Play Your Kids FC: How Real Salt Lake’s youth movement saved its season

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

RSL's next contender is close, with the team's results already moving beyond its first-half struggles.

A season can often turn plans upside down, shifting timelines and changing course along with the wins and losses, injuries and the ebbs and flows of performances.

Real Salt Lake general manager Craig Waibel told FourFourTwo in March he projected his many young players to see some time on the field, but the plan mostly included bringing them along gradually and not putting too much on their plates.

That plan has changed.

The Homegrowns have played a big role for an RSL team that reset its plans with a coaching change, but is starting to build a group that can compete. New coach Mike Petke certainly has embraced a young squad and looked to integrate as much of that youth as possible.

RSL’s group of four from the U.S. Under-20 World Cup team have all played a part. Brooks Lennon and Danny Acosta have played more than 800 minutes this season. Justen Glad is a regular starter now that he’s returned from injury and the U-20 World Cup. Sebastian Saucedo has played in 13 games.

When everyone is more comfortable and we’ve been playing together, we can have that relationship like 2009 RSL had.

- Justen Glad

Several other young players are also a regular part of the starting lineup. Albert Rusnak, 23, was brought in as a playmaker. Rookie defender Justin Schmidt, 23, has been a pleasant surprise when called upon and has seen as many games at the MLS level as he was probably projected to play in USL this season. Jefferson Savarino, a 20-year-old Venezuelan who arrived on loan, has been a consistent starter since signing with RSL in May.

“We do have a lot of young guys, but I think we’re all capable,” Glad told FourFourTwo this week in Chicago, where he was a part of the MLS Homegrown Game. “Even if you just look at some of the games, Portland and LA these past couple games, you can kind of see us putting it together.

“When we’re on, we’re putting in goals, four against Portland, six against LA, and then even next year when everyone is more comfortable and we’ve been playing together, we can have that relationship like 2009 RSL had. I think as we continue to play and continue to grow with one another, that chemistry will come the more we play.”

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

There is a new spirit under Petke (above), which should come as no surprise. Always known as an emotional coach, Petke quickly coined a new MLS catchphrase – “Pass ‘em out, Trey” – and has gotten his team to buy in on his vision. Lennon and Glad both said they took notice of the press conference because of the way the coach backed up the locker room in everything he said.

A big part of Petke’s message has also been calling on the younger players to step up their responsibilities. While this team still leans on the veteran leadership of guys like Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando and Tony Beltran, players like Glad are being asked to provide direction from key positions.

“That’s kind of what Petke has wanted from us,” Lennon said. “He wanted us to come in and be confident in ourselves and our abilities, especially during practice, kind of push the pace and bring energy. That’s what we’ve done. We’ve been getting minutes and in the future we’re going to have that group. It’s the core group for the future.”

We don’t need to go out and sign a big-name player, we have it here, and if we can keep jelling and stay on the same page I think we can do amazing things with this group.

- Justen Glad

It’s the future, but it’s also become very much a part of the present. A four-game unbeaten streak in July has put RSL right back into the mix for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. They sit six points back of fourth-place Portland with 11 games left to play.

Those wins are about more than just the red line in 2017, however. They’ve also given players faith that this core is something on which to build.

“After LA, that’s when in my mind I thought, we can definitely do something with this team,” Glad said. “We have the talent. We have all the players in this locker room. We don’t need to go out and sign a big-name player, we have it here, and if we can keep jelling and stay on the same page, I think we can do amazing things with this group.”

At the very least, the group provides a foundation upon which to build, and RSL is one of the few MLS teams proving you can structure a team around homegrown products. Waibel will have some room to maneuver in January, depending on how he handles some bigger contracts. He will have some decisions to make about Yura Movsisyan, Beckerman and Rimando, and he has the wiggle room to buy down contracts, including Rusnak.

Depending on how RSL structures deals, it could potentially add multiple Designated Players and Targeted Allocation Money additions to the roster.

Whatever it adds, though, the young faces it has leaned on this season will play a valuable part. The plan may have changed a bit since March, but RSL isn’t that far off track from building a contender.

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