After Aaron Herrera made his first MLS start for Real Salt Lake on Saturday against the Colorado Rapids, he received many messages of encouragement and congratulations. One of them that held significant weight for the 21-year-old defender was a simple tweet from the University of New Mexico men’s soccer Head Coach Jeremy Fishbein (@LoboCoachFish).
“Lobo and native New Mexican Aaron Herrera gets first MLS start. #lobosdevelopingpros”
The show of support from his college coach was important to him for many reasons, not the least of which is that the Lobos soccer program is in turmoil after the university announced last week that the program is one that would be discontinued amidst budget cuts.
Herrera is among several current and former MLS pros developed at UNM lamenting the decision.
“It’s a tough situation to be in. I didn’t think it would happen because it’s a pretty prestigious program around the country. Everybody knows about the Lobos,” Herrera said. “I felt sick to my stomach because I know the passion the people have there – the coaches, the players, the fans … everybody.”
The news last week was a sour note in an otherwise sweet two weeks for the RSL rookie defender. Not only did he get his first MLS start, but then this week he was added to the roster for the MLS Homegrown Game next week in Atlanta. He joins Sebastian Saucedo on the roster, extending RSL’s run among the most recognized clubs in the annual match.
Reaching that point has been a culmination of years of work for the kid from Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Located on the southern New Mexico border, Las Cruces is far from a soccer hotbed. However, that didn’t mean a fair share of players couldn’t develop into professionals. Because of the remote location, Herrera and his family would travel miles and miles to seek out the best competition, often going to Arizona and California for tournaments to help cultivate the talent that was in area.
“Competition was really important to my dad. He always worked really hard to get us exposed in bigger tournaments,” Herrera said. “We were always traveling as much as we could – as much as money would let us – to try and find better competition.”
While he traveled far and wide, it would be in his own backyard that he would find the coach that would lead him to the next level. Then, Freddy Juarez was a recently retired pro seeking to bring advancement to the game in his hometown. In Las Cruces, he helped nurture the Strikers soccer program and was a local legend for his work with young players. Eventually, that led to a move to Casa Grande, Arizona, to head the Real Salt Lake Academy.
While in Arizona, Juarez didn’t forget about the kid from Las Cruces that had so much potential. He would call Herrera in to work out with the Academy team on occasion until finally he invited him to join.
There he paired up with Corey Baird, Brooks Lennon, Justen Glad, Jose Hernandez and Saucedo, among others, to create one of the most formidable USSDA Academy teams in the country. There they talked openly about wanting to climb the ranks and play professionally together. The same conversation is had by kids around the country, but in 2014 when Glad and Saucedo starting getting calls from the RSL first team, it was looking more and more like a reality.
“It’s incredible, the journey we’ve been on,” Herrera said. “We all talked about how we all wanted to move up to the first team and be playing together and maybe one day have an all-Academy team and be the first team to ever do that. It’s pretty incredible to have five or six guys here.”
After the 2014-15 academy season, the players all went their separate ways. For Herrera, that meant achieving one of his other soccer dreams and suiting up for the University of New Mexico.
Across the state, the Lobos were the biggest game around. To don the college’s jersey was a point of pride for Herrera.
“It’s everything to the players there,” he said. “Every kid growing up wants to play for the Lobos men’s soccer team. It’s a big thing in New Mexico.”
With the Lobos, he was instrumental in helping the team reach the NCAA Tournament during his freshman season and had them on the brink of return trips in his sophomore and junior seasons.
In all, he had seven goals and eight assists in 54 matches for New Mexico and quickly developed into a leader on the team.
“I learned a lot about leadership while I was there,” Herrera said. “The college season is a grind. It’s tough. You learn to manage yourself just to make it through the season. Then once you’re an upper-classmen, you’ve got to start learning to be more of a leader for the team.”
His play also kept him on the radar with U.S. Soccer and he was one of five RSL Academy products – along with Acosta, Lennon, Glad and Saucedo – who would help the U.S. U-20 National Team win the CONCACAF U-20 Championship for the first time ever and advance to the quarterfinal round of the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup in South Korea.
Following that performance and a standout junior season, he was signed by Real Salt Lake. Late in training camp, he had a setback with a hamstring strain that dampened an otherwise thrilling start to his pro career. Once recovered, he was a regular on RSL’s bench before making his first appearance on May 26 in a 1-0 road win over Seattle Sounders FC. His “15 seconds of fame,” as he calls it, came in the final moments to see out the victory. On July 7, he would make another brief substitute appearance, this time seeing three minutes to close out a 2-0 home win over FC Dallas.
That all led to his first start against the Rapids last week. With Glad and Lennon with him on the back line, Baird starting at forward and Juarez manning the bench in the absence of suspended Head Coach Mike Petke, it was just like old times for Herrera.
“It meant a lot getting my first start in MLS. It was an amazing feeling,” he said after the 2-2 draw. “It was an unlucky result and a frustrating one. Coming up from the Academy, it’s what we all dreamed of when we were there.”
All of that individual success came with hard work and watchful coaching at all levels. His is one of many success stories from the University of New Mexico’s soccer program. And while the school’s decision to cut the program is weighing on his mind, it doesn’t keep him from having a positive outlook.
“I’m sure they’ll find a way to fix it,” he said. “Hopefully in the next year.”