The Jeff Cassar era began Thursday for Real Salt Lake, and it was quickly billed as “Jason Kreis – The Sequel.”
Two weeks after Kreis left to become the first coach of NYCFC, his longtime assistant was introduced as the new head coach. Team executives and Cassar himself went out of their way to emphasize that while there's been a coaching change, not much is actually different.
“One of the things Jeff said to me when I interviewed him was, ‘Why change? Why go outside of the RSL family?’” team president Bill Manning said. “He was right.”
The choice came down to Cassar and former RSL assistant (and former Chivas USA coach) Robin Fraser, and the job went to Cassar, at least in part because he had the support of the players. Team owner Dell Loy Hansen said the club’s veterans were asked who they wanted to be their new coach and, “It was unanimous that they wanted Jeff to be their leader.”
That support was one of the reasons Cassar was overcome with emotion at his introduction press conference.
“This is the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Cassar, who also had an offer to follow Kreis to NYCFC. “I don't think it's quite set in for me just yet, but every time I start to think about it, I really start to cry.”
Phrases like “seamless transition” were tossed around a lot at the press conference, both in terms of the team and in terms of the coaching change.
“Literally nothing changes,” said general manager Garth Lagerwey, who has been friends with Cassar since they were Dallas Burn teammates in 1996. “We've been working together every day for [seven] years. So that's as easy a transition on the management side as you could possibly have.”
“He is RSL through and through,” Hansen said of Cassar. “Every training session, strategy and game for the last seven years has had Jeff's mark on it.”
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Cassar acknowledged that RSL fell short in 2013 – losing in the finals of both the US Open Cup and MLS Cup – but he vowed, “We are going to push on … and do even better.”
He said that will be achieved not by blowing things up and starting over.
“We fell short just a little bit this year,” Manning said. “But we did not need to go outside that locker room” for a new coach.
Nor is there a plan to make big changes to the team.
“I believe in these guys,” Cassar said. “I believe in the core group of players that we have. The leadership. The character. It's unbelievable. I believe in the young talent that we have on our team. The future is very bright for RSL.”
Hansen stated unequivocally that “virtually everyone is coming back from [last year]. We will have never had less change in RSL's history as we start a new year.”
Cassar has been an RSL assistant since May 2007, coaching the goalkeepers as well as the Reserve team. And that also played into the decision to give him the job.
“The key to this franchise long-term is going to be some of these younger players,” Lagerwey said. “And Jeff Cassar, more than any other coach on our staff, has worked closely with the young guys on this team through his leadership on the Reserve team.”
Among those Cassar thanked were Fraser and Kreis, who he said “has been a mentor to me for seven years. Our friendship has been for 18 years, 20 years. He is an unbelievable person, an unbelievable friend. I definitely would not be here without him.”
It seems fitting he'll be coaching in a stadium where Kreis' name is emblazoned over his shoulder – the only person so honored in the team's decade of existence.