They don’t like talking about the game they played on August 3, 2012, but a 4-1 loss to Chivas USA in the first match of the Generation adidas Cup was the auspicious starting point of an incredible run for three Real Salt Lake Academy players that continues nearly five years later at the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup. Brooks Lennon, Justen Glad and Sebastian Saucedo have come a long way since that unconventially warm day on the artificial turf fields of the Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila, Washington, and now, joined by Aaron Herrera and Danilo Acosta, they represent a brotherhood of players raised in the RSL Academy in Arizona that will go from Claret-and-Cobalt to Red-White-and-Blue on the world’s stage in South Korea.
While the first moment together came in defeat in the Generation adidas Cup, the real trials that would form the unbreakable bonds among the five players headed to South Korea were held in the desert in Arizona. Fifty miles outside of Phoenix a long straight road in Casa Grande leads into the oasis of the Real Salt Lake Academy. There, Lennon, Glad, Saucedo, Acosta and Herrera worked day and night to strive toward their individual and collective goals of playing pro soccer.
With that long straight road separating the kids – they all journeyed out into the desert at about 14 years old – from the distractions, and comforts, of the city. They lived soccer. They breathed soccer. They dreamed soccer. And they did it together, turning suffering in the first few days into thriving.
“When you’re at a club and you’re all living together, you’re all experiencing the same stuff on the field and going to school together,” Saucedo said. “We were also all relying on each other to become better soccer players and pushing each other. That builds a strong friendship between five guys to become a great team. Ever since then, we’ve always been supporting each other.”
Added Glad, “We were always hanging out, playing with each other and making jokes. Always trying to figure something out. Soccer tennis – indoor soccer – me and Aaron used to lift – played cards – had movie nights. We were never ridiculously bored because we always had a group of guys that were trying to have fun.”
Progress was quick, too. Under the guidance of Martin Vasquez and Freddy Juarez, the turnaround was remarkable. Later in the season against that same Chivas USA side that topped RSL 4-1 in the first match, Salt Lake blasted its way to a 7-2 victory. That tables had turned. The players were realizing their potential. And more than anything, they were doing it together.
As the season progressed, they continued to climb the latter of success. Finding new challenges and ways to overcome them on each rung. Those trials and tribulations eventually led to the 2013 USSDA U-15 National Championship, confirming a commitment that the players made to each other and to themselves. It wasn’t easy for any of them to leave their families at such a young age to work in solitude toward their goals. But the game meant that much to them.
The drive and talent of the players married perfectly with a progressive training facility and staff and RSL’s quickly became a benchmark for academies around the country.
“I knew from the start that Casa Grande was going to be a successful academy,” Lennon said. “How they train the players and the mentality down there – everyone wants to succeed and work to get better every day. I knew that when I came in the first day I was going to do everything I could to eventually become a professional athlete. That was my main goal and I did it.”
Other teams took note too.
“Our team-bonding was like nobody else’s. Our chemistry together on and off the field … Teams would ask what we would do out in the middle of nowhere,” said Acosta, who was the last to join the crew. “We just hung out together and our chemistry was unbelievable.”
Glad was the first to sign as a pro, followed by Saucedo. Then Acosta joined them at Real Salt Lake. Lennon took a detour to Liverpool, where he played with the youth teams before coming back to RSL this season on loan. Herrera, meanwhile, took the college route and is entering his junior season at the University of New Mexico.
Along the way, they have amassed experiences that have sent them all to different parts of the world. Saucedo spent a year on loan in Mexico where he saw a completely different style of training and playing. But whenever they are back together, the smiles persist and the bonds are undeniable.
Acosta makes a point to get the teammates together whenever they join for a photo of the starting XI, whether at the club or international levels. It’s a little thing, but something he takes pride in, knowing the long and winding paths they each took to reach their goals. Together.
“I grew up playing with these guys. There’s a camaraderie you don’t get when you’re just playing with guys from around the country,” Glad said. “I know these guys and hang out with these guys every day. That’s something special.”
Now, there is a joint pride as all five celebrate each other’s accomplishments. And when the U.S. takes on Ecuador in the first match on May 22, it will be a crowning moment for the RSL Academy as it prepares to make the move north to Herriman, Utah, at the club’s new training facility in the Fall.
“I can’t describe it. Nobody thought that us four or five would be on the U-20 World Cup roster,” Acosta said.
“Who would have known from that game against Chivas USA to a World Cup game?” Saucedo grinned. “It’s amazing.”