Asked to explain his club’s remarkable achievement, delivering five players to the U.S. U-20 national team, the first thing mentioned by Real Salt Lake-Arizona director Martin Vasquez was what the players did without coaches.
“They’d get up in the morning and play soccer tennis,” Vasquez said. “After practice at night, they’d play soccer tennis in the PC [Performance Center] -- or play soccer outside.”
The U.S. U-20s, coached by Tab Ramos, are in the middle of the U-20 World Cup qualifying tournament in Costa Rica. One of the RSL-AZ quintet, Brooks Lennon, scored a hat trick in Tuesday’s 4-1 win over Haiti. The others are defenders Danilo Acosta, Justen Glad and Aaron Herrera, and midfielder Sebastian Saucedo.
“We train pretty hard and pretty intense, but they still had the energy to play soccer tennis or futsal in the morning and at night,” said Vasquez. “That group is like kids you see in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico or Europe. They wanted to play soccer 24/7. It’s a culture they started here and that has been part of our success.”
Sebastian Saucedo, Martin Vasquez and Danilo "Danny" Acosta
Lennon, who hails from Phoenix, lived at home while Herrera (Las Cruces, New Mexico), Acosta (Utah), Saucedo (Utah) and Glad (Tucson, Arizona) lived in the Grande Sports Academy dorms.
Central defender Glad has the most professional experience of the five, having already played played 36 MLS games for Real Salt Lake, which named him Defensive Player of the Year in 2016.
“We found Justen playing on a team in which all the other players were Hispanic,” says Vasquez. “He stood out because he was skinny and he had red hair. All his teammates kept calling him cerillo — matchstick. Which is kind of funny when you hear it on the field. His teammates would yell, Paseme la pelota, cerillo! Freddy Juarez, and myself and Tony Bruce, we’re watching the game and laughing. He stood out for that at first, but the more we saw him, we’re saying, ‘Hey, this guy can play.’ So we invited him.”
Glad captained the RSL-AZ team that won the U-15/16 Development Academy national title in 2013 with Lennon, Saucedo and Herrera. Acosta was on the team with them that finished runner-up in 2014.
(Photo by Garrett Cleverly courtesy of Grande Sports Academy)
Lennon moved to Liverpool during the summer of 2015 and played for its U-23s before returning to Real Salt Lake for the 2017 MLS season. His older brother, Riggs, played college ball for Virginia and Creighton.
“Brooks came from a good soccer family and I’m sure his older brother influenced him,” says Vasquez. “We found Brooks playing for a Phoenix club. His hunger and dream from Day 1 was to be a professional player.
“When he came here, he wanted to do everything himself. He had that ability. But he learned to play for the team. And what he did from Day 1 was score and win.”
Herrera, now 5-foot-11, says Vasquez, arrived about 5-foot-0 and skinny but left the program as one of the most athletic players the program has had. Herrera is a sophomore at the University of Mexico, where he’s played 37 games.
Acosta, who was born in Honduras and moved to Utah as young child, played defensive midfielder and central back at RSL-AZ but is starting at left back for the U.S. U-20s. He played 18 games with RSL’s USL affiliate Real Monarchs SLC in 2016.
Saucedo appeared in nine MLS games for RSL in 2015 before going on loan to Liga MX club Veracruz in 2016 and has returned for the 2017 MLS season.
"I got shivers when I saw him playing against Club America," says Vasquez, whose 15-year professional career included a stint with Veracruz, three other Mexican clubs, and three years in MLS.
Vasquez estimates that the quintet played more than 100 DA games together.
Brooks Lennon and Sebastian Saucedo celebrate a goal in 2014. (Photo by Garrett Cleverly courtesy of Grande Sports Academy)
“Sometimes over the years, clubs or academies across the country find a group of talented players,” Vasquez said. “You get them young and that generation just happens to play well together. These guys also had very good competition, Development Academy, the playoffs, the Generation adidas Cup. ... They went to school together. They had great chemistry and a clear understanding on and off the field.
Before leaving for the Concacaf U-20 Championship, the players addressed the younger boys at the club.
“Everything they said was from the heart,” says Vasquez, “and one of the biggest things they mentioned was becoming like family, becoming like brothers."