionally in the United States and in England before joining RSL as an assistant coach in 2007 under head coach Jason Kreis. Cassar took over the reigns after Kreis left to coach New York City FC (he's since joined the U.S. Men's National Team's staff after being fired after just one season at NYCFC).
Cassar spoke to the Deseret News this week about who influenced his coaching style, about being one of the few former goalkeepers-turned head coach and on the adjustments he and his staff have made this season.
DN: What are the biggest influences, coming up as a player and as an assistant coach?
JC: I think all the coaches I've played for have been an influence on me. I can remember as far back as my U-12 coaches where they instilled skill work. Then there was a coach when I was U-16 that was all about competition and, you know, turning into a man. That really helped me out as well. I've taken bits and pieces from my college coach (Karl Kremser, longtime coach at Florida International University) who was very good motivator, having a good eye for talent. All the way to my MLS coaches who have all played some kind of role — good and bad — but I would say the biggest influence I've had in my coaching has been Jason Kreis, who obviously I was an assistant coach for seven years.
DN: Do you still talk to him?
Sometimes. It's interesting, we talk more about other things (than soccer) ... because now we do compete against each other and you always got to hold your cards close to your chest a little bit, but we do still talk.
DN: Why are there not more goalkeeper head coaches?
JC: I think they see both sides of the ball. They are leaders from the back; they see everything in front of them. And then they're dealing with forwards and seeing the attack all the time. So I feel that they are set up to be extremely helpful to the entire team. To be successful, you need to be a good communicator, proactive in your thinking. I think (goalkeeping) just doesn't have a lot of glamor to it. But I appreciate having this opportunity because a not a lot of us do. What's really cool is that a lot of goalkeeper coaches, assistant coaches in the league are really pulling for me to be successful so people can see that we're not just back there kicking the ball at a goalkeeper — that was back in the day. Now you're involved with the team, you're involved with the (training) sessions. At the end of the day, you've got to put yourself out there. You can easily be pushed to the back and that's all you do. But I've always been striving to do more, wanting more, whether it was scouting, whether it was putting the session together. All those things I have been striving for.
DN: Do you consider yourself hands-on or hands-off coach?
JC: Very hands-on (smiles). I put in the training sessions together with my coaches' and my staff's input. I do ask their opinion a lot. But for me to feel good — and my coaching style is — I need to be right in there, sweating, feeling it, definitely not (standing) from the sideline, watching. I need to be in there with the guys and feeling what they're feeling so hopefully I can make the best decision, of what's actually going on, not just what I'm only seeing.
DN: RSL is putting a lot of money into its academy. You've coached a lot of young players. What kind of advice would you give to youth coaches to try to bring up the next great player?
JC: You can really go many ways with that question. It can be different ages, you can give a different answer. They change so much from year to year to year, they could change with size, they could change with maturity, that could change with ... everything. You need to see where they're at and where they could end up. And it's not easy. You can be a former player and not able to judge talent at all. You could not even play before and have a great eye for talent. There's no perfect scout, but if you leave it open and watch them grow over time, I really think there should be pools of players, not just certain players. The big ones are really good when they're young, right, but then the other kids catch up to them, so you just really need to have a big picture of these kids of not where they are now, but where they could be because they change so much.
DN: What kind of adjustments you've made this year that you learned from coaching the first two years (as head coach)?
JC: The first year was continuing on what was here. Obviously, our roster was changing. Our team was changing, not just players, the front office was changing. I felt the change in formation was needed. I think it was the right decision. The first season was just plugging holes all over the place, trying to introduce something that is so foreign to a group of guys that have played a certain way for so long. So there was the teaching part, there was the selling part.
(In the first two years) there were the injuries, the call-ups from the national team and there was the best teaching is some success. That's when some things really start to happen for you, and we laid the foundation last year for that. With that being said, I probably spread myself too thin in that process where I was working with the offense, the defense, working on the set plays, the transition for offense to defense, from defense to offense and it wasn't fair to the players because we didn't master one thing and move on to the next. It was implement it, try to get results as we had in the past, and it didn't work out.
So I met with staff in the offseason, met with the players in the offseason, met with the ownership group and (RSL General Manager) Craig (Waibel) and (Vice President of Soccer Administration) Rob (Zarkos). There were areas where I need to improve — at being a coach, at being a leader. I think we addressed a lot of those things. I'm continuing to strive to get better. I'm taking a (yearlong) U.S. Soccer (Federation) coaching course for the (elevated) pro license. The instructors there are making you think outside the box, challenging your staff. We're a much more focused staff this year and that leads down to the team. If we're more focused and more task-oriented, then (the players) can try to master their task. And I think that started in preseason and it's still a work in progress and we're not there yet. And even if we were in first place, we'd still be striving to get better.