Real Salt Lake defenders Brayan Vera and Emeka Eneli both earned plenty of plaudits for their impressive debuts for the Club last weekend. While RSL fell 4-0 to St. Louis at home, both defenders put in strong performances in front of the America First Field faithful.
Ilijah Paul also made his Claret-and-Cobalt debut when he replaced Club Captain Damir Kreilach in the 72 minute. Rookies Eneli and Paul both joined the Club after being selected in the Major League Soccer Superdraft this past offseason, while Vera made the move to the Wasatch Range from America de Cali in his native Colombia back in February.
Against St. Louis CITY, Eneli filled in for the injured Bryan Oviedo while Vera replaced the also injured Marcelo Silva on the backline. Eneli, who only last week joined fellow RSL first round Superdraft picks Paul and Bertin Jacquesson in receiving a first team contract, lead the team in duels engaged (22), and duel winning percentage (73.7%) among all defenders and midfielders. This is all the more impressive considering Eneli was seen more as an attacking player while in college at Cornell, recording 20 goals and 17 assists during his time in Ithaca. The rookie defender didn’t look out of place at all on Saturday night, and playing in front of the home fans was just an added bonus.
“I think days leading up to the game I was a little bit nervous, butterflies in my stomach, but once I got to the stadium and then stepped out for warmups, heard the crowd after the national anthem, all the nerves just went away,” Eneli said.
The Dublin, Ohio born defender also credits his teammates for the way they supported him before and during the game for his impressive debut performance.
“The preparation and training really helped,” said Eneli.
“I got advice from some of the guys, especially Justen Glad and Zac MacMath because I was playing right back, a position I'm not that familiar with. I think they communicated to me really well. I always had them in the back of my ear and that just helped me calm down a little bit, play a little bit more freely.”
“And then as I said before, preparing and training. If you can train hard and train the way you want to play in games, then the games will be much easier. And that's what the coaching staff and my teammates helped me do. So that's all I can attest my performance to.”
Eneli’s fellow backline debutant, Vera, also impressed and nearly got his name on the scoresheet. Right before the end of the second half, the Colombian center-back came agonizingly close to breaking the deadlock and scoring his first ever goal for the Club.
Unfortunately, former Borussia Dortmund and current St. Louis CITY goalkeeper, Roman Burki was up for the task. The Swiss keeper made a tremendous save to deny Vera and keep the score 0-0 going into halftime. While the scoreline eventually tilted heavily to favor STL, Vera did his best to make a strong first impression.
“Obviously the outcome was really bad and I don't think anyone expected that result because we started the game by maintaining possession of the ball and had the majority of the goal opportunities,” said Vera.
“I think after they scored their first goal we fell mentally but we have to fix that with the next game. The moment we hit adversity we have to remain mentally strong and overcome that. Personally I felt good, I felt I had a good game but also feel I can improve more.”
While the result last weekend was frustrating for the Club, Vera believes that staying positive will help RSL get back on track next week in Ohio.
“I think that a positive mindset will help us get positive results,” Vera said.
“If we start getting positive results our confidence will obviously get better and that's what's important. To keep training, to keep getting better and to get a better result in Columbus.”
Vera’s versatility of being able to play across the backline either on the left or in the center should make him a valuable asset for RSL going forward this season. While still only 24 years old, the Colombian already has experience in the Italian Serie A and Colombian First Division. Now in Major League Soccer, he’ll look to build upon his impressive resume and help lead the RSL backline.
20-year-old Paul, who also earned his first ever MLS minutes against St. Louis, has just begun to build his professional soccer resume. The Gilbert, Arizona native was selected seventh overall by RSL in the 2023 MLS Superdraft and is looking forward to getting more minutes under his belt as the season continues.
“It's been a dream of mine to play pro soccer and to get my first minutes, I just feel unbelievably blessed and grateful,” said Paul.
“My goals are that I want to be a consistent starter and score a lot of goals. That's the goal of a striker, so hopefully I can make that happen.”
All three RSL debutants will be available for selection again this upcoming weekend when RSL travel to Columbus to take on the Crew on Saturday, April 1 at 5:30 MT. Fans can then come to America First Field and see the trio live when Real Salt Lake hosts Eastern Conference foe Charlotte FC on April 8. Tickets to the match can be found here.