This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Sandy • The city was known then as the murder capital of the world, but even so, the little boy could not wait to go out into the streets of San Pedro Sula.
Danny Acosta wriggled as his grandmother held him in place, forcing him to talk to a man he never had met.
Danilo Acosta, a thousand miles away, quizzed his young son for details about his life. How was school? Was the homework difficult? He got mostly got one-word answers in return. What about soccer?
"Why is he not talking?" Danilo Acosta asked his mother when she took back the telephone.
"Because he wants to go play," she would tell him.
By then, little Danny Acosta had zipped out the door, into the streets of Barrio Cabañas, where he would stay for hours and hours, his now signature left foot bare and on top of a makeshift soccer ball. Danilo Acosta's mind churned with worry, his stomach often in knots. He was so far from his family, from his son and couldn't help but wonder sometimes.
"You are talking about the most dangerous city in the world at that time," the elder Acosta said.
Danny spotted his dad for the first time in the San Pedro Sula airport. The 8-year-old waited with his grandparents for Danilo's first trip back to Honduras in nine years. "He said, 'Papa!' " Danilo recalls, "and I grabbed him."
When Danny's mother was three months pregnant, Danilo left home to move to the U.S. to "chase a better life."
In 2004, Danilo had started the process of trying to move Danny to Utah to live with him, his wife and Danny's younger half-brother. But it took almost six years before Danny boarded a plane to Utah. By the time he was 12, he landed in Salt Lake City. It was in late August 2010. The first thing Danilo wanted to do was drive by Rio Tinto Stadium. The Acostas lived just east of the stadium in Sandy.
Danny peeked out the car window.
"I'll play for that team one day," Danilo Acosta recalled. "He said that."
So began the fortuitous path of one of Real Salt Lake's most talented, versatile and unique prospects. A kid from the streets of San Pedro Sula to suburban Salt Lake City in the same ZIP code of the hometown club's stadium. No longer did he have to kick off his shoes to play in the street. Danny hit the local parks in Sandy with his dad to practice every day. Their sessions lasted two to three hours at a time.
The two had to get to know each other, to adjust to tendencies on the fly, while Danny had to adapt to a brand-new culture and language.
"It was a new chapter, a new life, leaving all my family behind that I grew up with, my friends," Danny Acosta said. "It was not going to be easy at all."
He started playing futsal a version of soccer played on concrete or indoors on a hard surface and that's where he met a player full of flashy moves named Sebastian Saucedo. Acosta tested the waters with local club teams before eventually settling in at Sparta United, where he started turning heads.
"Right away, I looked at Danny and said, 'That's going to be an MLS player,'" Sparta technical director Marco de Ruiter said.
Packing up again
Danny Acosta looked on as some close friends were given the green-light to join RSL's Arizona-based academy. Most were a year older, including Saucedo. Former RSL coach Jason Kreis said he was too young at the time, Danilo Acosta said. Saucedo consoled his friend, told him his time would come.
Eight months later, it did.
Freddy Juarez, the coach at RSL's academy, called Acosta to invite him to Casa Grande, Ariz., for a week. He accepted, impressed the coaches with his athleticism and tenacious defensive approach and decided he wanted to stay. After one practice, Saucedo pointed out a player already on the U.S. youth national team radar, Brooks Lennon. Saucedo told his friend that Lennon was untouchable.
They soon faced off, and Acosta went in for a 50-50 challenge with Lennon, got the better of it and left Lennon on the grass fields at RSL's academy complex. Martin Vasquez, the director of soccer operations at the academy, teased Lennon a bit. Two months later, Juarez extended the invite to attend the academy. At 15, Acosta was on the move again. And he had to persuade his dad to let him go.
"At the end of the day, you have to make sacrifices in life in order to get where you want," he said. "And that's one of the sacrifices I made. I left all my friends, all the friends I made over here, my family, to go chase my dream, basically."
Danilo Acosta agreed.
Danny's young career took off. He was part of the RSL U-18 team that went 37-4-4 in 2014-15. In December 2015, RSL general manager Craig Waibel signed a player he once was trying to recruit desperately to the University of Washington during his time as an assistant coach.
"He's come a long ways," Waibel said. "And I think one of the things our organization is really establishing is the path for success for our academy kids. That kind of propels guys. They're watching their friends do it. So there's no doubt in their mind that they can't."
A night before Danny Acosta stepped to the penalty spot and delivered a tournament-clinching penalty kick as a member of the U.S. U-20 national team, his father received a phone call from Honduras. It was from a newspaper back home. In less than 24 hours, his son was going to face the Honduras U-20s for the 2017 CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Costa Rica.
The reporter asked Danilo how his son would celebrate if he happened to score against Honduras?
"I said, 'Well, he won't celebrate. He will enjoy it,' " he said. "But we won't forget where we're coming from. But we owe everything we have to this country, he's playing for this country and he's got to respect that."
Danilo's dad also was interviewed back in Barrio Cabañas. Danny's grandfather and all of his uncles admitted they were rooting for Honduras to win but for Danny to continue with his standout performances. Family back home told Danilo, "We're in a win-win situation."
"It was difficult because it's my son, and the last thing you want is for him to be in that position from an emotional standpoint," Danilo Acosta said. "That was one of his best decisions ever, to be honest. Because at that point, nobody knew who Danny was."
Before the tournament, Danny's friends asked the same questions the reporter asked his dad. What would you do playing Honduras? What would you do if you scored? Danilo reminded Danny that he's still Honduran, and he still represents his family back home in San Pedro Sula.
"Don't forget that," he told his son.
Once the referee blew his whistle for the final time in the penalty-kick shootout, Danny sprinted toward the ball like he was bursting out the door of his grandparents' house in Barrio Cabañas.
"When he was walking up, I knew he was not going to miss it," Danilo Acosta said. "We pretty much knew it was a done deal."
'It's in our DNA'
Danilo Acosta still tells the story of the day he picked up his son at the airport. Now it's more than just an early proclamation from a young dreamer. It was an accurate forecast. Acosta, the youngest player on RSL's roster in 2017, made his RSL debut in the 3-0 win over Vancouver on April 8. He started the next three games at right back.
Juarez has seen the transition during the last four years up close. He's now an assistant for RSL and says Acosta's drive has played just as much of a role in his rise as the talent he possesses.
"I think there's guys who have gone through something early in their life that just had them look at the world a little different," he said. "He was one of those. He did have a little bit of a rougher upbringing than most. And then now you put him in a setting where maybe life was a little easier than what it was [in Honduras]. And he can thrive. And I think he did."
Now, in a twist of fate, it's Danny Acosta who tries to phone his grandparents once a week. They FaceTime when time allows, but his schedule is packed and will be even more so over the next month. He's a lock to be part of the U-20 World Cup squad with three RSL teammates, including Saucedo and Lennon, who leave for South Korea in a few days.
"The only way I can try and pay them back is to work hard, do everything that I can and then for them to see me on the field playing," he said about his family.
And he vows he won't forget where his path began barefoot on the streets of Barrio Cabañas, where it was common to have pickup tournaments scheduled between different neighborhoods. Danilo Acosta said games often feature added bets such as drinks or food to up the ante. "That's in our blood," Danilo Acosta said. "It's in our DNA."
"Soccer is bigger than what happens on the field," Danny's father said, "and we try to encourage him to never forget that. For him soccer is a bigger purpose."
Age • 19
Position • Defender
Hometown • San Pedro Sula, Honduras
With RSL • Signed as an RSL homegrown player in December 2015 at 18
Stats • Made MLS debut April 8, started four matches at right back. … Played in 18 games for Real Monarchs in 2016.
Honduras to a new home • Moved to the U.S. at 12 to live with his father after being raised by his grandparents in San Pedro Sula. Joined RSL academy at 15.