David Ochoa has made waves this season as the 20-year-old goalkeeper has begun to establish himself with Real Salt Lake. Already in his third professional season, the RSL Academy product has a USL Championship title under his belt and is 13 starts into his first season as a starter at the MLS level.
An undoubtedly special talent who has already played for the U.S. at the U-20 World Cup and U-23 Olympic Qualifying tournament and recently switched to the Mexican National Team, Ochoa is not alone at RSL, where rising young talents at the goalkeeper position have become the norm.
Jeff Dewsnup, Gavin Beavers and Fernando Delgado are waiting in the wings to take the next steps in their careers. While each player comes with a variety of strengths and talents, the coaching staff at RSL has uniquely prepared each of them to climb the club’s pyramid.
With Ignacio Hernandez at RSL and Mirza Harambasic working with the Real Monarchs and the RSL Academy while being joined by RSL legend Nick Rimando in working with the young Academy keepers, Real Salt Lake’s structure in building goalkeepers from the ground up is well established and already producing results at all levels.
“The foundation and the organization of the Academy is special and being able to recruit and bring these kids is huge,” said Harambasic, who has worked with all four goalkeepers from a young age. “In our Academy, the amount of time that we spend together is important. Especially for a coach who is working with a small group of players, the extra time and attention we can spend with video, extra sessions and detailed coaching really helps these guys get better.”
There is a balance that the staff takes in its approach. Competition and pressure are important, but as is protecting the confidence of the young players as they develop.
Each challenge adds new circumstances for the players as they learn and progress in their development. Whether it comes in making the jump from U-15 to U-17 or training stints with the Monarchs all the way to games with Real Salt Lake, the staff takes a measured approach to ensure that they are ready to handle the successes and learning opportunities each week.
“There is a balance. The psychological part is very important and the physical contact is not comparable between a 16 year old and a 23 year old,” Hernandez said. “We need to carefully bring them to the next challenge and make sure they are prepared to handle it in the right way.”
Having Rimando aboard helps that portion of the process. Major League Soccer’s all-time leader in wins, shutouts and games played saw everything the league had to offer in his 20-year career, winning two MLS Cup titles and going to the 2014 FIFA World Cup along the way.
For all of his accolades and accomplishments, he has served as a key influencer at the RSL Academy since joining the coaching staff. His experience serves as the perfect complement to Harambasic’s coaching methods.
“Nick and I have always had a good relationship when he was playing and now continuing that and being able to share both areas of knowledge and expertise – he looks at how I organize my sessions and do video and he brings in that applied expertise and knowledge and the small important details,” Harambasic said. “He’s proven it and so the boys are so bought into what he says. He has a great relationship with them and he communicates very well with them.”
The coaching staff isn’t alone in aiding the development of players at all levels. Zac MacMath and Andrew Putna have also played a role at both the MLS and USL levels. With RSL, the veteran duo has served as a mentor for Ochoa while also competing each week for the starting role. That supportive camaraderie has aided in the success of each player when they step into the starting lineup.
“The most important thing for me is to have three competitive goalkeepers. Zac and Andrew are tough and hungry to play. They are capable to play at any time and it is my job to be sure they are ready to play at any time,” said Hernandez. “They are like brothers. Whoever is playing, the other two support them no matter what. Zac and Andrew have been supportive mentors, but also competitors.”
Because of the pandemic, the integration between the first team and the Monarchs and Academy teams has been limited since March of 2020, but Putna and MacMath have each had stints with the Monarchs, elevating the level of play for the aspiring young goalkeepers and demanding more of their USL teammates in the process. Their presence alone has been influential and beneficial for the whole squad, but particularly Dewsnup and Beavers.
“Putna and MacMath have been huge,” Harambasic said. “They both have been with the Monarchs for stretches and they keep the standard high in matches and in training and that forces everyone else to keep that standard.”
All of those factors combine to create an environment to maximize the development of each player as they climb the organizational ladder.
The proof is in the results.
At 17, Dewsnup already has 11 starts in the USL Championship with the Real Monarchs and is the youngest goalkeeper in USL history to record a shutout in a 1-0 win over the San Diego Loyal last weekend. Beavers, 16, became the youngest goalkeeper in USL history when he started in a 1-1 draw against San Antonio FC on June 26 and has two starts to his credit this season. Delgado, 15, led the RSL Academy U-15s to the inaugural MLS NEXT championship on July 2, earning three shutouts in the tournament.
That trio has high aspirations and expectations, as Ochoa has rocketed up the pyramid to success at a young age. That sets a high bar for each to reach and since Ochoa was in their shoes just two years ago, they set their sights on following his path to the first team.
At Real Salt Lake, the goalkeeper position has long been a consistent strength. From Rimando’s arrival in 2007 until his retirement following the 2019 season, the club has had a stellar starter while also developing young players to push him and take the field on the rare occurrences when he was unable to start. Names like Josh Saunders, Chris Seitz, Tim Melia and Jeff Attinella each found success after years working alongside Rimando. RSL’s first goalkeeper to sign out of the RSL Academy was Lalo Fernandez and while he didn’t make an appearance for RSL, he still landed on the roster for Tigres, suiting up for one of the top club’s in North America. For that reason, fans and coaches alike have had high expectations for the position.
Even still, Ochoa’s successful climb to RSL starter could create unreasonable expectations for those who follow him. To the coaching staff, those expectations are healthy and will help drive the club to even more success as players continue to come through the pipeline.
“It skews expectations, but it’s also an incredible standard. We don’t want David to be a one-off. We want that expectation to be the same for Jeff and Gavin and Fernando,” Harambasic said. “We want that to be the expectation and we want this to be the premier place for all players, but specifically for me goalkeepers. The path for that may be difficult for goalkeepers, but we want guys to be talented enough and mentally strong enough to experience the things that David has.”
Ochoa has missed the last three matches with a quad injury, but is nearing a return as Real Salt Lake takes on Austin FC on Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium. Dewsnup and the Monarchs have a break in the schedule until taking on San Antonio FC on August 21. Meanwhile the RSL Academy returns to Herriman this weekend as Beavers and Delgado look to build on the 2021 MLS NEXT U-15 title.