There’s no truth to the rumor that MLS coaches are wearing “Hello, my name is … ” stickers on their team jackets this year.
But with eight new coaches in the 19-team league, including four of the five MLS teams competing in the FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup, there’s sure to be a getting-to-know-you period.
For one of the new Turks, the situation is somewhat different.
Real Salt Lake’s Jeff Cassar is one of the few coaches who already knows most of the players on his team, and he’s the only one with the chance of taking them back to the MLS Cup final.
On Dec. 18, 11 days after Real Salt Lake lost the MLS Cup final on penalties to Sporting Kansas City, Cassar replaced Jason Kreis.
In seven seasons, Kreis guided the club to an MLS Cup title, two MLS Cup final appearances and the playoffs six times. Cassar was there for all of that success as the club’s goalkeeper coach.
Now, Cassar’s been handed the duty of maintaining that level of success at Real Salt Lake, which finishes off its preseason training in Tucson with a 1 p.m. match Saturday against Chivas USA in the opener of the final Desert Diamond Cup tripleheader at Kino Sports Complex North Stadium.
The Colorado Rapids will take on the New England Revolution in the 3:30 match, and the Chicago Fire will face the Chivas Guadalajara reserve team in the finale at 6 p.m.
Cassar is balancing making the seamless transition with incorporating his nuances during his first month in charge.
“I think it’s going really well so far,” Cassar said. “There hasn’t been much change within our team, but when you think about everything outside of the team there’s been a lot of change — with myself coming in as head coach and bringing a whole new staff. It can be difficult at times, but I think our players have really adapted well.”
At 6 feet 2 inches and with features that resemble the stoic Don Draper character from the TV series “Mad Men,” Cassar might be taken as an intimidating fellow.
Defender Tony Beltran says that’s not the case.
“I’ve enjoyed working with him,” said Beltran, who is entering his seventh season with Real Salt Lake. “He’s such an instantly likeable guy. He’s got a great personality. He’s really fun to be around, but at the same time he’s got a fantastic soccer brain, a mind for the game and a vision he has for the team. It’s been nothing but positives.”
Cassar certainly knows what life in the MLS is like from the player’s viewpoint. He has been with the league since the beginning in 1996, playing for 10 seasons in the league before becoming a goalkeeper coach for FC Dallas and then RSL.
“The tough part was that (the hiring process) was during the offseason and so all the players were gone when I was interviewing and got the job,” Cassar said. “So over the first two parts of the preseason camp, I tried to meet with every player individually.
“Just to let them know what I want from them and find out how they’re doing. Are they OK with the change? How do they feel about the assistant coaches and the new roles? There were a lot of positive results from that.”
Cassar realizes that working with the players isn’t the only role he now shoulders.
“There’s just a lot more time needed — whether it’s talking to the media, whether it’s putting together sessions, whether it’s preparing for the opponent,” Cassar said. “It’s all something I’m really enjoying, but it’s something I’m still getting used to for sure.”
It’s clear he’s already creating an identity for himself and the team. One that will assure the nametag isn’t needed for very long.