Matt Kassel won’t be showing up in any MLS box scores this season. He won’t be making history as the first youth academy product to play for a senior MLS team (at least not yet). He won’t show up on the field like some American version of Bojan Krkic, a teenager ready to dominate a professional league.
Ultimately, the Red Bulls made a decision of prudence, a decision that won’t sit well with fans already exasperated by a relatively uneventful off-season on the player acquisition front. Perhaps that desperate feeling led some fans to see Kassel as a ray of hope, a young prospect who could give them something to root for in a season some see shaping up to be another in a long line of disappointments.
Lost in all that is the reality that Kassel isn’t ready for MLS right now, and while adding him to the club would have been good for him and the Red Bulls, it just wasn’t a practical move to make right now.
Why? It boils down to the fact that the Red Bulls had two ways to add Kassel to its roster. Either by signing him to a senior contract and including him on the 18-man roster, or by recommending him for a Generation adidas contract, which would mean more money for Kassel and roster exemption status the Red Bulls coveted. (There was a third option, which was signing Kassel to a developmental roster spot, but Kassel was never going to accept a developmental contract and rejected that offer.)
The senior roster spot wasn’t an option, not when Kassel isn’t ready for the MLS game and not when head coach Juan Carlos Osorio will already have senior roster cuts to make to clear room for potential signings in the coming days and months. The Generation adidas contract was an option, but going that route would have meant not being able to use that mechanism on another academy player for three years.
Think about that one for a second. The Red Bulls have just recently committed considerable resources to upgrading the youth academy, including make it free for all age groups in an effort to attract the best players from the talent-rich New York and New Jersey area. A year or two from now a player like Jonny Exantus or Walter Hines could emerge as a young player capable of making an immediate impact in Major League Soccer and the team wouldn’t have that mechanism available to sign them.
There is also the fact that the club has been unable to see Kassel train with the first team because of a lingering hamstring injury that has limited him for most of the past few weeks. Yes, Kassel did look impressive playing with free agent trialists in February, but that hardly makes him ready for the rigors of life in the midfields of MLS.
Do the Red Bulls risk the chance of losing Kassel in the long term? That is possible, but Kassel’s actions are of a player who is interested in maintaining a relationship with the club that has helped develop him the past few years. He is still attending training sessions and still plans to attend training until it is time for him to head to the University of Maryland (sources have told SBI that Kassel does plan to play for Maryland in the fall).
That means he will still get the benefits of training in a professional environment, but will also get to experience college life and college soccer. Considering the reserve system in MLS is far from where it needs to be, playing a full season in the ACC for one of the nation’s top programs isn’t exactly a bad place to develop.
Now, if Kassel wins the Hermann Award, leads the Terps to a national title, and winds up with European offers he can’t resist, then the Red Bulls could wind up losing him to Europe. This is true, but it could also be true for a player in 2009 who the club can’t sign because it committed to Kassel.
I also wouldn’t rule out Kassel and the Red Bulls going back to the bargaining table before Kassel has to head to college in the fall. Kassel still hasn’t a real chance to impress Osorio and he could still wind up showing the Red Bulls coach something that makes him say, "I don’t want to wait, let’s sign him now."
If that doesn’t happen it won’t be the end of the world, or the end of the season for that matter.
For an opposing view to this situation, check out this piece on MetroFanatic.