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By Zak Keefer
He’s always relished the underdog role, so maybe that’s why Jeff Kassouf feels at home doing what he does.
While you’d be hard-pressed to find an aspiring sportswriter with dreams of one day being the nation’s preeminent voice in women’s soccer, it would be equally as difficult to find someone who published a book before they graduated college.
Kassouf falls into both categories. A recent graduate of Utica College, he’s a lifelong lover of the game. His view is simple.
Soccer, the way he sees it, is soccer.
“Most people will be surprised if they give the women’s game a chance,” Kassouf said. “A good brand of soccer is a good brand of soccer, no matter if it’s men’s or women’s. And people saw that during last summer’s World Cup. I love soccer, and I’ve always wanted to bring the same sort of coverage the men get to the women’s game.”
By virtue of relentless ambition and tireless work, Kassouf has established himself as one of the nation’s most diligent women’s soccer reporters. It’s a field that, he laments, has few representatives. The sport – not unlike the Olympics – garners the considerable gaze of the media spotlight only once every four years, as fans become enamored with the U.S. team and its players during the World Cup. These past two summers, in 2010 for the men and 2011 for the women, serve as prime examples.
But then the country quickly forgets.
For Kassouf, women’s soccer is a year-round gig, a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week, full-flung passion. By virtue of what he’s been able to accomplish over the past four years at Utica, he should earn an award solely for his time management skills.
He earned his journalism degree from Utica in three and a half years. On top of a full class schedule, he created and ran his own website (EqualizerSoccer.com), wrote a book (Girls Play to Win Soccer) and penned online columns on the sport for websites like Sports Illustrated, espnW and Fox Sports. He worked for the school newspaper, The Tangerine, as its online editor. In the summers, he worked in the communications departments of semi-pro soccer teams in the area.
All of which comes in addition to perhaps the most impressive element of Kassouf’s resume: he did all of that while being a four-year member of the Utica men's soccer squad.
“He’s a tremendous kid, and one that absolutely loves the game,” said Utica head coach Eric Watson. “He’s always trying to play as much as he can, watch it as much as he can, write about it as much as he can. He has a maturity and a work ethic you don’t see very often, and that is on the field and off.”
Kassouf, a defender and midfielder for the Pioneers, notched 595 minutes on the field this year and scored one goal. He helped the Pioneers to 34 wins in his four years and was part of a defensive unit that totaled 22 shutouts during that span. Along with four teammates, he was tabbed this past fall to the 2011 NCSAA Scholar All-East Region team, and in 2010 was chosen as the Sportsman of the Year for the Empire 8 Conference.
His college career was a flurry of practices, classes, games and columns. His teammates knew what he was up to, but because Jeff did little to publicize his work – even the fact that his book was published last year – few could fully grasp how quickly his lifelong dream of becoming a soccer writer was materializing.
“I honestly had no idea he was that good of a writer until I picked up one of his articles in the school newspaper,” said Jon Wood, who served as a team captain with Kassouf this fall. “He loves the game as much as anyone. He’s always watching it, writing about it, tweeting about it.”
Kassouf begancovering the sport during his freshman year at Utica, writing about the New York area soccer clubs for Examiner.com.
Though there was no monetary reward, he still calls it a great experience. His foot was in the door and he was doing what he loved.
But he began thinking. If he was going to write about soccer,why not do it his way? Why not create a site, control the content and build an audience?
EqualizerSoccer.com was hatched in May 2009 and launched a month later. Its humble infancy belied the overarching mission: to become the nation’s preeminent destination for women’s soccer news and analysis. The site, still seeking an identity, managed to attract around 100 hits a day its first few months.
If there was a market of women’s soccer fans out there, Kassouf wasn’t yet reaching them. Which leads to the question he gets asked more than any other: Why focus on women’s soccer instead of men’s?
“Well, it’s a combination of things,” Kassouf explained. “It just happened that a women’s semipro team started up 25 minutes south of where I grew up. I got on there, working in communications. I started covering them, covering the WPS (Women’s Professional Soccer) and then started working on the site.
“I also feel like there’s a void of coverage out there. There’s more now, but there’s still a long way to go.”
One break led to another. Before he knew it, Kassouf was published by FoxSoccer.com, espnW and SportsIllustrated.com. All the while, his site and exposure grew exponentially. His BlackBerry became permanently affixed to his hip, as he was constantly checking sources, scouring the Internet for news and even breaking some himself.
He discovered a niche that wasn’t covered and dove right in. By the time last summer’s Women’s World Cup rolled around, on a good day, Jeff’s site was drawing 8,000 unique visitors. He’s built an impressive audience of 2,500 followers on Twitter and has had a rotating cast of writers contribute to the site in the past few years.
“It’s funny, because some people out there believe running a website is a 9-to-5 thing,” he said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. I’d have my phone with me, always checking emails and tracking things online. Some nights in college, I’d be up until 3 a.m. finishing my columns.”
Never a star for the Pioneers, Kassouf reveled in the parallels he saw between his own soccer saga and that of the women’s game. He was a role player for a Division III team, and role players for Division III teams don’t attract much media coverage. But if it wasn't World Cup time, neither did Hope Solo, Abby Wambach and the best female soccer players in the country.
“It goes back to that underdog role, and I’ve always appreciated that,” he says. “You don’t get a lot of coverage being a DIII athlete. You play because you love the game. That’s the same with the women.”
Utica coach Watson runs an annual clinic for youth soccer players and typically hires current and former players to help him out. His first call: Jeff Kassouf.
“I didn’t hesitate for a moment to offer him a job,” Watson says. “He’s led by example this past year for us even though he wasn’t getting a lot of playing time. He never complained, not once.”
Kassouf worked with Watson’s clinic until he received a call from NBCOlympics.com, which offered him a job as a sports producer for the company’s website dedicated to coverage of this summer’s upcoming Games in London. Like his first gig, it’s an unglamorous foot in the door. Very little writing is involved. Instead, he aggregates wire reports and video to the site.
His passion remains at Equalizer, where he writes about the game he loves. His eventual goal remains unchanged.
“My goal is the same it’s always been, and that’s to write about soccer and get paid to do so,” he said. “The sport is growing in this country, but it’s still not a big money-maker. I’m just going to work hard. That’s what I try to do, whether it's with my writing or out on the practice field.”