Sebastian Saucedo adjusts himself in his seat.
The words that had come so freely when he was talking about his rise from the Real Salt Lake Academy, through trials and tribulations over two MLS seasons and a third year away on loan in Mexico, to a starting position with his hometown team are suddenly eluding him.
It’s not discomfort that unnerves the 21-year-old Park City native, but rather an emotional connection to his hometown and the desire to say just the right things to put into words the feeling he gets when he can make an impact on that community with his newfound platform as a regular contributor with Real Salt Lake.
“As a kid …” he starts, before resetting again in his thoughts with visions of the countless hours spent on every practice field, park and schoolyard he could find with his father. “I would always want to go kick the ball around. I would always want to go see RSL play. I wanted to see how they live and how things go in the professional environment. For me to be able to give back to Park City, to Heber, to Utah in general, it’s something special in my heart.”
He fights a losing battle to keep the emotion from draping his face. But a player driven by such desire and passion on the field cannot be expected not to have the same zeal in other things he is impassioned about.
In this moment, it is Victor Benitez. Just a kid from the Park City area who loved soccer and dreamed of one day playing as a professional. The story sounded so familiar to Saucedo. The story was his own, just told eight years later with a different protagonist. Benitez wouldn’t get the opportunity to live out that dream the way Saucedo has. The 16-year-old Heber native was killed in a head-on collision on June 29.
Upon learning of his passing, Saucedo contributed to a fund to help his family pay for funeral expenses and other costs that may come along the way, also promoting the GoFundMe page through his social media to help further the cause. In a matter of days, the site had surpassed the goal of $10,000. Amidst the mourning of his services, the RSL winger also held up a t-shirt along with Danny Acosta during the team photo prior to RSL’s July 4 win over Sporting Kansas City to honor Benitez and later hosted his family fieldside before RSL topped FC Dallas at Rio Tinto Stadium three days later.
“This kid had such a bright future. Things happen and God knows why. But I’m super proud of the community – there are so many loving people in the world,” he said, continuing to speak through the emotions. “For myself to give something back to them … I would do whatever it takes to give them what I never had as a young kid.”
The things Saucedo did have as a kid in Park City came through an earnest work ethic instilled in him by his father. The two would find any place they could and any time they could spare to work on his game. Never satisfied. Always hungry for more. He would score three goals in a game for La Roca. His father would ask why he didn’t score four. He’d follow up with six the next game, but why wasn’t it seven? It wasn’t cruel. It wasn’t unreasonable. It was a shared love for soccer and a father who saw in his son great talents and an opportunity to turn those talents into a professional career. If he wasn’t working twice as hard as the next player, the chances to climb the ladder may never come.
During one of their many training sessions, he caught the attention of Matt Twiliger. A close friend of Tony Lepore, who works with U.S. Soccer in youth player identification, Twiliger put the two in contact and it wasn’t long before Saucedo was called in to U.S. youth camps. That chance connection would shape his future in ways he couldn’t have fathomed.
“I’m so happy for the opportunity that Tony gave me and kept me in the loop for the U.S. National Team,” Saucedo said. “Without that opportunity, I don’t know where I’d be.”
One call led to another and another. Soon he moved away from his family to Casa Grande, Arizona to play for Real Salt Lake’s Academy, joining a group that would later include Acosta, Justen Glad, Brooks Lennon, Jose Hernandez, Aaron Herrera and Corey Baird. Many of those seven would lift the USSDA U-16 Championship trophy and five of them would play for the U.S. U-20 National Team at the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup after lifting another trophy in the CONCACAF U-20 Championships that same year.
There was special talent within that team and working together in the remote desert training facility harvested a camaraderie and competitiveness that would see them all through to greater successes.
Even still, the move from the Academy to Real Salt Lake would not be an easy one. In his first season, he would appear in nine matches for RSL, making one start. In several instances, flashes of his on-the-ball brilliance would shine through. In others, his youthfulness would keep him right on the brink of a breakthrough. In a July 4 match in 2015 against Orlando City, he played just nine minutes, but had two tremendous opportunities for just the breakthrough he was looking for. One was saved into the post. A matter of inches one way or another on his blistering shot from distance could have catapulted him to early success. Instead, he was left hungry for more.
The following year, he went to Veracruz in Mexico, where he lived alone – far away from friends and family – while playing with a club battling to avoid relegation. He fought for playing time with other established professionals and that seclusion narrowed his focus on improving every aspect of his game he could. They helped him develop his skills, but also taught him about the maturity it would take to make further progress as a professional.
“We fought for relegation. Every game was a final. Every point matters,” he recounted. “That helped me mature as a player.”
In his return to Utah, he continued to compete for playing time with RSL. With players like Joao Plata, Jefferson Savarino, Luis Silva and Brooks Lennon all looking to make their marks on the wings at different stages, minutes were hard to come by. And yet, Saucedo still climbed the ladder, contributing two assists in his 20 appearances, 15 of which came as a substitute when he would have to make an impact in a short amount of time.
He has continued to use those experiences to gain confidence from his teammates and coaches, but also in himself as he sought more and more meaningful time on the field. Now 21 years old, he is rewarding that confidence with solid performances.
In a culmination of all of the hard work he had put in with his dad on every patch of grass in Summit County and beyond, Saucedo scored his first MLS goal at Rio Tinto Stadium on July 4. It was a sign of the confidence he had gained in his own abilities and how they can contribute for his hometown team and to do it in front of the home crowd was even more rewarding than his first MLS goal just weeks earlier in front of a raucous crowd in Seattle.
“Words can’t describe how you feel when you score a goal. In Seattle I didn’t even know how to celebrate that goal. Here at home, this goal was a dedication to my family,” he said. “My family that has always been there for me. My dad that has always left work for me to be able to accomplish my dreams. He’s played a major part in my career and so has my family. I’m here for a reason. It’s the hard work that I’ve done through the RSL Academy and also the support of my family. It’s such an amazing feeling.”
In helping RSL to a 4-2 win over Sporting Kansas City, he further justified the confidence of RSL’s coaching staff. But, perhaps more importantly, he earned praise from his father.
“He’s so hard with me. I love it because he’s always pushed me since I was little,” he said. “I never expected him to be sentimental about the things that have been happening to me now. I see him more emotional and I think he’s proud of me. That gets me motivated.”
Like his father, RSL Head Coach Mike Petke sees more in Saucedo. The mentality of pushing for more is ubiquitous in both men. After each match, he is reluctant to heap praise on RSL’s youth, knowing that much of what they have accomplished has been earned through the hunger and determination to reach the next level. Yet he still sees more to be had.
That is just fine for Saucedo, who has never had a problem putting in a little bit more work, finding a little bit more focus and pushing just a little bit harder.
“Nothing has been written,” Saucedo smiled. “I always have to keep going for more.”