Throughout the first two matches for the United States in the 2021 Concacaf Olympic Qualifying tournament, the broadcast crew at FS1 has mentioned Real Salt Lake and its Academy with regularity. Justifiably so, as 25% of U.S. U-23 Head Coach Jason Kreis’ 20-man roster came from the vaunted RSL Academy.
Like a proud father, the praise has brought a smile to RSL Head Coach Freddy Juarez’s face as he sees players he has known since their youth garner recognition for the hard work they have put in to climb the ladder at both the club and international levels and find success.
“It says a lot about those guys that they continue to develop and continue to mature and stay consistent,” Juarez said. “That’s what it takes to be a pro and that’s what those guys offer. It’s a big credit to those guys.”
Current Real Salt Lake up-and-comers Justen Glad, Aaron Herrera and David Ochoa are joined by fellow RSL Academy alums Sebastian Saucedo and Sebastian Soto to be among the tone-setters for the U.S. as it looks to qualify for its first Olympic Games since 2008.
As they have progressed through the ranks, that group of five players has expanded and contracted like an accordion. It has included Brooks Lennon and Danilo Acosta at the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup, as well as Richie Ledezma at the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Starting with a group that won the 2012-13 USSDA U-15 Championship, the RSL Academy has been a consistent force in the Academy ranks, year-in and year-out. While many of those players spent time on the radars of the U.S. Youth National Teams, their time in the RSL Academy – first in Casa Grande, Arizona, and now in Herriman, Utah – gave them the teammates, facilities and coaches to ascend to new heights.
“We knew that they were talented,” Juarez said. “Not only were we winning a championship in the country, but we were playing for championships in tournaments like GA Cup and Dallas Cup. That showed that we were the best in that age group against competitive teams around the region.”
Now Glad and Herrera are staples in the RSL lineup and Ochoa is on the cusp of breaking in as the goalkeeper after helping the Real Monarchs to the 2019 USL Championship title in his first season as a professional before injuries hindered his ability to compete for the starting role in 2020. Meanwhile Saucedo has carved out a role for himself with UNAM Pumas in Mexico’s Liga MX and Soto is breaking through with Norwich City in England’s EFL Championship after a standout season with Sportclub Telstar in the Dutch second division.
Glad is one of the more senior members of the U-23s, both in age and experience. Already in his eighth MLS season, he has earned 126 regular season appearances and added four appearances in the MLS Cup Playoffs. That has put him in a position of leadership with the U.S., one that Juarez hopes he can continue to grow into at RSL.
“It’s huge. Justen has been in and out of national teams since he was a young age. Being a leader with that group now should help his confidence,” Juarez said. “He’s got to take that and embrace it and run with it. That’s another part of maturity. That will help him get to the next level.”
While Juarez is quick to give credit to the players for their individual successes in carving their own paths to success, it’s not without the guidance of committed coaching staffs.
Initially, Juarez joined a staff that included current LA Galaxy Head Coach Greg Vanney along with Mike Munoz and Mike Rabasca in Casa Grande. That staff evolved over time to include Martin Vasquez, Mike Kraus, Tony Bruce and Ignacio Hernandez, who now serves as Goalkeeper Coach at Real Salt Lake. That staff was instrumental in recruiting and coaching the class of players that included the U-23 and U-20 standouts and other future professionals like Corey Baird, Erik Holt, Tate Schmitt, Milan Iloski, among others.
Once the team moved to Herriman, Vasquez continued with Juan Fresquez and Rafael Sifuentes to continue to nurture and produce talent. Now with Tom Spall and Arnold Rijsenburg leading the charge, the growth and development continues, and the commitment remains strong.
“We were all a small piece. I tell them they have to give credit to every coach you have because you take something from every one of them,” Juarez said. “We were fortunate to have them in a great training environment for three or four years.”
For those coaches, it wasn’t just a matter of training the players on the field, but in ensuring that they had everything they needed off the field, as well. That included occasional trips to local stores and other responsibilities typically reserved for parents just as much as the early-morning training sessions and late-night coaching lessons.
“It’s a 24-hour gig,” Juarez said without a hint of hyperbole. “Those guys (coaches) live on site and train them at six in the morning, then train them again in the afternoon. They are taking them to Walmart when they need things we don't have on site. All that goes into developing a 15-year-old into the 23-year-olds we are seeing now. Nobody sees the other stuff and that is the reason why they made it. It takes so many hours to have someone reach his goals. You dedicate your life to them.”
It’s no wonder Juarez feels such a parental bond with those players. Or why players who have long-since left Real Salt Lake still reach out to him for advice or for a friendly conversation.
And why the RSL Head Coach takes such pride when he hears national pundits talking in such bright prose about their roles in bringing the U.S. to a position it hasn’t seen in 13 years.
“When I heard Alexi Lalas, Stu Holden and Rob Stone talking about our guys, it was awesome. It’s a great feeling. It’s amazing to see them doing good work while wearing the national colors,” Juarez beamed. “Anytime anyone comes through the Academy there’s that extra special place in your heart. You’re always rooting for them.”
The U.S. takes on Mexico in the final Group Stage match of the Concacaf Olympic Qualifying Tournament on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. MT in a nationally televised contest on FS1. Both teams have already clinched advancement to the tournament semifinals, with Wednesday’s match determining seeding. A win in the semifinals - scheduled for Sunday, March 28 – will secure an Olympic berth.