It only takes one touch to hold the shared breath of a stadium captive. A collective gasp that silences a raucous RioT for a brief moment. A moment when 20,000+ in their seats become one, all eyes focused on one touch from one player to give them the exhale their lungs ache for. The exaltation they dream of each time they walk through the doors of Rio Tinto Stadium. A crowd and a player both made specifically for moments like this.
Late September in Sandy, Utah, Real Salt Lake is in the midst of a playoff race where every save, goal and result counts. The 2021 Major League Soccer season was winding down and RSL found themselves tied at home against Western Conference rivals L.A. Galaxy. Five minutes into extra-time, current Claret-and-Cobalt captain Damir Kreilach played a wishful ball from midfield over the top of the Galaxy defense. RSL forward Anderson Julio raced toward both the ball and Galaxy goal between two backpedaling defenders.
As one defender flew past him to get into position, Julio took his first touch, lifting the ball around 7 feet above himself and the on-looking Galaxy players.
All it takes is one touch. One crowd, one player. Breath held, waiting for an exhale.
Spend five minutes around Real Salt Lake forward Anderson Julio and try your best not to crack a smile. Chances are Julio is already wearing one across his face. The joy he expresses on the field directly translates to the happiness he exudes off of it.
That joy is especially apparent when you watch the Ecuadorian speak of where he came from.
“My experience growing up was very beautiful,” Julio said through a smile. “I grew up in a village that was very soccer centric.”
The young boy from Pimampiro, Ecuador who brought his soccer ball anywhere he went knew the power this game has. Sitting in school with it tucked between his feet he dreamed of joining those before him from the Valle del Chota who made it professionally in the game he loved.
“I saw many players come by The Valle del Chota like Edison Mendez when he was playing for PSV,” said Julio. “Sometimes he would come to the valley and talk to us. He inspired us to never stop fighting for our dreams or for what we wanted most and to keep pushing forward for our family, for the things that you want most in life. That was what motivated me the most to be a professional soccer player.”
The Valle del Chota is revered in Ecuador as a place where future national team players hail from. The valley is located 50 miles north of the country's capital and most populous city, Quito and it certainly boasts an impressive track record. The aforementioned Mendez is from Ibarra, a city about an hour from Julio’s hometown, and was the first Ecuadorian to score in the Champions League. Agustin Delgado, the first Ecuadorian to play in England when he debuted for Southampton in 2001 is from Ambuqui. Delgado, like many of those from the valley who made it professionally, returned home and started an academy near Julio’s hometown.
It’s impossible to mention the Valle del Chota without mentioning the Afro-Ecuadorian influence. Afro-Ecuadorian’s make up 7 percent of the country's population but in many places in the valley, they are the majority which adds to the sense of pride from the players who call the valley home.
For Julio, it is these players who gave him the confidence and the resources to succeed.
“The Valle del Chota is where many great soccer players have come from and grew up playing on the little field of dirt under the bridge. Thanks to God, the times have changed, and now they don’t have a field of dirt but they have a field of artificial grass. I’m very happy to have grown up there.”
Growing up, Julio played in Delgado’s foundation’s academy team until one day it disappeared. The boy who always had a ball at his feet now had nowhere to play. From there he returned to his parent’s home.
“I could not be in the house and not play soccer,” said Julio. "I always insisted to my dad for him to take me to play soccer with any team in Quito.”
At the time Julio dreamed of playing for Nacional, one of the most successful clubs in Ecuador that had produced some of the country’s best players like former West Ham and current Fenerbahçe striker Enner Valencia. Julio made the nearly three-and half-hour journey to Quito with hopes of getting a chance to play for the capital city club. That chance never came, but he instead got the opportunity to play for another one of the country’s club giants, L.D.U Quito.
For those unfamiliar, it’s important to put L.D.U Quito in perspective. They are one of only six clubs to have won the CONMEBOL treble, winning all three major South American club tournaments, and the only club to have done it outside of Argentina or Brazil. Additionally, they were runners-up in the 2008 FIFA Club World Cup, narrowly losing to Manchester United in the final thanks to a late Wayne Rooney goal.
Little did Julio know he’d eventually help the historic club win their eleventh Ecuadorian Serie A title in 2018. After joining the U14’s in 2011, Julio made his professional debut in 2016. A dream made in the Valle del Chota was realized.
“To wear that jersey as a kid who always dreamed of playing professionally is a great blessing,” said Julio. “When I was there, I worked with great soccer players, with great friends, and with one of the greatest in Ecuador, Antonio Valencia, a great player that I looked up to. While he was there, he was always supporting the young players and that filled me with lots of joy and happiness to continue working and give the maximum every day.”
Valencia joined L.D.U Quito in 2019 after captaining Manchester United the year before and together Valencia and Julio won the Copa Ecuador in 2019. By the end of Julio’s time at L.D.U Quito he had recorded 27 goals and 26 assists in 134 appearances in all competitions. His 27 goals is tied for sixth-most in club history. It’s safe to say the boy from a village of around 9,000 people who begged his father to take him to Quito left his mark in the capital of his country.
In 2020, Mexican Liga MX club Atletico San Luis broke their transfer record in order to sign Julio. In the process, Julio became L.D.U.’s sixth most valuable departure in the club’s history.
Julio would make 20 appearances for San Luis in 2020 and the following season he would be loaned out to Real Salt Lake.
At RSL, Julio established him as a super-sub off the bench. Of the Ecuadorian’s nine goals in 2021, six of them were off the bench including three game winners. He finished the season with the third-highest goals per 90 minutes average. His dramatic last-minute goals endeared himself to the Claret-and-Cobalt faithful, making him a fan favorite.
Real Salt Lake Club Photographer Laura Dearden who would normally switch lenses on her camera toward the end of games to prepare for her post game routine even requested a second camera so she wouldn’t have to keep changing lenses and missing Julio’s late game celebrations.
By the end of the season, you could feel the energy in the RioT from the crowd when they saw the Ecuadorian getting prepared to sub into the match, holding out hope, and holding their breath.
“When I was at L.D.U., I was always starting and scoring goals, and if I ever came in from the bench, I was never able to score,” said Julio. “It was something I had to learn to do, and I would say last season I did it well and every moment I was subbed in I knew I had to do something. That’s the mindset of each individual, that when you aren’t starting, you always have to enter in the best way, motivate your teammates that are on the field at that moment and when the opportunity comes, take advantage of it and keep going to the max.”
This season, Julio returned to RSL on a full-time deal that will keep the forward in Salt Lake for the foreseeable future. At the moment, Julio is still working at getting back up to match speed following not playing many competitive minutes at San Luis upon his return from loan and some nagging injuries.
“I am improving though, and I can slowly start seeing the results of my efforts,” said Julio. “The goal with the club this year is to do what we couldn’t do last season, return again to the conference final and why not think a little bigger in making it to the MLS Cup Final, that was something we were at the breath of last season but didn’t achieve, so this season we are focused on getting there, we are all aiming towards the same objective.”
Julio is also confident he’ll return to the form that captured the imagination of all that gather at the RioT every weekend, and deliver more joyous moments like…
“Kreilach over the top to Anderson Julio. Julio, oh good touch to separate from the defenders- WHAT A GOAL. WHAT A TREMENDOUS, TREMENDOUS STRIKE, ANDERSON JULIO. NINETY PLUS FIVE, PHENOMENAL GO-AHEAD GOAL.”
One touch, one strike, one game winner, one crowd in pandemonium. Julio finally allows the RioT to breathe again.
Exhale. Exaltation. Pure Joy.