Aaron Herrera is one of the most dominant examples of the developmental ladder within the Real Salt Lake organization since signing a homegrown contract with the club in 2018. The 2019 RSL Defensive Player of the Year became part of the RSL Family in 2012 at the age of 15 when he joined the RSL Academy – then based in Casa Grande, Arizona. Since then he has earned appearances in the USSDA National Championship, featured for the USMNT U-20 and U-23 sides during runs to a CONCACAF Title and in the U-20 FIFA World Cup, and became a regular starter for RSL.
At the foundation of that success was Herrera’s time at the RSL Academy.
“If I didn’t leave home, I wouldn’t have got the proper training I needed both mentally, physically, tactically,” Herrera said. “My whole career was formed by going to the Academy.”
From Las Cruces, New Mexico, Herrera made the leap of faith to Arizona to join his fellow New Mexico native, Freddy Juarez at the RSL Academy in Casa Grande. Juarez had provided Herrera with the connection to the Academy and familiarity in a new place. Having also been brought out during his freshman year in high school for a few training sessions, the path to the professional ranks was paved for Herrera.
It wasn’t just the friendly face of Juarez that brought Herrera to Arizona, however. The club boasted a unique gem that few other academies could claim.
“It was the facilities,” Herrera explained. “They were really nice compared to any other academy team. A lot of the other academy teams were sort of like club teams. They didn’t have the nice $50 million facility that we had. I wanted to be in that environment. It was just soccer 24/7. We had eight perfect grass fields outside. In the facility we were playing soccer-tennis all the time and there was a giant weight room. It just had all the tools to take you the next level and I wanted to be a part of that.”
With the tools in place and the guidance of Juarez, Herrera began his ascension up the RSL Developmental Ladder. However, the road was not always an easy one. After going through an official tryout, Herrera was told that he was going to play on the RSL Elite team – a rung below being a part of the Academy.
From there, Herrera maintained a fighting mentality. From the Elite team, he set his sights on representing the Academy at the top level. Once at the Academy, he set out to be a starter all on track to make it to Major League Soccer. In that time, he showed his promise by helping the Academy reach the USSDA National Championship twice. His plans got derailed when after his time at the Academy, he didn’t break into the First Team right away.
Following his Academy success, Herrera returned to New Mexico, playing for the University of New Mexico where he scored seven goals and logged eight assists across 54 appearances. The same year, Herrera played for the USMNT U-20 side helped it claim the first CONCACAF U-20 Championship for the Stars-and-Stripes and pushed to the quarterfinals in the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup. That success led Herrera to earn a contract with Real Salt Lake, becoming the 14th Homegrown player in club history.
“There is always going to be a plan for you but I don’t think it’s up to you to follow that plan,” Herrera said while looking back on his path. “You should always be pushing to break those barriers and sort of move on to the next level quicker than expected. It might not always happen that way. A lot of things fell into place for me but hard work pays off. As long as you do that, you’re going to be successful.”
It’s easy to see the accomplishments that the young 22-year-old defender has earned since graduating from the RSL Academy. Since then, the Academy has grown. In 2018, RSL opened the Zions Bank Training Center in Herriman, Utah, where the Academy players have more opportunities to train alongside the First Team or even to watch their drills during a lunch break.
Providing even more tools and resources than ever before, the RSL Academy has cemented itself as a flagship for development in American soccer. With the five outdoor grass fields and the two fields indoors along with weight rooms and treatment centers, the RSL Academy has the tools to provide more opportunities for players like Aaron Herrera to find their stories of success. That’s something Herrera hopes to inspire.
“I hope I can be an inspiration to some kids who get there and they are on the B-team when they start,” Herrera said. “It doesn’t mean anything as long as you get there and do what the coaches ask of you and work harder than everyone else. I promise it will pay off.”