Damir Kreilach already had two goals on the night when Kyle Beckerman earned a second half penalty on Saturday in Real Salt Lake’s preseason match against Phoenix Rising FC. If Kreilach had asked for the ball and an opportunity to complete that hat trick, it could have made for a good milestone in the buildup to the 2019 season.
However, Kreilach knew there was something bigger than what could have been gained from a veteran player netting a hat trick in a preseason game. So he handed the ball off to Brooks Lennon.
A Phoenix native, Lennon was one of five RSL starters who got their start with the Real Salt Lake Academy in nearby Casa Grande, Arizona. With friends and family in attendance and dozens of players from the newly formed RSL-Arizona Academy cheering them on, Kreilach saw the importance of giving one of Arizona’s own a moment in the spotlight.
Lennon converted the penalty to put RSL up 3-1 in what turned into a 4-1 victory and cheers erupted from throughout the crowd.
“It’s a great feeling being back where it all started,” Lennon beamed after the match. “Playing tonight in front of the Phoenix Rising fans and with so many academy products on the field at one time, it’s just a special moment for RSL and I’m proud.”
While Lennon’s goal was a flagship moment for the RSL Academy products, it was far from the only bright spot for those five that appeared in the starting lineup or the two others that appeared off the bench.
Corey Baird made a slaloming run into the attack to set up Kreilach’s first goal to level the match in the 11th minute. Aaron Herrera and Justen Glad joined with Lennon and Marcelo Silva to bounce back from an early goal and lock down the back and keep Phoenix off the board for the remainder of the 78 minutes they spent on the field. And Sebastian Saucedo was aggressive in the attack starting on the wing and cutting inside to create opportunities for himself and his teammates.
Off the bench, Donny Toia – another Phoenix native – and Julian Vazquez kept the intensity up and the pressure on for RSL as it closed out the victory.
Each had their own path to the Phoenix Rising FC Soccer Complex on Saturday and each had their own moments of pride in the match.
“It’s always a good time. I get to see a lot people I grew up playing soccer with and it’s fun to see how much soccer has grown in Phoenix,” Glad said.
In addition to the goal for Lennon, a highlight was seeing a big crowd pack the stadium for a preseason match. The growth of soccer in his hometown, where Phoenix Rising FC was eighth in the USL in average attendance in 2018 with an average crowd that exceeded the stadium’s 6,200-seat capacity, was beyond expectations for the 21-year-old right back.
“It means a lot. I’d love to see Phoenix get an MLS team one day,” he said. “It’s great to see soccer growing in Arizona and to have so many kids come out tonight and hopefully they can one day play on this field in a professional game. I didn’t take it for granted tonight because there were so many nights I played here in Arizona growing up. Being able to play as a professional here definitely is special.”
RSL has two more matches scheduled during the Arizona portion of preseason against FC Dallas on Wednesday (12 p.m. MT) and the Portland Timbers on Saturday (5 p.m. MT), both at Tucson’s Kino Sports Complex. Both matches will be streamed live on the KSL TV app.