Cassar shines in spotlight

The virtues of hard work, patience and a good attitude have a new poster boy in a Dallas Burn uniform.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Jeff Cassar.

Longtime MLS fans know Cassar, at least by name. The last couple of weeks have shown us we don't know enough.

When the Burn started the season with a club-record-equaling four-game unbeaten streak, a rebuilt defense got the credit and newly acquired veteran goalkeeper Scott Garlick many of the notices. When a four game losing string was broken with a June 5 win over the Metrostars in New Jersey, Garlick was still at the helm. So there was understandable concern when Garlick was felled by a training ground high ankle sprain in the days before New England's visit to the Cotton Bowl the next week.

Jeff Cassar made those concerns go away, and no disrespect to Garlick. Cassar made a bushel-basket full of acrobatic saves, one or two of the impossible variety, in the win over the Revs, earning his selection as MLS Man of the Match, and again the next week in a road draw at Colorado. Anyone who's had the chance to watch the Burn train could not have been surprised. Cassar has looked extremely sharp in practice, despite not knowing when or if he'd be rewarded with game action before Garlick went down.

Ask Cassar what has motivated him to work so hard despite his backup status and you're greeted with a quizzical look. "It's what we're supposed to do. We're pros," he said following a Dallas training session this week, and his friendly tone and demeanor can't mask the notion that he doesn't quite understand the reason for the question. Players play and pros work. Why would we wonder at that?

And of course we wonder at that because it's what pros are supposed to do. That doesn't mean it comes so naturally to every player, especially players who know they have talent but aren't playing, for whatever reason.

It's especially the case for players who haven't always been backups, and Cassar hasn't. In 1996, the Michigan native and Florida International alum was the alternate 'keeper for the US Olympic team, a member of the US U-23s and a rookie with Dallas, which had made him the 8th overall pick in the MLS college draft. After missing '97 following surgery to repair a torn elbow ligament, he was chosen by the Miami Fusion in the expansion draft for '98.

That first season in Miami was a high water mark for Cassar on the field. He started 21 games for the Fusion and was voted the team's defender of the year. Since then, his time has been reduced by injury and circumstance. What has never changed has been his attitude.

"The game is fun," says Cassar, one of his team's most popular players. "I'm very competitive, and I always want to start. But it's supposed to be about the team, about winning. If you can't come out to training and work hard for two hours a day, whether you're playing or not, something's wrong with you. I wouldn't feel good about myself, not like a man, if I didn't do that."

Last year was tough for Cassar and the rest of the Burn. The team suffered through the worst year of its existence. Most of the time, Cassar backed up the talented but mercurial D.J. Countess, who, to put it mildly, didn't see eye to eye with then-coach Mike Jeffries. "There were things going on that just shouldn't go on," is all Cassar needs to say about it.

It was also a tough year for him off the pitch as he battled with problems in his personal life. "My teammates got me through that," he says, "especially guys like Jason Kreis and Bobby Rhine."

Because of that, Cassar insists he's not much different from the 22 year old who came to Dallas in '96. "I love to compete and I love to have fun. I like everything about this job. Sometimes bad things happen. That's part of sports."

What Cassar is proving now is that the measure of the player is not what happens to him but what he makes of those times. His teammates and coaches have raved about what he's done since Garlick's injury, mostly because they see it as a reward for his work ethic.

And when Garlick returns, if Cassar is playing well but is asked to resume his seat on the bench (not a given, since manager Colin Clarke avowedly doesn't subscribe to the theory that a player can't lose his spot to an injury, if his replacement is producing)? What then?

"It would be hard," says Cassar with the shrug of a man who is grounded and enjoys his life. "But we're trying to go on the team thing here. It would be hard, but that's life."

In the meantime, Jeff Cassar is setting a tremendous example for his young teammates. It's what pros do.