At the season's start, young center back Carlos Salcedo seemed the sort of signing that, for better or worse, would sit on the bench until it was either absolutely necessary that he play, or until he demonstrated a significantly greater ability than more experienced players in front of him.
It was then perhaps a little lucky — for him, not for the team — that so many center backs went down injured. But for all the luck in the world, it seemed Salcedo was not just physically ready to play, but mentally as well. No mean feat for a 19-year-old who, one year ago, was only just graduating from Real Salt Lake's Arizona academy and had commenced training with the senior side.
Sure, it took injuries to Kwame Watson-Siriboe and Chris Schuler for him to start seeing significant minutes, but the Mexican-born center back demonstrated early on that he was of a sufficient quality to stay in the side.
At the season's start, few would have expected Salcedo, talented though he may be, to turn into a starter for Real Salt Lake within the first six months of his career at the club. As they say, the proof is in the pudding; Salcedo's first 90 minutes were, shall we say, rough around the edges, but he left a distinct impression that he possessed more than just raw skills. He was actively communicating with the defenders around him, shaping the defensive line in the process. Watching him shout at Nat Borchers — not in an aggressive way you might expect from a kid, but an organizational shout — was telling. This kid wasn't just some kid.
His impact was such that when he underwent an emergency gall bladder surgery, there were questions about how we'd manage without him — when, at season's start, the inverse was the case, and we worried a bit about Salcedo coming in himself. When Brandon McDonald came to Real Salt Lake but weeks ago, even further questions were raised: Where in the rotation would the former D.C. United veteran fall? Was Salcedo's run in the side coming to a close? The short answer, it seemed: No.
It's hard to dispute that decision. Carlos Salcedo has yet to participate in a Real Salt Lake loss at the senior level. His partnership with Nat Borchers to his left and Tony Beltran to his right has been undeniably effective. He understands the nuances of his position and has the wherewithal to cover attacking runs and push players wide. He steps into vital positions and wins the ball, and when his tackle fails, he pops right up and makes a recovering run.
Seeing him last night against Portland Timbers — the most potent attack side we've faced, I suspect — showed all that. His first match after that gall bladder surgery was one of his strongest. His ability to win the ball from an attacking player was on full display. But more importantly, his tactical positioning was never suspect. He pushed players into wide positions, where they were dealt with by a full back and a midfielder, allowing himself to recover in a central position and stymy runs from deep.
It underlines the value of Real Salt Lake's academy setup that someone like Salcedo can be a significant part of the academy team, graduate, and become an important part of the first team in his first few months there. Obviously, the impact is Salcedo's, not the academy's, but finding players like him, giving them a place to train and grow, and supporting their transition to the first team should be part of the club's mission.
Carlos Salcedo hasn't made the spot his own just yet. His partnership with Nat Borchers is strong, but with Brandon McDonald, a veritable veteran, waiting in the wings, Jason Kreis won't have easy decisions ahead of him. But one thing's certain: Carlos Salcedo hasn't lost yet. Not a match, not his spot.