Youth product Kassel looks to have bright prospects
In many ways, it will be old hat for Matt Kassel.
Someday soon, 18-year-old Matt Kassel will walk onto the field of Giants Stadium for warm-ups before an MLS game, and it will all be routine for him. Despite his recent decision to attend the University of Maryland for a year rather than turn professional, Kassel has a deep connection with this franchise. When the league formed in 1996, Kassel's father served as the MetroStars' director of operations, allowing his son access to the team and its players. Almost instantly, young Kassel quickly became a fixture around the team.
As fans would begin to filter into the stadium a couple of hours before a MetroStars game, one of the first things they would notice on the field was a dark-haired youth near one of the goals. With his personalized jersey on, Kassel was performing tricks, seemingly unfazed by the people watching him. As the players would come out for stretching and pregame drills, Kassel would stand on the field and begin peppering Tim Howard with shots. This routine carried on for years.
"He has a great passion for soccer, he has been fortunate to be around it," said Bob Montgomery, the director of the Red Bulls' youth development system. He's seen Kassel develop and mature as a player in the team's academy. "He grew up in this environment, watched the games and now has a chance to be one of those players."
Now, after being a member of the Red Bulls Academy for the past two seasons, Kassel stands at the crossroads of his career. The high school senior who currently lives at home in central New Jersey could be the first academy player to sign in MLS' newly minted "Home Grown" procedure. He may be the first, but he hopes he won't be the last.
"Being selected from the academy to go to the first team would be an honor," said Kassel. "It would fulfill my dream and would show others that MLS and the academy system can produce future young professional players here in the United States."
His time with the Red Bulls, he says, was the right start for him. Over the past two years, he has been able to test himself against the best. Traveling the country and representing the club has paid dividends for the young midfielder. He has been able to watch, train and live like a professional.
"The academy was the right next step for me in soccer," said Kassel about his time in the Red Bull system. "I went to train with them and felt good about the atmosphere they were creating and stayed. They have put together a quality learning environment with the right people teaching us about becoming professionals."
And now the next step might be the professional ranks. With a recent experience with the U-18 national team still fresh in his mind, Kassel is weighing the overtures from MLS while shooting for inclusion into Thomas Rongen's youth World Cup squad. With three tournaments in the coming months, Kassel will have several opportunities to prove his mettle at the international level.
"Matt is a guy we want to bring in more over the next two camps," said Rongen. "A composed midfielder, good touch. One of the best out of the 30 or so players we've seen."
With his academy experience, Kassel will hold an advantage over many of the other players vying for a slot on the youth national team. For several years now, New York has been at the forefront of the youth development system in MLS. Two years ago, then head coach Mo Johnston attempted to sign one of the team's academy players, Johnny Exantus, to the roster.
"Playing professional soccer in MLS is my goal," said Kassel. "When I get a chance to achieve that goal is yet to be seen. Every day I work at becoming a better soccer player, with my goal in sight of someday being a pro. What path I take to the pros is still a question."
The connection for Kassel with the franchise now stems a decade. While far removed from the skinny youth who used to warm up with the team, the high school senior has grown into a man. Now a shade under 6 feet tall and weighing a solid 165 pounds, he already has emulated the professional experience as a member of the academy team. More expectations are now placed on his head.
"He still needs to prove himself at the next level," said Rongen. "But he has those capabilities that can transfer to the next level."
The Red Bulls Academy program is arguably the most intense club-run developmental program in the country. Kassel and his teammates train an average of three times a week and participate in one or two matches during that stretch. The goal, according to Montgomery, is to make practices more intense than any situation the players will face on the field during a match. Already one player from the program, Gabriel Ferrari, has seen some action for his Serie A club, though he is only a teenager. While he notes that he is confident that "five or six" other academy players can eventually play in MLS, Montgomery notes that Kassel is a special player.
"Technically, he is good enough," Montgomery said. "A very skillful player, he makes very good decisions. He knows when to hold the ball, when to release."
It is a point that Nunzio Belfiore would concur with. A teammate of Kassel in the academy and a goalkeeper bound for St. John's University this fall, Belfiore has watched Kassel outclass all his opposition. His teammate of two years, Belfiore feels that the midfielder is a special player.
"He gets out of difficult situations," Belfiore notes. "He makes it all look comfortable, smooth -- like no one is even there."
But beyond his obvious skill, Belfiore also lauds Kassel as a leader on the team and someone that they all follow.
"He is a leader," said Montgomery about Kassel, who is captain of the team. "Not afraid to tell his teammates what to do. But, they respect him. He won't tell them to do anything he won't do himself."
With over 100 goals and 40 assists in his high school career, scholarship offers from coast to coast and possibilities to play club ball, it would be easy to forget that Matt Kassel is still a teenager, just weeks away from his senior prom. He likes listening to the Goo Goo Dolls and, get this, he enjoys math. And he has a poster of Adriana Lima hanging on his bedroom wall.
"We call him country boy, because he is from Jersey," said the Brooklyn-bred Belfiore of the ribbing that Kassel gets from his teammates. "He's a preppy boy, that is for sure. We're always teasing him that he might break a nail or something. I think he owns everything in the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog."
But does he pop his collar?
"Oh yeah," said Belfiore. "Or we do it for him."
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and also writes for the New York City daily paper METRO. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.