I feel like I may be running the risk of sounding too much like a fan boy when I say this but I want you all to know I mean this in all seriousness.
Real Salt Lake has created the perfect blueprint for developing a youth system in American Soccer.
I will argue this until my last breath, but there is no better place for a young prospect to be than Real Salt Lake. From the AZ Academy to the Monarchs to the first team, this is a franchise that is organised to build superstars. Such praise is heaped on the Academy but it's deeper than that for RSL, it's the business model for the whole organisation. The staff there, even the ones who aren't on the pitch, the set up at the Monarchs, the pre season camps, the chances in the first teams, the players kept in the team to guide young people, it's all set up to provide a constant stream of talent to Real Salt Lake
That stream is now finally arriving at the destination and it's time for us to find out if the end product will justify years of investing in youth as our core held it together. I've been tasked to highlight 5 players but in all honesty I could have done 10 because the potential is that deep. In the first team, I'd expect that you're going to see no less than 3 players who should be improving each game every game and it probably won't be the same players each time. We will be a rotational team no doubt and while there are some that will deride that style of play I personally don't think it will make a big difference to the way the team will play. Preseason has shown we are a high pressure counter team who look to get the ball back high up the field and then move it quickly from back to front. Finding young players to play in that style is key and here are 5 young players we need to keep our eyes on in no particular order.
By the way, the average age between these 5 players is 21.6. Let that sink in...
1. Jose Hernandez
On the hype train for Real Salt Lake there's a special car just for Jose Hernandez. The 20 year old prospect has two years at UCLA under his belt, taking Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honours and being named Pac-12 Co-player of the year. In terms of field production, he had 11 goals and 4 assists in 2015 and that's from the midfield. The consensus is that he has all the upside in the world. At 5-foot-6 with lightning fast feet we have a player in a similar style to Joao Plata. He has a good shots on goal ratio and he likes to take players on with his speed. From tape, you can see he plays in a wider role naturally but can swing about in that attacking midfield role all over the final third. There's a tenancy to hype young and fast attacking players to the point where they can't deliver but I believe Hernandez is a player that can play a solid role with Real Salt Lake for many seasons, however if you're talking about players with no limit...
2. Sebastian 'Bofo' Saucedo
Hype train is in full force now. The man they call 'Bofo' was signed as a home grown in 2014 and has come back after a season long loan with Liga MX side Veracruz, racking up about 500 minutes on the field. Bofo's technical prowess means there almost nothing he can't do with the ball in terms of attacking play, which is where he firmly sits. He's no set position yet but he's played as far up the field as a shadow striker in the RSL academy. I'm not sure he has the physicality to play as a striker but Saucedo should be a name we are hearing for a long time at Real Salt Lake. He's been lighting up the US U20 team with 6 goals in 8 appearances which is an amazing statistic to have to your name. With the right development, he could be a future star.
So far, plenty to be excited about!
Which is where I need to jump off the hype train here and crash us all down to reality. With Rusnak coming into the squad as a young DP, I don't see him making way for anybody soon. He's the jewel in Cassar's new plans for Real Salt Lake and unless he turns out to be really that bad, he's there to stay. Plata has earned his place on the team sheet for years now and I don't see him coming off. That leaves right wing with Allen, another young player fighting to be the first name on the sheet. Finding space for Hernandez to get minutes in this squad is already a tall ask, not because he isn't good but because our starters are similar to them, young guys who we want to build around. Now you add Bofo into the mix, who most would argue sits over Hernandez, and you have a midfield that's so deep you'd need to play 5 attacking players in midfield to support time for the all.
There needs to be a choice about positions made soon for these players to get meaningful minutes. If Plata, Rusnak and Allen are the 3 starters in midfield, the back up would probably be Silva, Hernandez and Bofo, with Beckerman, Sunny, Luke, Omar and Acosta all in the deeper positions. That's 11 players fighting for time all over the midfield positions we have. If these two players are going to be developed with meaningful minutes, we may be looking at one or these two going out on loan again. My choice would be Plata/Silva, Rusnak/Bofo and Allen/Hernandez for starter/back up as this means that there is clear competition in positions that are somewhat natural for these players.
Anyway, back to the hype...
3. Omar Holness
Holness is a player a lot people were hyped on in 2016 when he was drafted 5th overall for Real Salt Lake. He's a Generation Adidas player and that's a stamp of approval people should still take seriously, even in the days of HG players. He started out as another attacking midfield player but recently he's been playing in a deeper role, trying out that position long held by Kyle Beckerman. He's 6ft tall and 174 pounds so he's got some physicality and his passing has improved a lot over the last few games and with Kyle at the point now where people are going to churn out think pieces with the word 'retirement' written in them having Omar learning from Kyle and teaching him to play in that role is a smart idea. He managed 277 minutes in 2016 and he'll probably get more in this season, but I don't see him breaking 1000 just yet. He's been a steady name on the subs bench for us and I'd like to see him take the next step and get some minutes off the bench and show what he can do.
4. Brooks Lennon
I wanted to put Velazco in here because I think he's come into the squad and made a great showing for himself in preseason. He was hungry for the ball and didn't waste it too much when he got it, but I simply can't put him on the list over Lennon. He's an RSL academy product who went on to join Liverpool in the EPL. That's not a pedigree a lot of American players can claim so for him to be coming out in the Claret and Cobalt after scoring a hat-trick for the US under 20's is music to the Salt Lake faithful's ears. What impresses me is that he's often in the right place at the right time and when you're a striker, that's often the difference between a goal or not. With a team that plans to pile on attackers in a counter, having somebody like Lennon who can bundle in a rebound is a bigger asset than you'd think. The interesting part is Lennon is out of contact in 6 months at Liverpool. Now we're back into the drama of player signings again. If he lives up to his potential at Real Salt Lake, there's a high chance Liverpool will hand him a new contract. If he doesn't reach their expectations, they may just let him go, which would leave Salt Lake able to sign him if they rate him higher than Liverpool. Of course they could offer him a new deal and keep him in Salt Lake, meaning our loan will go beyond it's initial 6 months but we don't get him for good. Lennon is a player you need to know about for his talent but he's a player you need to know about for the story he's going to tell us in 6 months time about where he will be plying his trade.
5. Reagan Dunk
Ok, I'm in the minority here and I know this but hear me out! He's a 2015 MAC-Hermann Semifinalist and Summit League Defensive Player of the Year, a 2016 NSCAA All American, MAC-Hermann Semifinalist and Summit League Defensive Player of the Year and logged 8 (2015) and 5 (2016) assists in 19 and 24 games at Denver from Right Back. Whatever you're doing, whatever team you're on, that's talent. That's actual tangible talent that can be molded into something.
He also fits the system at Real Salt Lake. He's an overlapping full back with a deep cross and no fear of making a killer ball. When you're trying to break early you need this kind of player to either get the ball in the box or to spray it out wide. Looking back at the SJ and NY games, he's making those diagonal balls to Allen without fear. It's not always coming off but that's not stopping him like so many younger guys would be.
If he can go through the system, maybe spend a year with the Monarchs, I can see this kid becoming a good right back for a counter attacking team like Real Salt Lake. He's the only if I feel right now and that's because he is still unsigned. He could have done better, we all know that, however I feel given the work that went into the scouting (as shown on the YouTube video that followed the draft) the faith needs to be kept in Dunk and he deserves a chance. He may not become a superstar, but a dependable player in a tricky position can be the difference between a playoff place or not.
The reality is we're full of potential that I've not gone into here. Glad, Accosta, Velazco, Fernandez, Allen and Rusnak could all have gone into this article and not looked out of place. We've made the mould for how young players should be handled as the get into the first team. Now we have to show that we are a team that can hardness that talent and help grow those players into the next stars of Real Salt Lake.