Whether it’s walking around the hotel, in the locker room or in the middle of an intense training session, it’s hard to wipe the smile off of Sebastian Soto’s face. The 17-year-old Real Salt Lake Academy forward is among four youngsters joining Real Salt Lake for preseason training camp in Tucson, Arizona.
For the eight days of training in the Arizona sun, the foursome of Soto, goalkeeper Jacob Jackson, defender Glademir Mendoza and midfielder Erik Virgen have been living the life of professional soccer players. From training sessions, to meals, to video sessions and team meetings, they are as much a part of the group as longtime veterans and new signings.
“It’s been really cool. We’ve been living the pro life for a week now,” Soto beamed. “It’s awesome to be in this environment. We’ve been working hard and it’s been fun.”
The benefits of having players who are in season and have the youthful exuberance present in all four academy representatives are many. In addition to providing Head Coach Mike Petke enough bodies to ensure that he can execute every needed portion of the training schedule, it also serves a reward for the hard work put in throughout the academy careers of the four players and an opportunity to learn the level necessary to compete at the professional level.
“They’re here for a reason. They’re very good players and they’ve earned the right to be here to come with us on this trip,” Petke said. “I believe they, amongst many others, are the future of this organization. They’re very talented young kids and energetic and it’s a great experience.”
For each, the experience has been different, but they each have also learned valuable lessons along the way. Whether it’s Nick Rimando instructing Jackson to make a slight adjustment to his hand placement to be better able to catch shots as opposed to parrying them away or Kyle Beckerman pointing out a modification to Soto’s position on the field to create space for another player in the attack, the education is coming fast. They see how quickly Joao Plata can turn on a shot and fire with accuracy as opposed to taking an extra touch or how veteran players take care of their bodies between sessions and take mental notes.
“It’s just a great experience to be working with everyone. They are giving me all the help I need,” Jackson said. “They want you to be as clean as possible because it helps them out. Telling me what ball to play, looking to play forward, reading pressure. They’ve all been so helpful.”
While the educational opportunities have been plentiful, each session has also brought new challenges for the players, too. While they are playing at the elite academy level and some have even worked with the U.S. Youth National Teams, the jump to the MLS level is another elevation entirely.
“It’s a lot, but the more experience I get with them, the closer I get to that level. Training with the academy can get you to a certain point, but once you jump to that first team level, it’s really good for your development,” Soto said. ““It’s so different seeing them playing games rather than seeing them prepare for games. There is so much stuff behind the scenes that they do and that’s the only way to get to that level. I just wanted to show that I can hang.”
Next week, Soto, Jackson, Mendoza and Virgen will return to Herriman and their RSL Academy teammates – where the U-19 team is second in the USSDA Southwest Division with a record of 11-3-1 through 15 matches. With them, they will bring a new outlook on the game as they all aspire to return one day with a professional contract in tow.
For now, though, the smiles and memories will suffice.