Sebastian Soto - US U-20s

It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that Sebastian Soto is scoring goals at the U-20 World Cup, flashing his instinctual nature of goalscoring known only to poachers. 


It's what he did for the Hannover U-19 side this season, scoring 17 times in 24 games in his first campaign in Germany. It's what he's been doing for US youth national teams, winning the Golden Boot with the US U-19 team at the 2018 Slovakia Cup before bagging a brace on his U-20 debut later that year against Jamaica. 


But it was his brace against France at the U-20 World Cup that has Soto entering the global picture to those around the world viewing the prestigious tournament, helping lead his team over tournament favorites France 3-2 on Tuesday.


If not for the uniforms, though, Real Salt Lake GM Craig Waibel might have thought he was watching any one of his club's academy games between 2016-18. 


“Richie [Ledezma] collects the ball, explodes into space in the midfield — which we’ve seen a million times," Waibel tells MLSsoccer.com Wednesday robotically at first, like it was a re-run episode of a show he'd seen almost too many times before: There was no doubt what was coming next. "Sebastian pulls off his defender, Richie plays a perfectly weighted ball, Sebastian takes a touch and finishes. We’ve seen that combination before, so it was a bit of a déjà vu moment and a very proud moment."


It was nothing new for the former RSL academy standout, who would now be tied for first in the tournament Golden Boot race if not for Erling Haland scoring nine goals in Norway's 12-0 rout of Honduras. That goal specifically, from Ledezma to Soto, was made at the RSL academy fields.

Sebastian Soto joined the Real Salt Lake academy in 2016 after starring for his hometown San Diego Surf, where he caught the eye of academy scouts.


Soto's rise at RSL was fairly steady — but was he always a standout player at each level?


“Well, 42 goals do kind of standout,” Waibel said with a laugh, referring to Soto's final season where he scored 42 goals in 27 appearances. “He was a very solid striker before his 42-goal season, in that season he really found his way and what made him successful. There were several other spectacular players in that group that assisted those goals. Sebastian is a wonderful human being, he’d be the first to give the other players credit so I’m not saying anything he wouldn’t. It was a really special year.”


That special year is what fully caught the attention of European suitors, namely Hannover, while RSL were working around MLS's roster rules to get him signed. 


“Unfortunately, at the time that we really wanted to sign Sebastian, the rules in MLS didn’t accommodate that the way they were structured in that moment," Waibel admitted. "The rules have since evolved as has the league in many positive ways. Nowadays we would have been able to make an offer to Sebastian much sooner than we were capable [of] then.”


The issue wasn't financial, but structural. Their academy had been churning out first-team players and RSL didn't have an open space to put Soto and had to wait. By the time they were able to sign him, it was too late.


“Yeah, it was frustrating," Waibel said. "It’s frustrating any time you have a player you want but you can’t figure out the right way to get it done. These were very significant roster selection rules within our league at that time. They were there for a reason, they were positive. But one thing MLS has been great at is evolution. This was not a singular example, but it was one example why the league evolved. It’s a really great thing. ... I think the league very maturely handled the situation in the sense that you have to evolve.”


That doesn't mean Waibel isn't looking to pull him back.

United States U-20 World Cup star Sebastian Soto: Made in Real Salt Lake  - https://league-mp7static.mlsdigital.net/images/soto%20rsl.jpg

Soto is entering the last season of his contract with Hannover and, with the club having been relegated to the 2. Bundesliga, they have an eye on their future that they see Soto as a part of. However, ESPN's Jeff Carlisle is reporting that talks have broken down between the club and Soto's representatives, and Borussia Dortmund are circling. 


So are Real Salt Lake.


“I don’t want to come off as snarky, but, yes, that’s my job," Waibel said when asked if he had interest in bringing Soto back with his contract status up in the air. "Our job as an organization is to keep track of these players, maintain the relationship with these players. They come from wonderful families. I’ve had individual conversations with Sebastian and his family, I told them when the time comes and the interest is there, we’ll have you back.”


It's not entirely dissimilar to what happened with Brooks Lennon


Lennon was an academy standout for RSL, scoring 31 goals in the 2014-15 academy season, which earned him a move to Liverpool. He enjoyed his time there, but Waibel kept the relationship between player and club strong. Lennon ended up taking a loan move back to RSL and signed permanently ahead of the 2018 season. 


“Ultimately, one day we want to see them wearing our jersey," Waibel said, referring to Soto, Ledezma and Bayern Munich's Taylor Booth. "If you ask any of the three, one day they can envision that themselves.” 

United States U-20 World Cup star Sebastian Soto: Made in Real Salt Lake  - https://league-mp7static.mlsdigital.net/images/soto%20hann.png

It would be easy for Waibel to find a hint of professional disappointment amid his personal joy for two kids he thinks so highly of when Soto and Ledezma star on the world stage. 


With both players leaving to Europe on a free transfer, as they had yet to sign professional deals before Ledezma went to PSV and Soto to Hannover, RSL get only moral victories rather than financial ones when the pair produce. Excelling at the U-20 World Cup is a surefire way to inflate value of players, meaning even if they were headed for Europe, RSL would be compensated for their efforts.


The way Soto is scoring goals, it would have been no small sum. 


“Frustration goes out the window — these are wonderful opportunities," Waibel said. "We gave them a choice to make, they played well enough to have options, there’s no reason to be upset. The goal now is, as an organization, we continue to support them just like we did here. Did we want them to sign? Of course! But there’s no ill-will. These are wonderful kids.”


Soto, Ledezma and the US U-20s are next in action on Saturday against Ecuador (11:30 am ET | FS2) in the quarterfinals with their World Cup dream very much alive. 


“It's absolute pride to see ex-RSL academy players contributing in such a massive, massive way in such a massive win for our youth national team," Waibel said.