A header from 16-year-old Justen Glad floats over the goalie’s outstretched hands in Houston, giving the RSL-Arizona academy team a late lead in the 2013 U.S. Developmental Academy championship game. Glad’s goal is the go-ahead tally in a 4-2 RSL win dominated by two teammates of his who combine for two goals and three assists — Sebastian Saucedo and Brooks Lennon.
“Ecstatic,” Glad said last week, remembering the moment. “… Being able to score after living with the guys for a year, two years, it’s hard to put words on how good that felt and all the sacrifice being away from home and all that good stuff.”
Fast-forward to this past August, as Real Salt Lake leads the Colorado Rapids in the Rocky Mountain Cup. Glad spends the first 90 minutes breaking up multiple Colorado attacks as RSL holds onto a 2-1 lead. Then in injury time, Saucedo breaks free, settles a long ball with his first touch, and crosses to the center of the penalty box, where a perfectly timed run by Lennon results in a goal and 4-1 win.
Champions as teenagers developed by the franchise’s academy system, the trio of Glad, Saucedo and Lennon are only part of the wave of youth coming into a Real Salt Lake first team that has shown promise in the hopes of winning a Major League Soccer title, which would be vindication for owner Dell Loy Hansen’s investment in developing homegrown stars.
“[Real Salt Lake is] spending perhaps more than any other team below their roster on their academy, on their new training facility and all the money that they’re spending with their strategy,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said earlier this summer. “Each team has got to pick their approach, and a team like Salt Lake, they decided they want their approach to be about young homegrown players, and they’ve done a great job with that.”
A new home in Herriman
Three days before RSL’s win over Colorado, Hansen stood on a stage at the new Zions Bank Real Academy in Herriman to address approximately 180 students in their first week of classes at the new charter school.
“I’m really proud that we have set the goal to be nothing less than one of the top three academies in the nation and one of the top 10 in the world,” he said. “And there’s nothing that can stop us from doing that.”
The estimated $73 million project will support a campus that could grow to 300 students. The 132-acre plot also is the future training center for RSL’s first team, USL affiliate Real Monarchs and RSL’s academy teams.
“When you’re a goliath you can walk around and stomp on little ants,” Hansen said, “but if you’re an ant, you better learn to run fast. So, we’re learning to run.”
It’s an investment consistent with Hansen’s emphasis on youth development, an emphasis he sees as the best path to a championship.
“I don’t have the chance to get David Beckham to land in Salt Lake with Hollywood cameras,” Hansen said. “He’s going to LA. There’s going to be guys that want to go to New York that come in from England. L.A., [New York], Miami, Toronto, they’re going to have an edge. They just have a population and a cache that some of the big-time players will come. Well, we’ll grow our big-time players.”
Now they’ll do so in Herriman at a facility that will include seven regulation-sized fields, with the hopes of replicating the success of developing players in the Salt Lake Valley that RSL had in the Arizona desert.
Life at Casa Grande
Freddy Juarez, then a coach at the academy, had a simple phrase in Casa Grande, Ariz., that’s stuck with defender Danilo Acosta: “The Grande is not for everyone.”
“There were some times when you’re alone, you’re homesick, you miss your family, and that’s when you have to push it,” Acosta said. “You have nothing else to do. You sacrifice everything — friends, family, activities, your free time — just to go down there and play soccer and try to do your best.”
In 2007, Real Salt Lake became the first team in MLS to start an affiliated residency program, building an academy at the Grande Sports World complex in Casa Grande, a town of 55,000 people outside of Phoenix. Under MLS’ homegrown rules, RSL’s territory to find players includes Utah and Arizona.
“At the academy, there’s just one thing to do,” Saucedo said, “and that’s play soccer all the time.”
Away from home, academy players put up a sign in the locker room that read, “Family we are, and for each other we fight.”
“It was a special group that believed in team play,” RSL Academy head coach and director of soccer operations Martin Vasquez said. “They played for each other, they played for their team and their family.”
The academy grew over the years; by 2010, it housed 22 residents and had other players commute in. When they weren’t eating, sleeping, studying or practicing under the watchful eye of the academy coaches, they continued to spend time together.
“The hours of soccer tennis was always a good time,” Glad said. “We would always get yelled at by Martin because the soccer tennis area closed at 10 and we would be in there at 10:20, 10:30.”
What Vasquez couldn’t tell them was how happy he was to see them on the courts. A former U.S. and Mexican national team player, he knew the amount of dedication required to be a great player.
“If it was up to me, I’d let them play until midnight or 1 in the morning,” Vasquez said, “but they had to go to school the next day.”
There were entertainment options; the pool and movie theater were go-to places to blow off steam. But usually, free time included a soccer ball.
“On weekends, I got to see these young men play soccer tennis until midnight,” Vazquez said, “get up at 5 in the morning, go out on the field and just work on ball control, go into the gym and lift and work on their athleticism. … I can go on and on with different guys that just were so committed, were so driven to get to where they are now.”
‘It was all a dream’
There’s no single path from the academy to the first team, but despite having taken different paths, eight players from Casa Grande have worn an RSL shirt this season.
Lalo Fernandez left Casa Grande and spent half a season in Uruguay before signing with RSL as a backup goalie (on Wednesday, he was sold to Mexican club Tigres). Jose Hernandez, Jordan Allen and Ricardo Velazco went to college before joining RSL. Glad, Acosta and Saucedo signed with RSL straight from the Academy. Lennon signed with English powerhouse Liverpool in 2015, then returned to RSL this season on a one-season loan.
“There were just so many people from the same academy team that were already on the first team that it was just such an easy transition for me to come back to RSL,” Lennon said. “And that’s kind of what made me make my decision to come on loan here, just because of the talented group and all the guys that I had already known.”
No one was more thrilled about Lennon’s return than Saucedo, his roommate at the academy and in U.S. youth national team camps since they were 15 years old — and roommates again on the road this year.
“He’s an incredible player and just such a professional athlete off the field,” Saucedo said, “so it helps me also with doing what’s best for myself. … And obviously having him as a roommate here now at RSL’s first team is the same thing. We look at each other only to strive to be better.”
Lennon, Glad, Acosta and Saucedo began the year with the U.S. U-20 national team, along with academy product and current University of New Mexico defender Aaron Herrera. They found that not much had changed since Casa Grande.
“We eat together, RSL boys, five seats right there,” Acosta said, “and everyone else. And we do everything together.”
And when they got back to Utah, the academy grads found a familiar face in Juarez, who now is an RSL assistant.
“It was a huge advantage where there’s a core of guys that already know the way I am and how I teach,” Juarez said. “I think it’s helped in my transition a bit. And I can also hold them accountable because they know how I am. I haven’t changed.”
What has changed is the level. From teenagers learning the level of dedication needed to be a professional, to professionals striving for a championship.
“We all had this idea of being on the first team together one day,” Hernandez said, “and just to see it flourish and happen, I think it’s awesome for us. It was all a dream then, and now we can make it a reality.”
RSL’s Homegrown Players
Acquired: Signed as a Homegrown Player on Dec. 29, 2015
Hometown: Rochester, N.Y.
Acquired: Signed as a Homegrown Player on Dec. 31, 2013
Hometown: Tuscon, Ariz.
Acquired: Signed as a Homegrown Player on April 4, 2014
Acquired: Signed as a Homegrown Player on Dec. 22, 2016
Hometown: Paradise Valley, Ariz.
Acquired: Loaned from Liverpool on Feb. 6, 2017
Hometown: Park City
Acquired: Signed as a Homegrown Player on July 24, 2014.
Hometown: Casa Grande, Ariz.
Acquired: Signed from Real Monarchs SLC on Sept. 6, 2016.