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It wasn't long ago when they'd take that familiar walk together out of the main building on Real Salt Lake's Arizona-based academy campus north toward the sea of green soccer fields, boots all laced up.
Those years at RSL's academy in Casa Grande, Ariz., prepped them all for various benchmarks in their young careers. Reconvened together now not only with RSL, but with the U.S. U-20 national team, Justen Glad, Sebastian Saucedo, Danilo Acosta and Brooks Lennon are in the earliest stages of what is expected to be a bustling 2017 for them.
Named to the 23-man U-20 roster for the 2017 CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Costa Rica, members of this quartet have already established themselves as starters in the tournament. Qualifying for this summer's FIFA U-20 World Cup in South Korea is the priority, but they'll also be counted upon to chip in at RSL on more of a full-time basis.
"What we have is four young professionals," RSL coach Jeff Cassar said. "Not kids, but professionals."
Toss in fellow academy product Aaron Herrera, a sophomore at the University of New Mexico, and the RSL ties run thick with this U-20 squad that faltered in the opener against 10-man Panama Saturday 1-0, but bounced back in a must-win scenario to beat Haiti 4-1 Tuesday and keep World Cup hopes still beating. The U.S. closes out group play Friday against St. Kitts & Nevis.
Glad, Saucedo and Lennon were part of the RSL U-16 team that won a national title in 2013. Soon after, Glad and Saucedo, who grew up in Park City, inked contracts with RSL. Lennon went overseas and signed with Liverpool FC, where he's been since the summer of 2015. The 19-year-old from Paradise Valley, Ariz., recently returned to RSL on a one-year loan from Liverpool. In the win over Haiti on Tuesday, Lennon netted a hat trick.
U-20 coach Tab Ramos gave credit to RSL academy director Martin Vasquez, who has overseen the rise of one of the top MLS academies in the country in Casa Grande. Ramos also had RSL midfielder Jordan Allen as part of his last U-20 World Cup squad in 2015.
"This is just the beginning of the connection between RSL and what they did in Arizona," Ramos said. "Martin has done a tremendous job with these players."
Should the U.S. qualify for this summer's U-20 World Cup (May 20 to June 11), it spells more top-notch international experience for the RSL group, but will also leave the first team undermanned.
Four World Cup spots are available at the CONCACAF Championship in Costa Rica. The top two teams from each group advance to the classification stage, which features two groups of three teams. The following top two teams from each classification stage cement their spot in South Korea this summer.
Cassar said being without a starter like Glad last year's breakout player as well as various depth pieces in Lennon, Saucedo and Acosta for much of the first half of the year is a price the team must pay at the moment. They are the future, Cassar acknowledged, but also needed to be a significant part of the now as well.
"When those guys have more success and do well, the other ones are going to see that there's a path for them," he said. "I've told all of them I feel extremely comfortable playing any of them, but they're going to have to earn it."
From RSL to the USA
RSL's strong presence with U.S. U-20s at CONCACAF Championship includes four players on the first team and one Academy player now in college
• Center back Justen Glad
• Forward Brooks Lennon
• Defender Danilo Acosta
• Forward Sebastian Saucedo
• Defender Aaron Herrera (University of New Mexico)
U.S. vs. St. Kitts & Nevis
P Final group stage match, CONCACAF U-20 World Cup qualifying group stage
Friday, 3:30 p.m.