If everything went according to plan in 2020, Aaron Herrera and Justen Glad would be in a hotel right now preparing for a tournament in which they would play three matches in the group stage with a chance to advance to the knockout round.
However, instead of being in Tokyo preparing for the Olympics, Herrera and Glad are in Orlando preparing for the MLS Is Back Tournament after the Covid-19 pandemic postponed the 2020 Olympic Games and pushed the MLS season into a creative return-to-play format.
They had long looked forward to the opportunity to represent the U.S. on the grand stage of the Olympics. For over a year, they had been training with the U.S. U-23 National Team in preparation for qualifications, taking part in camps all over the world alongside players they have known for years, both with the RSL Academy and during previous U.S. Youth National Team camps.
Just a few weeks from qualifying and months from the Opening Ceremonies, Glad could envision suiting up at the Olympic Games.
“Any opportunity to represent your country is an honor. It’s exciting and something to look forward to. But then when you add that stage … there are few people who can say that they were an Olympian,” he said. “When you’re on the world’s stage like that, there is some extra excitement. To be selected for that would be a huge accomplishment in my mind and a huge honor.”
The RSL duo were in Mexico preparing for the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying tournament when news broke that the tournament would be postponed. They were picking up gear for an upcoming training session when a teammate told them that training was cancelled. That’s when uncertainty struck.
“It was wild. We were worried we were going to get stuck in Mexico because they were closing all the borders,” Herrera said. “It was a weird situation. We didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Their immediate uncertainty was relieved when they learned that the team would be flying back to their home markets the following morning, however, their future as Olympians remained unclear. An under-23 tournament, both Glad and Herrera were eligible for the 2020 tournament, but would exceed the age requirements when the tournament was pushed to 2021. In a moment, it appeared that their dreams of playing in the Olympics would be wiped out by the pandemic. Fortunately for both, it was soon announced that players who fit the U-23 age qualification in 2020 would remain eligible for the team next year.
While the U.S. will need to qualify through the CONCACAF region first, the hopes of representing their country in the Olympics weren’t cancelled, just put on hold for a year. And with a strong team made up of many players who won the CONCACAF U-20 Championships in 2017 and reached the quarterfinals of the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup, Glad and Herrera felt good about their chances at qualifying for the Olympics.
“I thought we had a really good chance. Our team was really good,” Glad said. “Those tournaments are a lot of fight, a lot of effort, and then your quality comes out. We had all the pieces and it was just all about going out there and performing. Unfortunately we didn’t get to do that.”
Now well in the mix for the start of the MLS Is Back Tournament in Orlando, Glad and Herrera figure to be key to RSL’s success in the tournament. The longtime friends and former RSL Academy teammates both look to continue their development and grow their respective careers.
It may not be how either of them drew up the plans for 2020, but they are doing their best to make the most of an otherwise difficult situation for everyone around the world.
“I think there are going to be a ton of eyes watching the tournament – whether it’s scouts from other countries, national team scouts,” Herrera said. “Everybody is going to be watching so it’s definitely a proving ground for a lot of players.”
RSL’s first match in the MLS Is Back Tournament kicks off Sunday at 8:30 p.m. MT against the Colorado Rapids on ESPN.