Real Salt Lake’s MLS Cup Playoff match against the Portland Timbers was fast approaching and Interim Head Coach Freddy Juarez had a difficult decision to make. On one hand, he had a defender who had the lowest goals against average among the 74 MLS center backs who had started at least 10 matches in the 2019 season, a rising talent whom he had known since he entered RSL’s Academy. On the other hand was an experienced veteran defender who provided a better strategic matchup for the opponents.
While he weighed the pros and cons of starting either player, he constructed a plan for how to break the news to one of them that they would not be starting in a crucial match.
The conversation Juarez then had with Justen Glad to let him know that he would be on the bench while Marcelo Silva started against the Timbers in the playoffs went a long way to shape the success of the team in that playoff victory and put on display many of the qualities that earned Juarez the Head Coach title last week.
“We talked about the situation beforehand so I knew going into those two games what my role would be. That instilled confidence in me because we talked about it and had a good conversation about it and I knew what to expect and prepare for,” said Glad, who was recruited by Juarez to come to the RSL Academy in 2011. “He went through all the levels and grew as a coach and as a person. It shows in how he manages RSL now. He developed the tactical side and how to manage the game and he’s also learned how to manage players.”
In making a difficult decision and communicating that decision to his players, Juarez showed an acumen for not only managing on-field tactics, but also the personalities in the locker room affected by those decisions. He had come a long way since moving from working with youth clubs in his native Las Cruces, New Mexico, to the Real Salt Lake Academy in Casa Grande, Arizona, in 2010. In each step along his progression, he developed new methods, techniques and confidence to ultimately make such a pivotal decision in an important game at the top level of club soccer in the U.S.
That development has come in coaching each match – from preparation to execution – with diligence and attention to detail. It has come in taking coaching courses from a wide array of sources and listening intently to those that have come before him at each level. And every step along the way he has sought to better himself as a coach in every way possible.
“Every day I was going to work to get to where I need to. That’s in getting educated. That’s in designing sessions that were going to make my teams better. That’s learning how to communicate with players daily,” Juarez said. “So just like players have to have a long-term goal without getting caught up in the short-term disappointments, that’s exactly what I do for myself.”
When Juarez made the move from Las Cruces to Casa Grande and later to Sandy, Utah, where he was first Head Coach of Real Monarchs SLC in the USL Championship club’s first two seasons and then Assistant Coach with Real Salt Lake, he had no expectation that he would eventually take the helm for Real Salt Lake. With each passing season though, he inched closer to his long-term goal of reaching the highest level he could within the American soccer pyramid.
He saw great success at the RSL Academy, taking a talented group that included future RSL starters Glad, Brooks Lennon and Sebastian Saucedo to the USSDA U-16 Championship in 2012. Throughout his time working with young aspiring professionals in Casa Grande, he was developing players to climb RSL’s organizational ladder. Some became huge successes, not only playing for RSL, but representing the U.S. at the FIFA U-20 World Cup and beyond. In total, over 50 players have signed professional contracts after playing at the RSL Academy, most of whom came through the quiet desert town during Juarez’s tenure.
Juarez’s record of youth development is unquestioned and actually started prior to his arrival in Casa Grande. While coaching youth soccer in Las Cruces, eventual U.S. National Team and current New England Revolution left back Edgar Castillo learned under Juarez. He also watched closely as Aaron Herrera honed his craft at the youth level and later brought the current RSL right back to the RSL Academy.
While in Las Cruces, he focused on developing young players to reach their highest potential. He also took great pride in taking his teams on the road to much larger markets and earning wins over vastly larger clubs.
He brought that ability to Arizona, where he shifted his focus toward teaching supremely talented players how to work together and win games. With so much skill on the field, he challenged himself to get the most out of his players in varying circumstances to teach different ways of playing the game and, ultimately, winning.
Once at the professional level with the Monarchs, a new challenge arose – develop players and win games, but now manage the personalities and egos that come with professional teams.
“As dominant as I was at the academy, every level gets harder. You have to adjust the tactics. You have to be more of a manager. It’s not just about soccer anymore. It’s about creating a good environment for everybody and finding one goal we can all reach together,” he said. “With the Monarchs there was more pressure. Dealing with the egos and managing that.”
Even while struggling to find the results that had come so easily at the academy level, Juarez used the opportunity to continue his own development as a coach and was promoted to Assistant Coach with Real Salt Lake.
Now with the first team, his challenge wasn’t in getting professionals engaged, but in working as a tactical guru within the structure of a coaching staff while coaching a wider variety players – from young players who had come up with him through the academy ranks to those who had represented their countries at the World Cup.
Although his own playing career paled in comparison to the players he was coaching – Juarez played 10 seasons in the A-League and USL, even peppering in some seasons on the indoor circuit – he was still able to earn the respect of the players in the locker room.
“Part of it is the way he carries himself. He respects you, but he commands respect. It’s evident that he knows what he talks about and it’s clear that he can teach that and bring that quality to RSL,” Glad said. “And he’s honest and straightforward with players. He lets you know where you’re standing and why and that’s a big reason why I respect him.”
Added Herrera, “Everywhere he goes, he’s always trying to learn how to better himself at that level of the game. He’s learned how to get to the players because it’s different talking with an academy player and an MLS player. He has a good social intelligence. He knows who he’s talking to and how to talk to them. You can’t keep coaching the same way and the way he adapts to each level makes him a special coach.”
That almost universal respect was reciprocated by the coach and built the foundation for success when Juarez took over as Interim Head Coach on August 11. Including his three matches acting as Head Coach prior to that, he took RSL to a 7-4-2 record over the final 13 matches of the 2019 regular season, capitalizing on the most wins among Western Conference teams during that stretch to climb to third in the Western Conference.
Now as Head Coach of Real Salt Lake, Juarez is looking to continue his progression and find as much success as he can. That ongoing education started the moment the final whistle blew in Seattle and RSL’s season ended in defeat in the Western Conference Semifinals to the eventual MLS Cup champions.
His passion for learning and the game of soccer have helped him climb the ranks since he first started and continue now that he’s reached the top of the mountain.
“There are a lot of things that separate Freddy from other coaches. I’ve known him since I was 14 and he’s done the same thing I’ve done – he keeps progressing,” Glad said. “Being named Head Coach, there is no greater testament to his work ethic and his knowledge of the game. He knows a lot about soccer and he’s a great tactician.”
“He’s deserving and I’m excited,” said Herrera. “It’s his love for the game. He’s a soccer geek. Twenty-four seven that’s all he’s doing. He’s always thinking about soccer and trying to get better as a coach and trying to see how he can be a better coach for the players he is working with. He has such a passion for the game.”
Juarez will have his first chance to test his mettle as Head Coach when Real Salt Lake opens the 2020 season on the road against Orlando City SC on February 29 before returning to Rio Tinto Stadium to host the New York Red Bulls in the home opener on March 7.