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

Rookie midfielder recalls days helping Howard warm up for Metros

Matt Kassel

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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