808 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, in the shadows of the Organ Mountain range, sits Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Roughly a 50-minute drive to the Mexico-United States border, the second largest city in New Mexico is home to New Mexico State University, former Real Salt Lake coach Freddy Juarez and an average temperature of 96 degrees Fahrenheit in June.
The City of the Crosses is also home to RSL right back, Aaron Herrera.
Herrera’s roots in his home state run as deep as the Rio Grande. He was scouted by Juarez who invited him to the RSL-Arizona Academy. After his time in the Academy, Herrera returned to New Mexico, this time to the largest city in the state, Albuquerque, where he starred for the University of New Mexico’s soccer team. Herrera would lead the team in goals his Junior year and start five matches for the USYNT U-20’s before accepting a Homegrown contract with RSL.
His rise from the RSL-Arizona Elite Academy to nailed down starter in the first team with a USMNT cap has been filled with peaks and valleys. Not too dissimilar to the landscapes that you’d see out the window of the 13 hour car ride from his hometown soccer fields to Zion’s Bank Training Center in Herriman where he trains now.
Nevertheless, Herrera climbed, grew stronger and has now signed a new deal to keep him in with RSL for the foreseeable future.
Herrera’s home has risen by 1,412 feet in elevation from Las Cruces to Salt Lake City, but he has no plans of stopping there. The summit for Herrera isn’t a new contact, it’s new trophies at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Here’s how he got there, and here’s where he wants to go.
It all started in Las Cruces for Aaron Herrera.
“Las Cruces is a small town, about a hundred thousand or so people, but that's where I'm from,” said Herrera. “That's the place that made me who I am, made me ready for the Academy and everything else after that. I take a lot of pride in that place.”
The jump to the RSL Academy in Casa Grande came in the form of his connection with Juarez. Leaving home is never easy, but for Herrera it was an essential move in his journey.
“If I didn’t leave home, I wouldn’t have got the proper training I needed both mentally, psychically, and tactically”, said Herrera. “My whole career was formed by going to the Academy.”
However, the move didn’t start quite as planned. After attending the Academy’s tryouts Herrera was placed on the RSL Academy Elite team, a level below the RSL Academy. This is where a defining quality in his success became apparent. An underdog from the beginning, Herrera’s work ethic is what began to set him apart.
“I remember the Academy days when we were out at Casa Grande in Arizona,” said RSL teammate Tate Schmitt. “Aaron started off in the elite team, and there was never a guy that we'd seen before that was so relentless in his work ethic. He was in the gym, on the field, always doing extra, and I think those attributes of his work ethic from the beginning of his career have just continued and it shows what that work ethic can do for a player long-term”
Herrera then burst through to the RSL Academy ranks. He represented the RSL Academy in the GA Cup, making it to the semi-finals and reached the USSDA National Championship twice with fellow RSL first-teamers Justen Glad, Tate Schmitt and Andrew Brody.
“I hope I can be an inspiration to some kids who get there, and they are on the B-team when they start,” said Herrera. “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.”
Another valley followed when he didn’t break into the first team right away following his time with the Academy and the players from those impressive RSL Academy teams separated.
At a crossroads, Herrera decided to return to his home state and attend the University of New Mexico.
“It’s everything to the players there,” said Herrera. “Every kid growing up wants to play for the Lobos men’s soccer team. It’s a big thing in New Mexico.”
During his three years with the Lobos, he scored seven goals and earned eight assists across 54 appearances.
His path was different than some of his other Academy teammates, but Herrera refused to quit and instead again chose to work harder.
“Sometimes it's kind of crazy to sit there and really think about where I'm at now, compared to where I started,” said Herrera. “When you start to see some success, it's easy to sort of forget about how it all started. You gotta just think back to your roots and how you got to where you are, and for me, that was just working harder than everyone else, trying to be a good teammate and working for the team.”
His success in college along with some standout performances for the USYNT U-20’s earned him a Homegrown contract with RSL, and a chance to leave his mark in Salt Lake City.
After signing his Homegrown deal with RSL in 2018 and making 16 appearances with the first team, Herrera made another leap in 2019 which was a breakout year for the defender. He made 32 appearances, 31 of them being starts while he registered 60 tackles and 48 interceptions, being awarded RSL Defender of the Year in the process.
2020 was another solid year for the New Mexican, who at the end of the year earned his first USMNT first team call up.
What followed the next season was another evolution of Herrera’s game. In 2021, he set the RSL record for most assists by a defender in a season with 11, which also was the most in MLS that year. Herrera’s wasn’t only assisting goals either, he scored his first goal as well against LAFC and was again named RSL’s Defender of the Year.
Herrera’s climb from rookie defender just trying to get game time to two time RSL Defender of the Year was a steady rise, but there were also plenty of challenges.
The most difficult of which were learning to deal with injuries.
“Injuries are just the most frustrating part of being a professional and they usually happen at the worst times,” said Herrera. “A lot of times they compound, you pull something and then you overcompensate, and you pull another thing. You just gotta try to stay positive through injuries regardless of how hard it is. You gotta still show up training and, and be a good teammate, regardless of if you're playing or not.”
Working hard, showing up and being a good teammate have been hallmarks of Herrera’s transformation into one of the best full-backs in MLS. The kid of Las Cruces has not only made it to the RSL first team, now he’s here to stay.
Fast-forward to today, June 23, 2022, and Real Salt Lake are announcing they’ve agreed to a multiyear contract extension with Herrera which could potentially keep him in Utah until the 2026 season. The defender has already accomplished plenty at the club, but there’s always more to come. This season he became only the second Homegrown to reach 100 appearances for the Club, the first being RSL teammate and good friend, Justen Glad.
“Obviously he's an incredible player, but what I think separates him is his work rate,” said Glad. “Ever since he was young, he just had that determination in him to make it, and it didn't stop once he made it to the pros, he still got that drive in him.”
808 miles is a long way from home, but now Herrera can safely call Salt Lake City his home for the foreseeable future as well. That hunger that’s been described won’t let him settle, now his goals revolve around bringing silverware to the Beehive State.
“You want to win the MLS Cup, we wanna win the Supporters’ Shield and I think right now we're building a group that's strong enough to do that,” said Herrera. “Everyone believes right now, we're all super confident, the only goal is to win trophies.”
The climb has been long, with peaks and valleys, but for Herrera there is no summit, because right now, only the sky’s the limit.