Zac MacMath entered the 2020 preseason with Real Salt Lake as a newcomer. And for any player acclimating to a new city and club, meeting and connecting with teammates is a top priority.

It didn’t take long for a few players to catch the goalkeeper’s attention. One of them was defender Aaron Herrera.

“Wow, this kid’s got it,” MacMath recalled thinking.

Herrera is in his third year with not only RSL, but Major League Soccer. He signed a four-year contract extension in the offseason, a signal of the organization’s confidence in Herrera’s development.

Before RSL’s loss to the San Jose Earthquakes that knocked them out of the MLS is Back Tournament, captain Kyle Beckerman was asked who on the team had emerged as a standout player during the league’s time in Orlando, Fla. Beckerman was effusive in his praise of Herrera.

“I really feel like he’s playing national team level soccer,” Beckerman said.

Herrera’s level of play was evident even before the MLS season was suspended for a few months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He, along with two of his teammates, was named to the Under-23 U.S. Men’s National Team Olympic qualifying roster in March.

The qualifying tournament and later the Olympics themselves, however, were soon canceled.

RSL AT COLORADO RAPIDS


When • Saturday, 7 p.m.
TV • KMYU

But Herrera hasn’t skipped a beat in the restart to soccer. He played a full 90 minutes in each of the four games RSL played in Orlando and has been one of the team’s most consistent defenders. RSL coach Freddy Juarez, who has known Herrera since he coached the young defender at the RSL Academy, said part of the reason for the 23-year-old’s growth is his demeanor.

“I think there’s a certain confidence in him,” Juarez said.

That confidence is evident when Herrera talks about how he sees his own development. Despite being one of RSL’s younger players, he said he no longer feels like the one of the young guys and that he’s approaching the prime of this career.

In light of that, Herrera understands how important his continued improvement will be to RSL.

“I think I have to start being more of a difference maker come big games,” Herrera said. “Just not a role player anymore. Sort of a guy that’s changing games to help our team on both sides of the ball.”

Herrera and Juarez both agreed that where the defender needs to improve is in the attacking third of the field. Outside backs in modern soccer have been increasingly expected to move further up the field, join the attack and make some plays. That’s been one of Herrera’s responsibilities of late, and it'‘s shown in the numbers.

Herrera every season has increased what Football Reference calls “shot-creating actions.” Those are defined as “the two offensive actions directly leading to a shot, such as passes, dribbles and drawing fouls.” Herrera creates shots primarily though live-ball passes.

As an MLS rookie, Herrera tallied 15 shot-creating actions in 18 games, an average of 0.83 per game, per Football Reference. In six games so far this year, that average has jumped to 1.66 shot-creating actions per game.

Something Juarez likes about Herrera is the self-awareness he has in regards to areas in his game that need improvement, and his willingness to work on them consistently.

“That’s one place he’s matured,” Juarez said.

But it hasn’t just been this season. General manager Elliot Fall said he believes Herrera has been playing at a high level for “a year and a half, two years.” Fall agreed with Beckerman’s assessment that the defender is playing “national team level soccer.”

“He’s been one of the most consistent performers we’ve had the last two years,” Fall said. “We’re just really excited to see where he’s headed.”

While there’s room for Herrera to grow as he plays out the remaining years on his contract extension, it’s clear he has the support of his teammates, coaches and the organization as a whole. And even though MacMath has worked with Herrera for less than a year, he sees the potential as well.

“The more disciplined he is defensively, the better he is,” MacMath said. “And the more free he is going forward, the better he is. So he just has to play his game and have the support of the guys behind him and I think he’ll do great things.”

AARON HERRERA AT A GLANCE


Age: 23
College: New Mexico
Of note: Product of the RSL Academy. … Has started 56 of 59 career games. … Played in the quarterfinal of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2017. … Signed a homegrown contract in December 2017. … Led RSL in minutes in 2019.