David Ochoa ended his first game of the 2021 season with a little controversy. Real Salt Lake had just beaten Minnesota United 2-1, and he kicked the ball into the stands behind him where the Loons supporters section sits.
Loons coach Adrian Heath made headlines when he criticized Ochoa’s action, saying the 20-year-old goalkeeper has “some edge on him for a kid who’s not that good.”
Since Heath’s comments, Ochoa recorded his first shutout, becoming the fourth youngest player in Major League Soccer history to do so. He also showed out against FC Dallas last week when he recorded eight saves.
To top it off, Ochoa was selected to the senior U.S. Men’s National Team for a May camp. He was soon after named to the roster of the Concacaf Nations League Final Four.
So it would appear that Ochoa actually is quite good.
“It’s been a long process,” Ochoa said. “I still remember being 15 years old and I was in the [RSL] academy and what I wanted to do was to play for the first team and play with the senior national team. To see where I am now, I’m very happy because it’s where I want to be.”
RSL VS. MINNESOTA UNITED
At Rio Tinto Stadium
When • Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
TV • KMYU
Ochoa’s rise has been swift. He competed with other RSL alumni from the academy in the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Poland. He won a USL Championship title with the Real Monarchs in 2019. In January, he received his first senior USMNT call-up only to leave prematurely when he suffered a quad injury.
Now he’s the starting goalkeeper for RSL, beating out veterans like Zac MacMath and Andrew Putna, both of whom made several starts in 2020. He could potentially earn his first USMNT cap in the next couple of weeks, and he’s also being pursued to join the Mexican national team.
Coach Freddy Juarez said that while they are battling for minutes and a chance at the starting spot, MacMath and Putna have taken on mentor roles for Ochoa.
“Those guys right now deserve a lot of credit for helping Ochoa right now in his development and the call-up as well,” Juarez said.
Ochoa said making his first-ever MLS start in the last game of 2020 was a wake-up call for him in terms of how different MLS is compared to the USL. To start 2021, he was still adjusting to the game’s speed. But through five games, things have slowed down considerably for him, allowing him to lock in and gain confidence.
“So far this season, I’ve felt comfortable,” Ochoa said. “I feel like I’m in a good spot. I feel confident in my abilities.”
RSL goalkeeping coach Ignacio Hernandez told The Salt Lake Tribune that what has surprised him since he started working with Ochoa day to day is his handling of how rapidly he’s achieved success.
“There’s a lot of things going on with this life and I think he’s been handling it well so far — keeping himself humble, listening to what we’re trying to tell him all the time, and day-to-day hard work,” Hernandez said.
Ochoa was the talk of the soccer world when a mistake against Honduras during Olympic qualifying caused him to give up a goal. After the game he looked dejected and was consoled by Luis Palma, who scored on him in that sequence.
But both Ochoa and his RSL coaches have all since said that moment was one of growth for him. Hernandez said Ochoa is “hungry” to keep growing, and that seems to have manifested himself into how well the goalkeeper is playing.
For the upcoming stint with the USMNT, Ochoa will play with international talents like Reggie Cannon, Christian Pulisic and Zack Steffen. He said that one day, he would like to play in Europe and getting the opportunity to share the field with players of that caliber will allow him to see where he measures up currently.
“It’s just humbling to see all the hard work that I’ve put in and to finally be where I want to be,” Ochoa said. “It’s just a different type of feeling.”
Ochoa seems well-liked by his teammates. Defender Justen Glad, who is also a homegrown like Ochoa, said the way Ochoa carries himself on the field rubs off on his teammates.
“The thing I like about him is … he’s got kind of a swagger about him, a confidence, which is fun to play with,” Glad said.
Hernandez said what he wants to see from Ochoa is an ability to set the tempo of the game, disrupt the rhythm of the opponent and make opposing players upset because he made a great save. All those things seem to be happening.
“These are the little things not many people see,” Hernandez said. “That’s where he’s starting to get better.”