When Dell Loy Hansen built the Zions Bank Training Center in Herriman, he envisioned a future where the U.S. National Team lined up in a World Cup match with a roster that included several players that developed at Real Salt Lake’s state-of-the-art facility.
It takes much more than pristine fields or premium training and fitness equipment to develop players into stars, though. Already with a top-flight staff in place with some of the best-established coaches in the country working under Academy Director Tom Spall, RSL added another stellar piece to complete that puzzle when Arnold Rijsenburg signed as Director of Academy Coaching.
If you want someone capable of elevating players to the top level, Arnold Rijsenburg is your guy.
While working with Standard Liege and Anderlecht in Belgium, Rijsenburg saw some supremely talented players come through the youth academies. While the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Axel Witsel, Nacer Chadli and Marouane Fellaini all showed tremendous skill and aptitude, there was no telling the heights that they would reach, leading Belgium to the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
“You know that they have something special, of course. Still there are a lot of circumstances to take into account,” Rijsenburg smiled when thinking back to his time training those players and others. “But to have a career like this … that’s unbelievable.”
Although he may sheepishly only confess to having a small role in coaching those players to reach their peak performance, several were among his letters of recommendation when he sought the role with RSL and still contact him seeking advice to further help their flourishing careers.
He is uniquely qualified to help players who are approaching great levels to climb over the hump and find new levels in their performance. He has also seen players get near to that level without finding that extra something to reach their greatest heights.
Again sheepishly, he sites himself as a prime example of that.
A talented player in his youth, Rijsenburg was a midfield general. He started his professional career in the Belgian third division at just 16 years old and found the game came easy to him. Because he was never challenged, he struggled to navigate competition for his position when he climbed to higher levels. And while he eventually played in the first division, he didn’t stick there for long, finding most of his success in the second division.
He has used that experience as a player to help guide him as a coach.
“People told me the talent was there, but everything was too easy to me. The mistake I made by taking things too easy has helped me as a coach. I never had a coach to push me more. I never learned to fight for my position,” Rijsenburg said with a hint of regret while also acknowledging that he may not have reached the levels he has as a coach without the life lessons he learned as a player. “I always wanted to play on my talent. Up to a certain level, that was ok, but when you have to fight someone for your position, I never learned because I always played.”
He transitioned quickly into coaching, even serving as something of a coach on the field in his final seasons as a player. And while the glamour of coaching at the first-team level has its appeal, he always felt drawn to youth development first and foremost.
He started working with young players during his playing days, coaching local youth clubs and quickly catching the itch to continue when his career ended in 2000. He started with Oud-Heverlee’s youth setup before making the move to Standard Liege and Anderlecht. Later, he worked with the Aspire Academy in Qatar and with the Kenya National Team, working with young players from around the world in the process.
“The satisfaction working with younger kids, bringing over your experience and seeing that they are absorbing it – that is the most satisfying part,” he said.
Now tasked with helping lift the already accomplished Real Salt Lake Academy to new heights, Rijsenburg knows there are challenges ahead, but also that the expectations placed on him are not only reachable, but almost inevitable.
“If you have the talent, you will get there. There is no pressure. I know what I can do. I know what the staff can do. I am 100% confident that we will get the results,” he said. “We believe in what we are doing and the curriculum that we are implementing. We know we can produce players … and we will.”
Real Salt Lake had 12 academy products on the roster for 2019 and has produced 53 professionals throughout the years. That prolific rate caught his attention. As did the facilities in Herriman, where players and coaches are given all of the amenities needed to advance their development.
But it took more than that to convince him to pick up his family and move to the other side of the world.
One meeting with RSL’s front office was all it took to confirm that it would be the right decision.
“The fact that they believe in what I believe in is what convinced me,” he smiled confidently. “They want to work with you and like the message I was giving and that convinced me straight away.”
Now entrenching himself in the RSL Academy in Herriman, he is peppering his own expertise into the already-established works put in place by Spall and his staff of Cody Worden, Chris Gores, Rob Rogers and Luke Baxter. Together, they will work to develop the next Justen Glad, Corey Baird and Aaron Herrera – established starters with Real Salt Lake – and try to get them to reach the levels of players like Witsel, Lukaku and Christian Benteke.
“If the Academy can produce players who are on the starting level of the first team,” Rijsenburg said, “then we did a good job.”