How Carlos Salcedo went from a Real Salt Lake backup to a World Cup star for Mexico

Former RSL defender is blossoming as one of the breakout young players at the 2018 World Cup for Mexico

Mexico's Carlos Salcedo and Germany's Julian Draxler challenge for the ball during the group F match between Germany and Mexico at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, June 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

Prior to Mexico’s history-making 1-0 upset of reigning World Cup champion Germany a week ago, Carlos Salcedo sat at a dais, the backdrop splattered with national-team sponsors which signifies both the stakes and the stage. Salcedo proclaimed what many wouldn’t, where many wouldn’t dare go. That’s who Salcedo has always been. And to those who’ve monitored his meteoric rise, they caution to view it not as arrogance, but in belief.

“Nobody,” he said with a straight face, “is unbeatable.”

Except for maybe Salcedo himself.

Now 24 and considered one of world soccer’s skyrocketing talents, the Mexico defender is where he always envisioned he would be — and a long way from Casa Grande, Ariz., where some nights he’d beg Real Salt Lake academy coaches to add on another twilight training session so he could work on clearing balls out of the box or hitting a long, lofted pass to start a potential counterattack.

At times, it’d be only him under the lights surrounded by palm trees in the vast Arizona desert envisioning how somewhere down the line, his drive would propel him to the moment he’s now suddenly starring upon, starting on the Mexico back line in World Cup victories.

“He had goals, he prepared,” said Martin Vasquez, RSL’s academy director, who is also Salcedo’s godfather. “His mentality is unique. He said, ‘I’m going to do this.’ Everybody has dreams.”

It’s impossible to argue Salcedo is anywhere other than his most blissful state of reverie. Except this is no dream. This is as real as it gets, on the most grand scene. The former RSL academy product is now part of the Mexico’s long-term core group of young, confident, European-based players.

It took more than a few risks to get there.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Real Salt Lake defender Carlos Salcedo (16) collides withSan Jose Earthquakes midfielder Yannick Djalo (10), in RSL action Real Salt Lake vs. San Jose Earthquakes, at Rio Tinto Stadium, Saturday, October 11, 2014

Upon his forced exit at RSL in November 2014, Salcedo moved to Chivas de Guadalajara where he thrived overnight. The minutes at RSL as a teenage center back weren’t there, not on an annual MLS Cup contender replete with proven veteran central defenders and with coaches who weren’t out to upset the established order.

Salcedo’s talent was undeniable, but he was — as RSL fans continue to painfully tweet every time Salcedo shines with the world watching — buried in the depth chart.

RSL general manager Craig Waibel, who in 2014 was an assistant coach and worked primarily with the defenders, said the most agonizing part of that season was midway through the year, the decision was made that Salcedo would be a full-time starter come 2015. But after RSL was bounced in the postseason, Salcedo took to Twitter asking RSL not to bring him back into the fold, citing issues with former GM Garth Lagerwey. Salcedo made 25 appearances during his two seasons with RSL.

During RSL’s time in front-office flux as Lagerwey departed for Seattle and former club president Bill Manning oversaw some moves, the organization sold Salcedo to Chivas for $450,000. The deal featured a $200,000 one-time sell-on clause, meaning when Chivas decided to let Salcedo move on, that was RSL’s cut.

“We’re not the only club in the world,” Waibel said, “and we have to be aware of that and player aspirations.”

From the time he was a youth player in Mexico, Salcedo made it known those aspirations were to play overseas in the most competitive leagues. At 19, he told a local reporter that his game resembled that of Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane, who is starting at this World Cup for France.

After time at Chivas, he was loaned to Italian club Fiorentina. Following that stint, he was loaned to Eintracht Frankfurt in the German Bundesliga, where he’s become a mainstay; Frankfurt has decided to keep him around for the long haul, acquiring him from Chivas on a full transfer.

Salcedo’s path was, in a sense, paved by himself. Chivas did not want to see a physically-imposing Mexican international defender in his prime depart for Europe. He eventually had to make it known to the powers-that-be at Chivas that Europe was where he saw himself and where he believed his potential could reach its apex. From a national-team perspective, Salcedo’s development has been aided in having a coach like Juan Carlos Osorio.

“[Osorio] respects European experience and he respects people who go out of their comfort zone,” said ESPNFC’s Mexico-based journalist Tom Marshall, who covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team. “With Salcedo, that’s who he is. That’s what he does.”

When Salcedo left the academy setup at Mexican powerhouse Tigres UANL, he went in search of his next step as a teenager. Always a technically-sound defender with size and speed, Vasquez said Salcedo’s appeal of moving to the U.S. and joining RSL’s academy was learning how to utilize his rare combination to his advantage.

“He wanted to work on the physical aspect of the game,” Vasquez said.

And that’s shown through, added Marshall, who has been trailing Mexico at this 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Mexico's Carlos Salcedo and Miguel Layun, kneeling on the ground, celebrate at the end of the group F match between Germany and Mexico at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, June 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

“I honestly think his time at Real Salt Lake, and he’s said it before himself as well, I think it kind of defined, to a degree, his style because he flies into tackles, he’s got that kind of American-style defending,” Marshall said. “He does have that steel. He plays on the edge.”

And nobody has ever accused Salcedo of being soft, either.

At 19, Salcedo played through severe stomach pains in July 2013 in a 3-0 win at FC Dallas. That night the discomfort became unbearable, and he eventually had his gall bladder removed. That October, he was pictured in tears on the RSL bench after RSL lost the 2013 U.S. Open Cup final in front of its home fans, a match in which Salcedo started.

During a friendly against Croatia this March, Salcedo broke his clavicle, an injury that required surgery, and he was back on the field in less than two months.

In last summer’s FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia, Salcedo suffered a shoulder injury that forced him to miss three months. With the game taken away from him in the emotional lead-up to a World Cup year, Salcedo returned to Salt Lake City. The visit wasn’t announced, so when Waibel stumbled upon his former defender in the hallways of Rio Tinto Stadium, the two embraced.

“It’s what we’re about,” Waibel said. “Not every single player leaves here and maintains that kind of relationship with the club. It’s very special when they do, especially having guys like Carlos to come back here.”

World Cup stories are so often remarkable, achieving what millions upon millions can only dream of. Salcedo’s is no different.

Four years ago, he was so amped up to start a match in Columbus, he tweeted out he was in the RSL starting lineup, breaking the typical game-day embargo. And as former teammate Sebastian Velasquez tweeted after Salcedo went 90 in the win against Germany, four years ago, Salcedo was sleeping on a $20 inflatable bed in Velasquez’s living room in the Salt Lake Valley.