By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 29, 2008
In the process of building an elite NCAA program, Sasho Cirovski had grown accustomed to players ditching Maryland early for pro opportunities. The number of premature departures from College Park to MLS and overseas the past dozen years would fill a starting lineup.
This year, however, Cirovski had to brace himself for the possibility of losing a prized recruit before he even arrived.
Although Matt Kassel committed to the Terrapins in 2007 during his junior year at Bridgewater-Raritan (N.J.) High School, he was also the subject of an MLS initiative encouraging clubs to develop homegrown talent. Kassel had been in the New York Red Bulls' youth system, traveling with a select squad and partaking in training sessions with the first team while maintaining amateur status.
This summer Kassel was faced with a decision: Enroll at Maryland or accept New York's modest contract offer.
He chose the Terrapins.
"I came to the conclusion I really wanted to be here," said Kassel, who will probably start tonight when Maryland plays UCLA at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. "I chose this program for a reason. I am happy right now and I'll just move forward."
In a way, the Red Bulls made the decision for him. Reluctant to sign Kassel to an elite rookie contract, known in MLS as Generation Adidas and generally worth between $50,000 and $150,000 annually, New York offered a developmental deal that would have paid him a starting salary of $17,700. The Red Bulls are enamored with Kassel, but committing to a Generation Adidas deal would have precluded them from acquiring a homegrown player by the same means for several years.
"He is a technically talented kid who stands out," New York Sporting Director Jeff Agoos said. "He still needs a few years to mature and we felt it was a better situation for Matt" to play for Maryland.
The Red Bulls will maintain his MLS rights and could make a more aggressive offer next year. Or Kassel, a deep-lying central midfielder who has spent time with the U.S. under-18 and under-20 national teams, could remain at Maryland for several years.
"There was always a high probability he was going to be here," Cirovski said. "We were very patient through the process and, if he was going to go, we were prepared to move on without him."
Only once has a high-profile Maryland prospect reneged on a commitment to turn pro -- Connecticut native Carlos Parra, who signed with New York in 1997 and ended up playing for three teams in a brief MLS career. Among those who left after one, two or three seasons were forward Taylor Twellman, MLS's fifth all-time leading scorer; midfielder Maurice Edu, who was transferred this week to Glasgow Rangers from Toronto FC for $5 million; and goalkeeper Chris Seitz, the U.S. Olympic backup in China.
Kassel played four years of high school soccer, but like most elite players, also played on the club level. He had been with the Bridgewater league since he was young, but when the Red Bulls joined other MLS teams in forming a youth system, he jumped at the opportunity.
"It was very competitive," he said. "You are always competing for a job with better players and you are not guaranteed anything. It made me better."
Early this year, after impressing the coaching staff, he was invited to accompany the full team to Austria for training camp. Few high school-age players are presented with such an opportunity, but allowing the team to pay his expenses would have violated his NCAA eligibility. "I held back. I didn't want to risk it," Kassel said.
Eventually, after meetings with the Red Bulls about his immediate future, he was packing for College Park.
How long he will stay, though, remains unclear.
"I am going to see how the season goes," he said, "and I am not going to promise anyone anything right now."
While the quality of play in college soccer has stagnated as an increasing number of players leave early or bypass school altogether, Cirovski sees it has a beneficial experience to even the most elite prospects. He cites Edu as an example. The midfielder spent three seasons in College Park, was the top overall pick in the 2007 MLS draft, was named the league's rookie of the year and recently joined a prestigious European club.
"We have a lot of aspiring pros," said Cirovski, in his 16th season, "and we have shown guys can go from here and be successful."