From ballboy to pro: Kassel lives the dream with Red Bulls

HARRISON, N.J. — It was usually around the time that the song All-Star by Smash Mouth would start pumping through the speakers at Giants Stadium. A 12-year-old Matt Kassel would saunter out through the player’s tunnel at the old MetroStars home stadium and straight onto the field. He’d grab a ball from one of the bags lying near the goal and soon he’d be juggling and doing deft moves around imaginary defenders.

His adidas Sambas were a blur as he played alone on the field. His hair cut was the same as it is now, a decade later.

A few minutes after Kassel came onto the pitch, Tim Howard would emerge from the same tunnel to a smattering of applause from the few dozen fans already inside the stadium. After a few minutes of stretching, the star goalkeeper would wipe the sweat off his face with a towel and nod his head at Kassel. No words were needed, as the youngster began peppering Howard with shots.

Now, Kassel is peppering MLS keepers with shots. But this time he isn’t just relegated to pregame warm-ups, as the 21-year-old midfielder from Bridgewater, N.J., made his debut last Saturday in Vancouver.

“It was a dream come true,” Kassel said. "I was excited, a little nervous."

Kassel’s father used to be in management for the MetroStars, a position which allowed his son access onto the field before matches. The younger Kassel used to wear his red-and-black MetroStars jersey back in those days, complete with his name emblazoned on the back.

He became a fixture in the MetroStars pregame ritual, always helping Howard to warm up. It got to the point where the supporters behind the goal got used to seeing Kassel out there in an untucked jersey that went down to his kneecaps, and would cheer wildly each time he’d score on Howard. Sometimes he’d bow after a goal, and he’d always grimace whenever Howard made a big save on a shot that seemed destined to find the net.

“I have a lot of memories from that,” Kassel said. “Those memories have made me where I am today.”

He still calls Howard on the phone, sometimes just to chat about being a professional. It’s valuable advice for a rookie making the jump from central midfielder in the amateur ranks to utility man with the Red Bulls.

Kassel’s debut was at right midfield last Saturday afternoon in Vancouver, and he’s also played right back with the reserves and in preseason. Forgoing his senior year at perennial powerhouse Maryland, Kassel signed with the club he grew up watching and supporting.

He says he’ll play any position to help the team, and His performance against the Whitecaps in an unfamiliar position on short notice — Kassel replaced an injured Carlos Mendes — earned a nod from head coach Hans Backe.

“He played solid in his first minutes in MLS,” Backe said. “He played simple, he played solid.”

Kassel’s journey from a kid who barely fit into his replica jersey to a real kit and real time with the first team at Red Bull Arena has led the Home Grown player to come full circle in his young life.

Having begun to earn the confidence of the coaching staff with his play, Kassel realizes that he is now fulfilled the first part of his childhood dream to play for New York.

“We are the team to beat in MLS," he said. "We are the name, the brand, the state. It is simply for me to be ready when my time has come — my time came on Saturday.”

Kristian R. Dyer can be followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer