They haven’t “made it” just yet, but for five Real Salt Lake Academy products, the past few weeks have been lifelong fantasies come to life. After signing their first professional contracts, goalkeeper David Ochoa, defender Erik Holt and attacking players Luis Arriaga, Julian Vazquez and Tate Schmitt have been in their first full preseason training camps with RSL and each has already made a mark in their own way, although they all have a long distance to travel and many players to overtake on the roster before they see significant minutes with the first team.
Although Ochoa has been away with the U.S. U-18 National Team, the remaining four field players have all done different things to establish themselves in their own way while limiting the signs of youth and inexperience to keep a high level of training.
“I think they’ve adapted extremely well. You can tell how hungry they are – Tate Schmitt and Erik Holt specifically,” RSL Head Coach Mike Petke said. “These guys have come in and have turned some of the veteran player’s heads. Albert Rusnák made a couple of comments. Damir (Kreilach) made a couple of comments. Kyle (Beckerman) did about those two specifically. That’s a credit to them. They came in hungry and they’re not content to just get a contract with RSL. I don’t want players who just have that goal. They have ambitions to break the starting lineup, to play a lot of games and to raise their value.”
While Petke was clearly happy with the progress of the two players who took the collegiate route, he also went on to praise the work rates of teen rookies Arriaga and Vazquez.
“Julian Vazquez and Luis Arriaga are both little pitbulls out there from our academy. They’re playing well,” he said. “They are excited to be there and improving every day.”
The five players took decidedly different paths to RSL, with Schmitt and Holt both playing four seasons at the college level while Vazquez, Arriaga and Ochoa all signed directly out of the RSL Academy – now based in Herriman, Utah.
RSL has shown a propensity to not only producing professional talent – 51 players from the Academy have now signed professional contracts – but an ability to execute specific and varying progression plans for each player in their paths to minutes with the first team. For every Corey Baird and Aaron Herrera who played significant in their first pro seasons in 2018, there is a Justen Glad or Sebastian Saucedo who signed at a young age and grew within the system until finally earning their playing time and became core pieces of the roster.
That progression plan is developed by General Manager Craig Waibel and his staff, including the coaches from top-to-bottom in the organization.
“We believe in all five of these guys and we think there’s a progression that really molds itself into the organization and their own personal growth,” Waibel said. “Some of their progressions are 1-2 years and others are 2-3, but we sit down as an entire staff and go through what we really think is going to happen and how to present it in a way that’s very honest, very straightforward and the expectations are black and white.”
Players like Baird and Glad, among others, not only laid the potential blueprints for growth as players, but have also provided some subtle mentorship to their longtime friends and new professional teammates.
It’s a testament to the close relationships of those academy products, but also to the culture at the RSL Academy created by Martin Vasquez and Freddy Juarez.
“Professionally, you owe a lot of success to the academy and what they’ve built and the foundation that we got to grow up in,” Schmitt said. “To have those role models who are also our friends in our back pocket and be able to learn from them, it creates a close competition within everyone to see who’s going to make it to the top. We’re all teammates and being able to see the players grow, it’s motivation because we all learned from the same coaches. There’s a lot of potential there if you put your head down and work hard.”
The five RSL rookies are still very early in their progression plans, but with Real Salt Lake’s commitment to youth development and a clear path to success, their names will be ones to know in the years to come.