Clear back in 2012, Justen Glad and Aaron Herrera met at the remote soccer fields at the RSL Academy in Casa Grande, Arizona. Together, they would compete until all hours of the night – whether it was on the soccer field or in any other aspect of their young lives. Barely into their teen years, they formed a bond that has carried into their professional careers with Real Salt Lake and now to Guadalajara, Mexico, where they join the U.S. U-23 National Team for the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
While they individually dreamed of reaching the professional ranks, they never could have imagined the globe-trotting they would do together playing with U.S. youth national teams. Roommates in the small dorm rooms in Casa Grande, they had more time together than they knew what to do with. Now housemates along with RSL teammates and fellow RSL Academy products Tate Schmitt and Andrew Brody in Millcreek, not much has changed as they climb to new heights together.
“We always think back to when we first met at the academy,” Herrera smiled last week before the duo departed for Mexico. “We were both just two little kids and our goal was to go pro.”
Both arrived in Arizona with lithe frames and lofty dreams. After honing their crafts with the RSL Academy under the guidance of current RSL Head Coach Freddy Juarez, the two continued down their separate but parallel paths to the RSL starting XI. Glad signed a professional contract at 17 years old in 2014, shadowing the likes of Nat Borchers, Jamison Olave, Chris Schuler and Aaron Maund in his first seasons.
By the time he broke through to earn regular minutes as a starter, Herrera was working his way up the ranks with the University of New Mexico. In his three seasons with the Lobos, he showed his capabilities on the defensive side of the ball and had worked his way into the attack, scoring five goals with five assists in 17 matches as a junior.
The two would reunite – joining RSL teammates Brooks Lennon, Sebastian Saucedo and Danny Acosta – to win the 2017 Concacaf U-20 Championship in Honduras and then advance to the quarterfinals of the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup in South Korea.
The following year, they joined forces on Real Salt Lake’s back line, all while continuing on their paths with the U.S. National Team.
Now entering their eighth and fourth seasons, respectively, Glad and Herrera are taking on leadership roles within the club, a challenge they welcome with open arms even with Glad just 24 years old and Herrera 23.
“When you come into the league and you’re a young guy, there is always a mentality shift when it’s time to start taking a leadership role on the team,” Herrera said. “We should be leaders on the team and to do that you have to be one the best players every day in training and in games. You have to be able to make big plays that are going to change games. It’s time to make that switch and this year’s a huge year for that. We have to make that happen.”
It’s not unlikely that they will assume a similar role with the U-23s at Olympic Qualifying and beyond, should the U.S. advance. Glad is the leader in MLS regular season appearances with 126 – next-highest is San Jose’s Jackson Yueill with 87. Herrera, meanwhile, is fifth with 68 appearances.
With the Olympics on the line, their combined experience in MLS along with the Concacaf U-20 victory and U-20 World Cup run on their resumes could prove critical for the U.S. Tournaments such as these bring a heightened intensity unseen in the numerous friendlies used to gauge player progress and put together the best roster during the cycle.
“There is another level – another dimension – added to them. When there is something real on the line, that’s what we’ve been preparing for in those other camps,” Glad said. “When you get into the event and you get to participate in it, that’s a different level of excitement and enthusiasm.”
Suddenly, those eternal competitions in Casa Grande and their home in Millcreek take on a new meaning, too. On and off the field, Glad and Herrera are always looking for ways to be better – better than their competition and their previous personal bests.
“We like to compete. We like to have fun. We have a putting green and a basketball hoop. It definitely gets competitive,” Glad said. “It drives us to be better and do more.”