Freddy Juarez beat a unique path to Major League Soccer.
Real Salt Lake's head coach never played in a top-tier league -- he was a defensive midfielder and defender in two USL-affiliated leagues and during one season of indoor soccer -- and had been in charge of a team above the youth level for just two seasons, neither with a winning record, when he was tabbed to take charge after Mike Petke's dismissal two years ago.
“I would be lying if I told you I was ready,” said Juarez, who has RSL in the thick of a tight Western Conference playoff chase with a little more than two months to go in the regular season.
To do so, Juarez has had to embark on changing RSL's culture -- following Petke's ouster for directing a Spanish-language homophobic slur at a referee, Dell Loy Hansen's forced departure as chief owner, amid allegations of racist comments and presiding over a toxic office environment -- and, while doing so, defining himself as a manager.
Juarez, who spent summers as a child working the fields on Las Cruces, New Mexico, began coaching while still in his teens, guiding a youth powerhouse in Las Cruces, his hometown, while toiling for the El Paso Patriots in what is now the PDL and Minnesota United in the USL's top division. He was brought to RSL as a coach when its lauded residential academy opened in Casa Grande, Ariz., in 2010 -- playing a pivotal role in the club's development of more than two dozen first-team players -- and rose to director before taking charge of RSL's first USL Championship affiliate, Real Monarchs SLC, when it debuted in 2015.
He was promoted in 2016 to assistant coach, first under Jeff Cassar and then under Petke, guided RSL to a 7-4-2 mark as interim head coach the final three months or so of the 2019 season, and lost the “interim” tag just after Thanksgiving.
Juarez, revered for his calm demeanor and analytical approach, spoke with Soccer America about his New Mexico roots, what he learned from Buzz Lagos in the USL, the keys to developing talent, and his journey since taking charge of the first team.
SOCCER AMERICA: What expectations do you face at Real Salt Lake?
FREDDY JUAREZ: Expectations? I mean, it's what every coach expects from themselves and every club expects from their coaches: try to build a culture, a winning culture; create an environment where you can consistently have a competitive team that's challenging for things; getting into the playoffs consistently, because once you're into the playoffs, things can happen. And that's the only way you can challenge for a trophy, is get into the playoffs.
What makes it a little different at our club than probably some is we are very much a club also that wants to develop. So that's the other challenge, trying to put players through. See how you can create a competitive environment and get to the playoffs and all that, but, also, if there's a quality young player that you have, that you are giving a stage for them and figuring out how we can get them in there to push them through as well.
Those are expectations from the club. Expectations for myself is create a culture where players want to be here, where they want to compete, where they love coming to training. It's not like they're looking at it as a hassle or a work where they're just coming in for work, but where they actually look at it as “I love being around the group, I love being around the field.” Everyday they come in with a competitive smile and wanting to compete for the group.
SOCCER AMERICA: You come from a different path -- playing in lower levels and coaching youth clubs -- than the other American coaches in MLS, who tend to be former top-tier players or veteran coaches who arrived after building powerful college dynasties. How did that path lead you here?
FREDDY JUAREZ: A big part of what definitely helped a change in my, I want to say, mentality, [was adding] professionalism in it. I always loved coaching and would have been OK -- and will be OK -- with coaching at the club level and all that stuff. That was always something where I challenge myself and I pride myself in developing players. But I think when I got to [Real Salt Lake's Arizona-based] academy, being in the academy environment around professional coaches and players of high pedigree, like Greg Vanney and Mike Muñoz and Martin Vazquez, that four and a half years there really changed me with that environment, with being around those guys.
I also got more education. We were fortunate enough [in Casa Grande] where we were hosting a lot of courses there. So your U.S. Soccer certificates were being held there, and we had some different courses from around the world come. We had a FIFA course there that brought in Dick Bates and some of those world-renowned instructors. I was lucky enough to do the French course there. And then it was also a destination for teams to come and do preseasons, like Denmark [and many clubs]. People would go there and set up shop for a week, two weeks, and you can observe all that. It was a time that really changed what I wanted to do and I was getting to watch and study and knowing that I'm lacking a lot of things.
I needed to really focus on getting the education. It's not everything. Experience is part of it. But what it does is it sets the tone of what soccer is, the modern day. You know, managing, video editing, scouting -- it's a whole package.
SOCCER AMERICA: You started coaching while in your teens, while you were playing. In terms of understanding the game, you're really learning on your feet.
FREDDY JUAREZ: That's exactly what it is. I think you're trying to figure out your identity. And even then, even now, I think there's a certain amount of experience you need, just like a player, where they've seen it all. But, you know, the [best coaches in this league] -- like Bruce Arena, Caleb Porter, Peter Vermes -- I mean, those guys know their identity. They've seen it all, been involved in it all.
And I think that's one thing I'm still trying to figure out. I did all that education. I came up through different levels. And that's also the problem with different levels, is one identity may work in one, but I'm still looking to see the experience of managing guys, experience of “this is my formation,” experience of “this is my game model” and seen it all. I'm not there yet. And that's where I think I'm still growing into it, because the more games I get, the more years I get, the more you get of that.
SOCCER AMERICA: Peter Vermes said in an earlier Q&A that Bob Gansler had recommended coaching at different levels, that doing so makes you a more well-rounded coach able to deal with players of different experiences and abilities. That that can be most valuable for a coach.
FREDDY JUAREZ: It is. It's definitely helped me. And it's a grooming to where I am now. It is a different mindset. You know, the younger guys, you've got to really help guide them and identify problems, put up situations for them and [use] repetition. It's huge. The Monarch [USL team] was my first taste of really trying to manage some players, bringing in players from the first team on the weekend, dealing with academy guys, and dealing with the guys that you work on the day-to-day from the Monarch, roster players that are working their butt off for you every day of the week and then, maybe on the weekend, they don't get to play a minute because the priority was always with the future talent or the first-team player that needs to get some minutes.
So that was really testing me in managing and communication. And then you get to a first team. I think culture really becomes big. You know, it's how can you create this environment for a whole group to excel, along with managing. And in the culture, it's not just about the team. The culture I'm talking about is the overall: our coaching staff, the medical staff, the whole backroom staff. And that was not necessarily something you really had to go with at the academy level. You work everyday hard [to develop players], and that kind of organically comes out.
But with the first team, what I've figured out is by me finding out what I really want, how I want my team to be, that then helps me identify how I want the culture to be. That's something I'm learning on the experience, but it's definitely helped me to coach at all levels. One hundred percent.
SOCCER AMERICA: Let's go back to your youth, growing up in Las Cruces, a family that worked the fields -- and you'd worked the fields in summer. What kind of values did your parents, Alejandro and Maria Juarez, and those experiences impart that have helped you along the way?
FREDDY JUAREZ: Just hard work. I brought it up one time with my players, where I remember this till the day, that my father, he'd take us in the summer. That was something he did, that [farm] labor. He was one of those farm workers, that they would come in in buses and follow the crops. We were lucky as kids, we didn't do it year-round. But we would definitely go in the summer when we're off at school.
And when we'd arrive, you arrive early. And I'll give you an example: In onion-picking, you typically get in about 4 in the morning, 4:30 in the morning. And there's a truck or a trailer full of onion sacks, the big sacks. You have to collect them, stuff them in your truck. Then you go and you take the rows that the manager gives: “These are the rows that you have to pick, blah, blah, blah.” And every morning, my dad would say, “There's all the money, all you got to do is pick it up.” And so it was whatever work you put into it is what you're going to get out of it.
And [my parents] never took a cent from us. It was, “That's your money. If you want to buy a Nintendo, a Sega, fine, we're good with it, but you've got to earn the money.” That sticks with me. If you want to have success, you've got to put in the work. It's there. You've got to put in the work. And that's the one thing that I'll always remember and was the biggest learning experience from that.
SOCCER AMERICA: You grew up with two older brothers. How did battling against them make you a better, tougher player?
FREDDY JUAREZ: My brothers, Jose Alejandro and Mario, they were five and four years older than me. I was the baby. They got started playing on the same team because they were just a year difference, and I tagged along. They got to a team where the coach would actually let me get into some things. I couldn't do everything, because they were five years older than me, but the things I could get in, I was always welcome to it.
And then when I got into soccer, I'd have my soccer and then I could go get extra soccer if I went to my my brothers' training. So I was always around soccer. And I was decent and my older brothers very competitive everywhere we went. They always were the type that would go, “Hey, we need to go do extra training.” And that was was practically my whole upbringing, soccer and school. And I never played any other sport, but I always had the luxury of older brothers that would allow me to tag along and give me rides to wherever I needed to get to, to do what I love doing, which was playing soccer.
SOCCER AMERICA: At what point does your passion for the game become “this is what I'm going to do with my life”?
FREDDY JUAREZ: Yeah, that's a tricky one to identify. I loved it. I never wanted to play another sport. I was asked to play at school. I was decent at, like, basketball and football. I loved doing [other sports] on the side, but I never really wanted to do anything else other than soccer.
If I had to pick a time where I said, “Shoot, I think I'm pretty decent at it,” was U-17. I went to a regional camp, a Region 4 camp, before all the academy stuff, and I made the holdover camp. I didn't make the regional team, but I got held over and they moved me into some different positions, and I was like, “I want to be here.” And that was with top players from Southern California and all the states in Region 4. And I think that's where I was like, “I'm one of the better players in the whole region. ... I think I can do this. Whether it's collegiate or pro, I want to pursue it.”
SOCCER AMERICA: You played for El Paso Patriots for six years and four years with Minnesota United, and you had a lot of coaches. How much did the way they did things inform the coach you've become?
FREDDY JUAREZ: Yeah, it definitely helped. I didn't win a whole lot. And in my 10 years of playing in the USL and one year of indoor [with the Wichita Wings}, I would say I probably had about six different coaches. Definitely a lot of learning experiences. Very good coaches. I learned from every single one, 100 percent. It helped.
You know, when you become a coach at a young age, you're just going off those experiences. “Oh, I like this from this guy, and that guy, I like this.” And you're trying to form what you want to be as your identity. But there were some very good ones, some very good coaches in there. I would say three of them really stood out: With El Paso, Francisco Chavez -- he played with Atlas, had a career in Mexico -- and Milton Queiroz, a Brazilian guy they called Tita, and he played with Leon in Mexico. And then Buzz Lagos, Manny Lagos' father, with Minnesota United.
Buzz was a legend. He was a teacher. Kind of in my way, the demeanor I am. I picked up that it was OK to not be an ass as a coach. Buzz didn't rely on the iron fist. He wasn't this and that. He was: “I'm a teacher, I'm going to educate you, I'm going to try to help you, give my point of view.” … In those days there were a lot of screamers.
I think I learned then what was more important was the relationship with the people and how you respected them, and also teaching. Buzz was a teacher. He didn't play the game. He taught himself to coach. He was a mathematician and traded into teaching the game of soccer.
I still stay in touch with that man, he's a legend. He's a very good guy.
SOCCER AMERICA: Were you happy with what you achieved as a player? Did you feel you got all you could out of your abilities?
FREDDY JUAREZ: Um .... yeah, I did. For coming from where I came from? A small town, you're getting coached by passionate people, but not what is the knowledgeable people that played at a high level. You're getting coached by parents that become coaches, and they're just passionate because their kids are in it, and they educate themselves. But I thought for what my upbringing of coaching was and the players that we played with -- those type of teams like the Bad News Bears, that you just train hard and you go and try to compete at big tournaments -- I thought I excelled and got to where I needed.
Growing up in a bigger city with different coaching, could have maybe gone further. But I was pleased with where I got. No knowledge of soccer from my parents -- my dad was a baseball player -- and I thought from what we were coached, I reached a decent level.
SOCCER AMERICA: When you joined RSL's academy in Casa Grande, just as it was starting, that opened doors for you. What made Real Salt Lake, one of MLS's best at developing first-team players, so good at developing talent?
FREDDY JUAREZ: I would say, first, credit to Real Salt Lake. At the time, Garth [Lagerwey, the GM], Jason [Kreis, the head coach], Robin [Fraser, the chief assistant coach], those guys with [academy director] Greg Vanney took a gamble in putting in a residential academy, something no one in MLS had. So they were very willing to take a chance.
Second, when they hired people, they hired passionate people. I think quality is important, 100 percent, the knowledge of a coach and all that. But the passion that needs to go into the everyday work with kids in the environment of you're not just a coach, you're a guardian, you're a teacher, you're a mentor, you're a father, you're a mother, like all those things. If you have the right people in there, I think it allows for the young player to excel. We have been lucky to have in our academy environment passionate people that love what they do. They love developing young players, but they go over and beyond. And those are the key words: “over and beyond” to help a young player reach their goals.
Because we're not talking [in the public conversation] about all the hours that goes into their work. We're just talking about them winning that championship -- for example, our team winning the U-15 [MLS NEXT Cup title] a few weeks ago -- not talking about the people that live at the residency with them, taking them to the doctor, taking them to the airport, talking to them when they're crying at night because they haven't been home in months.
That, to me, is what allows you to develop professional players like that. And it's not talked about, but that's why guys didn't leave, because you had that relationship with them. When they want to leave after two months and they still push through and then they become a pro! You need passionate, hungry people that are so selfless that they're not worried about being a first-team coach. They want to just say, “We'll take it as it comes. And right now I'm going to give everything I have to these 30-40 academy kids that live onsite.”
SOCCER AMERICA: It's so important for small-market teams like yourselves that aren't going to spend big money for foreign players to develop talent. It's been vital to RSL's success.
FREDDY JUAREZ: Yeah, yeah. We have to develop. We'll see what happens [with the budget] with new ownership, right? But no matter what, I think it will always be part of our DNA. We love that. We want to bring our players from our own state, our own cities, the Four Corners area.
There's so much talent that goes unnoticed. And we've put a spotlight on that, right? Aaron Herrera out of Las Cruces. You talk about Justen Glad out of Tucson. All these players, all the Salt Lake boys, all these guys that prior to academy, prior to Real Salt Lake, they would have been me, you know? Kind of on the fringe of making a regional team but ignored because there's 30 other Southern California kids that are better. Now we gave them the stage of that, and then you put that together with the environment of residency and living, breathing soccer. Those players excel. And that's our DNA. We want that.
If we can't find it in our backyard and here within the academy, then we may have to go outside of it. But first and foremost, we take pride in having it coming out of our own home.
SOCCER AMERICA: What does building the training center and moving the Academy to Herriman, just a few miles southwest of Rio Tinto Stadium, and having the players nearby mean for development and for the club?
FREDDY JUAREZ: Finally what a club is supposed to be, as far as the interchange that happens and what we have at our disposal at any given time. Last year was a whole different story, and COVID has kind of changed that. But prior to that, we did a lot of sessions, especially on a tactical day, where we'd bring in the academy for a sparring game. And that that goes a long way when, let's say an example, we want to work some tactics against Red Bull. And we can bring in 11 Academy guys, bring them in before that -- “This is what we need from you guys today” -- and there's no question that they try to do that at the best of their ability, which allows us to prep better than [otherwise].
And guys that are talented, we can quickly just bring them in: “Here you go, we want to see you for the next week,” keep them engaged. Whereas when I was in Casa Grande, we saw [the first team] at preseason and [some first-team players for] reserve games. And that's tough. Now you get to see the guys in the cafeteria, on the training field. It goes a long way.
SOCCER AMERICA: You moved from the USL team onto the first-team staff in 2016. How did the experiences you gained enable you to do what you're doing now?
FREDDY JUAREZ: I was fortunate to be with Jeff Cassar and Mike Petke, two guys that really allowed me to be a voice, really allowed me to have an input tactically on the field. There's some coaches -- and it's OK -- that want to do more of the field stuff, and as an assistant, you're kind of just there to support. I think I was fortunate to have guys that would let you take lead in things and really encourage you to do extra.
And then just the experience of the pressures that they have to deal with and how they dealt with them and how they manage the group. And in all that, I think, are experiences that ... you can think in a certain way, but when you go to a different level, to the first team, it's a different experience, different level player, different money category. So different mentality. I saw experiences that were done and done right by two very good coaches.
“The unique thing about MLS is it doesn't have a country identity. Like if you go Holland, you're going to see this stuff. You go to Mexico, you may see two teams that play different from everyone else. Everyone else is the same. Colorado and the L.A. Galaxy are different than [Matias] Almeyda [in San Jose]. Different formations, different identity, and it definitely forces you to have to watch and change scouting reports all the time. And it's very challenging, very competitive. … For players: week-to-week you are going to continue to develop, because you're seeing different situations that you've got to find solutions for.”
SOCCER AMERICA: When you were asked to become interim coach, how ready did you feel?
FREDDY JUAREZ: You're never ready. My point was, OK, just continue to do what we're doing, focus on being us. You know, try to guide the stuff and add a little bit of my two cents of being aware tactically. I was now the voice and decision-maker, and you hope that the guys respond. And they did. We got a response there.
But I would be lying if I told you I was ready. Even now, and I think I'm now figuring out how I want to play, for the most part, figuring out how I want to see more scenarios where I've had to manage players, whether it's individual or a collective, that I start, “OK, this is how it works.” And maybe at that point, it wasn't how it works. So all that is I wasn't ready. But I think, you know, little by little, I'm picking up a lot of these things.
SOCCER AMERICA: It's also an audition, and Craig Waibel -- then the GM -- was hearing from a lot of candidates. It's nice when they stick with you.
FREDDY JUAREZ: Oh, you're thankful, you're happy, you're ecstatic, you want to prove to everyone that they made the right choice. It's hard. This business isn't easy. You know, you go ahead and look at people and how you survive in this game. It's not a long lifespan.
At the end of the day, my biggest goal is to leave this place better than what I got it at. That's my biggest goal. And I think that's the legacy I want to leave, is that we get this club back on the right track, all training the right direction, get us back into playoffs, challenging for things, and not just do playoffs every other year. It's the playoffs consistently and keep developing players that we can sell on and continue to push through players. Those are goals of mine, and that people from the academy and people from the second team say, “Yeah, it's a club, and when Freddy was there, we all talked, we all were on the same page. It was the whole club collective.”
SOCCER AMERICA: One of things I've admired during your tenure is that you had to maneuver the team as the club went through some very difficult times, both with the way Mike Petke left the club and the controversy that forced out owner Dell Loy Hanson, who had certainly championed you. How did you manage that?
FREDDY JUAREZ: Yeah, it's definitely challenging. The only thing I could say was the way you come out of it is, you know, you've got to try to control the controllables, man. It really comes down to that. You can't get caught up in [what's happening]. You've got to come in here with the environment and try not to talk about it and try to keep the focus off all those negatives, into just football. And it's hard, because you can't stay away from it because of social media and all that. But that was what I was trying to do.
And with my demeanor on the day-to-day, get on with business. I hold my demeanor, my body posture, and all that never put pressure on the players. And they never looked like I was pressured. That was my biggest goal.
Look, all this can be happening within the club. But we've still got to try to be a team. It's not easy. And, obviously, last year we struggled [in the COVID-shortened season], and it may be reflective, but that was definitely not my intention. It was to try to make sure that we just focus on the football.
And that's actually what went into this year, was I wanted to make sure that everyone that I knew came into the club were people that were going to be very positive, very hard-working, getting (rid) of excuses of no ownership or that we couldn't buy $10 million players. It was everything we have here, let's make better. The material we have here, let's get 1, 2, 3 percent more out of them. Including myself.
And that's what I think we have done this year with the staff and in every aspect. It's not just the coach, it's the front office, the new medical people we brought in. It's everything. No excuses. What we have is what we have, and let's make the best of it.
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SOCCER AMERICA: You've had to provide stability through all of this, which isn't easy when you have such strong personal relationships with Petke and Hansen. But it also requires a rebuilding of the culture, more so when Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando retire, because they were so integral to what Real Salt Lake was. In going through this transition, what have been the most important points?
FREDDY JUAREZ: Yeah, I had a lot of support from those guys, from Becks -- legend -- and Nick Rimando. But you're right. There was a lot of transition going on. You know, Nedum [Onuoha retiring, too]. All the guys that were veterans that also were very important in the club. And that was also a transition that could sometimes unsettle things, too. Like: What's the future like? So we're in a transition mode. And I leaned on them for support.
You're right. My relationships with the other coaches were very good. And sometimes you feel a little guilty, of shoot, you know, that's not how you want to get a job. Or at least I didn't ever think like that, like I'm champing at the bit, waiting for something to go wrong so I can get a job. You know, these are quality people that I consider friends. And we hung around and we're trying to do the best we can to keep a job as long as possible.
So that also is like, “Oh, shoot, what should I do? Should I stay?” And it's a lot of moments like that that you got to really just say, you know, put it aside and try to do the best for the whole collective. You put yourself aside and say it's all about the team. It isn't about me. It's about what the team needs to go forward, and the club.
SOCCER AMERICA: You brought in three assistant coaches this year, and the two I know personally -- Pablo Mastroeni and Matt Taylor -- are really quality people. And Pablo has experiences as a top player and head coach, and Matt's experiences in Europe, especially at the levels he played, are unique. How important are they to building the culture and becoming what it is you hope to become?
FREDDY JUAREZ: They make all the difference. I also put my goalkeeper coach in there, Ignacio Hernandez. All three people look at life, I think, the way I look at it. They are very positive. And when I talk about positive, it's not, like, corny positive. I'm talking about optimistic. There's a lot of wrong, but let's build off of the good instead of starting at the glass half-empty, you know? They bring that.
They're very good at communicating to the players, to really getting trust from the players. They bring that environment. They work the late, late hours. And that just adds fuel to myself. Very similar mentality, very similar in goals. And if we accomplish what we'd like to accomplish this year, I will go on record and say it's all because of those three guys, because they have changed the office culture here in many ways, the club culture tremendously with just their character. There are a lot of extra things that they've added with individual players and around the office.
SOCCER AMERICA: How far along do you feel you are in building the culture that you want?
FREDDY JUAREZ: I think we're up there. I think we're 80 percent. There's a lot of things that we've changed this year -- some core values, some voting that takes place, some parking spots for leaders of those core values, the camaraderie of the guys in the locker room. There's a lot of laughs and smiles and shouts on the daily. The training has become more competitive, more consistent. And that's what you shoot for. But there's there's a high standard that we still haven't reached yet. And that's that's the goal, is to try to reach it.
We're never going to be perfect. I don't think you can reach perfection. But we definitely can continue to build in the quality of the everyday environment.
Photos courtesy of Real Salt Lake