When Real Salt Lake General Manager Craig Waibel hears the phrase “Play your kids,” he squirms uncomfortably with a hint of an eye roll.
He will readily acknowledge that few teams, if any, in Major League Soccer provide young players with the opportunities to succeed on the field the way Real Salt Lake does. However, each of those players earns their opportunities and they rarely come without some sharpening at lower levels.
Justen Glad and Danny Acosta both spent a year or more playing in the USL while also competing on the training field with Real Salt Lake. Brooks Lennon came back to RSL after spending time with Liverpool’s reserves and youth squads in England. All three saw growing pains during their runs of playing time when they first broke onto the scene for Real Salt Lake, but the three RSL Academy products also put in the work to gain the confidence of the coaching staff and their teammates to allow them to thrive on the ifeld.
“‘Play your kids when they’re ready’ is what every organization is trying to do and every organization is in a different situation on when is the right time to play your kids,” Waibel said. “If you can play a 16-year-old and surround him three or four multi-million-dollar players, that 16-year-old is going to look pretty good. If you put that same 16-year-old on the field next to a couple other players that aren’t proven professionals, that success rate might drop. We have to be very calculated with the way we do things and the way we build this roster and the opportunities we look for. To their credit, many of them have taken their chances and many of them are still going to fight for more chances.”
Real Salt Lake’s roster has seen an evolution in recent years. What used to be a veteran-laden roster filled with players with chips on their shoulders looking to prove somebody wrong or to take a second chance is now much more balanced. While veteran professionals like Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and others have years of MLS experience and players from abroad like Alfredo Ortuno, Damir Kreilach and Marcelo Silva are similarly battle-tested, they are complemented by a slew of former RSL Academy standouts and young impact signings that bolster the roster.
That includes eight products of the RSL Academy who learned their craft from a young age under the tutelage of Martin Vasquez, Freddy Juarez and Mike Kraus. The 2013 USSDA U-17 National Champion squad featured the likes of Glad, Lennon, Sebastian Saucedo and Aaron Herrera. Playing together and with the direction of the Academy’s coaching staff and the confidence to the organization, the players on that roster knew eventually they would get an opportunity to show their worth on the professional level.
Although they all took different paths, it’s something of a testament to the evolving philosophy in play for Real Salt Lake and the continued growth of its developmental processes.
“We started off really utopic in our thought process that we could take one-year plans and develop players and over the last two or three years we’ve gotten much more dynamic in the way we lay out long-term plans with these players to make sure they’re ready for first-team minutes,” Waibel said. “I think that’s been the huge change, along with a compliment to the players themselves who really are the ones who make things work. They’ve accepted these opportunities to play important minutes in the second division prior to getting their chances with the first and that’s where their confidence has been built by-and-large. At the same time they’ve taken all these opportunities in different ways and shown the success rate of it.”
The Academy hasn’t only loaded players onto the RSL roster though. Drawing worldwide attention, players have signed with the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United and Bayern Munich. Add in former RSL center back Carlos Salcedo succeeding with Germany’s Eintracht Frankfurt and the Mexican National Team and it’s no wonder RSL Owner Dell Loy Hansen was eager to see out more growth at the academy level with the construction of the club’s 78-million dollar training facility at the Zions Bank Real Academy.
Officially opened on Wednesday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, the training center provides unprecedented training opportunities for players in the western hemisphere.
Worldwide, clubs like FC Barcelona in Spain and AFC Ajax in Holland are widely regarded for their abilities to develop young players that have gone on to shape the first teams at both clubs.
The dream is to one day reach the level where Real Salt Lake lifts an MLS Cup with a roster made up exclusively of players developed within the club’s academy. While that is still years in the making, especially with the continuing growth of the league and influx of money to bring in top-flight talent from around the world, the continuous sharpening of iron at the various levels within the Real Salt Lake organization has the club inching ever-closer to that goal.
“I tell them all the time, I’d love nothing more than to see the core young guys starting every minute and lifting an MLS Cup having come through the Academy and been a part of this pipeline. That’s my ultimate goal for them. It’s very easy to say something like that, but they have to take advantage of every second,” RSL Head Coach Mike Petke said. “It’s not just working hard, it’s doing the right things. It’s not making the same mistakes. And it’s truly embracing that they are a professional both on and off the field. That’s what I want to see out of them day in and day out. They have the ability. They have the opportunity. It’s about all of them grabbing it and taking advantage of it.”
Petke emphasized, though, that those opportunities won’t come without continued dedication and effort from the players themselves.
“They all have the ability. At their best, any one of them could easily be inserted into the starting lineup. The one thing I need to see is them improving every day and not being satisfied just to be on a roster,” he said. “They should be kicking, clawing, doing everything to get in a starting lineup. That’s what I want to see out of those guys.”
Real Salt Lake opens the 2018 MLS regular season on Saturday against FC Dallas. Both teams will likely have several academy products in the starting lineup.