When Justen Glad answers the phone about an hour after training on a recent Thursday, you can hear him digging into a big bag of dog food. They go through a lot of kibbles at the house Glad shares with his older brother between Rio Tinto Stadium and downtown Salt Lake City.
The brothers already had a two Labrador retrievers, once chocolate and one golden, when they found a black lab lost by the side of the road. Glad isn’t sure if they’ll end up keeping the new arrival, but for now it’s a full house (editor’s note: Rest in peace, Webster). As the 20-year-old center back details his path from Tucson, Arizona, where his parents moved the family to be closer to his grandparents, to the RSL academy in Casa Grande, you can hear him cajole one of dogs into eating and before long a tennis ball can be heard bouncing in the background.
After signing with Real Salt Lake as a Homegrown player in April 2014, Glad is wrapping up his second season as a full-time starter, though he missed about half the year recovering from injury then playing at the U-20 World Cup. He’s one of the best young players in Major League Soccer, finishing 18th on the annual 24 Under 24 list largely because he missed so much time early in the season.
It’s been an up-and-down year for Real Salt Lake. The club floundered early thanks to injuries and poor form, swapped Jeff Cassar for Mike Petke in late March, rallied around a broken printer in July and climbed back into the playoff race. With one game remaining, they’re a point out of playoffs and need to win plus San Jose and Dallas to founder to make it into the postseason.
It’s a long shot, but it’s possible. Glad is one of those players I want to see play when the weather gets cold, a youth national teamer who came up in an MLS academy, signed for the first team and has a legitimate shot at being part of the generation that brings the United States back to the World Cup.
Below is our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.
Your brother played center back in college. Does the position run in the family?
Actually, I always played center mid growing up and playing club. When I tried out for the Casa Grande academy, they told us to split into groups of defenders, attackers and midfielders. The attacker group had 50 kids, the midfielder group had 50 kids and the defender group had 10, so I just jumped in the defender group to increase my odds. At that point, the only thing on my mind was, ‘I gotta make this team.’
Any way I could make the team, I was going to do that. If that meant changing positions, that was fine. I was comfortable playing it, had played sweeper before with my club. There were a lot of Phoenix and Tuscon kids there, and I knew a lot of them. I knew my chances were best if I split into the defender group. Best decision I ever made.
Was it a tough decision for you to leave home? For your family?
I wasn’t going to go because it was an hour drive from home to practice every day. Both my parents work 9-to-5, and I didn’t have my license yet. I actually told Martin Vasquez, the head of the academy, ‘Hey, I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it this year, but thanks for the offer.’ Martin was like, ‘You could always live here.’ Within two weeks, I moved to Casa Grande.
There was definitely a lot of soccer being played. There’s not a lot to do in Casa Grande, so the most distinct memories I have are just playing soccer tennis with my roommates and friends. I loved it. It was a bunch of 15- or 16-year-old kids who have the same mindset. At all times we were doing something involving soccer.
What do you like most about playing center back?
Any big-time tackle or a play where you know if you don’t win the ball or do something to stop them, they are going to go down and score. I enjoy reading the game and trying to stop the other team from doing what they want to do. I want to make it as hard as possible for them.
As a forward, you can mess up nine times out of 10, but then score your 10th and be the hero. Whereas as a center back, there’s no room for error. You can mess up zero times out of 10. It’s all on you. It’s pressure on yourself, and I’ve always enjoyed that, a personal battle with myself. Holding a team to nothing that day, you and the backline and [Kyle Beckerman]. It’s a pride thing. We didn’t let them have a sniff at goal.
Your career is still young, but I have to imagine you have a performance or game that you really cherish, for personal or collective reasons.
I think it’d have to be my first goal in MLS against Sporting Kansas City (WATCH). We didn’t have our quote-unquote starting 11 out there. I don’t think the league or the fans really expected us to win. We ended up winning 2-1, and I got my first professional goal. I remember leaving the field like, ‘This is the dream right here.’
Another big one for me this year was coming back from injury and starting against New Zealand in the U-20 World Cup. I got a goal and an assist after coming back from an injury that kept me out for a couple months. Being on that roster was a big dream of mine.
When I was down in Salt Lake City earlier this year and watched training, I noticed Mike, Tyrone Marshall and Freddy Juarez, three former professional defenders, whispering in your ear or pulling you aside from time to time.
What are they saying? What is it like to have a head coach who played your position?
I love it. Having a head coach who was a center back is kind of the dream for me and any young center back who is trying to get better. A lot of [their advice] is about communication and getting to places a little earlier. I like to read the game and predict passes and all that, but sometimes I need to be in a different position or I’ll be anticipating the ball out wide and I stepped too far and they played it inside. If I am playing a big forward instead of a small forward, I need to work on my body position so it’s not a physical battle as opposed to a mental one.
Who is the forward in MLS who poses the most difficult matchup for you?
For me, it’s Fanendo Adi. I generally like playing against bigger players. Generally, they’re not as tricky or quick as a Sebastian Giovinco or Dom Dwyer. He’s just such an athlete. He’s big and he has good feet. With the players running off him, he can be such a dangerous player.
I heard you went on an all-Salmon diet two years ago to gain weight to deal with guys like Adi. Is that true?
I gained 15 pounds. I hated it. It lasted two months. I’d wake up and eat six eggs, half an avocado and a bowl of oatmeal. Two hours later, protein shake. Two hours later, eight ounces of chicken, a sweet potato and another half avocado. Two hours later, protein shake. Dinner was eight ounces of salmon and a pound of broccoli and cauliflower then another protein shake at night.
It was awful. You’re stuffed the whole day. It was not enjoyable. I asked our old strength and conditioning coach to draw something up for me, and it worked but it was tough to do. I was just too small. I still need to get bigger. You don’t need to be an amazing, crazy, super-human athlete to be a good soccer player, but it definitely doesn’t hurt. In my mind, I want to be the best I can be. Being bigger and stronger is going to help that.
When do you feel that on the field? I have to assume matching up with a guy like Adi brings that into perspective.
Definitely Adi, or even if I’m going into a 50-50 battle you just want to be stronger than the other person. If I’m going shoulder to shoulder with [fellow RSL defender] Dave Horst, I’m not going to win that battle. The goal is to be able to at some point. I would definitely prefer to have speed as opposed to strength, with how I play the game, so if I was getting to the point where I was slowing down at all, that’s where I might draw the line.
Who are the guys you watched growing up and watch now? Who are the center backs you admire?
I’m a big fan of Sergio Ramos. I think Gerard Pique is really good. In this league, I thought Nat Borchers was a good player and read the game well. He and Jamison Olave had a really good partnership, when it was Nat directing everyone and Olave being a freak of an athlete and chasing guys down.
How do you balance ambition as a player with long-term development?
I think it’s important to have a good grasp of where you’re at in your game and have realistic expectations. I also think you have to take a leap of faith or do what you need to do. I don’t want to speak for every young player, but I grew up hearing about these big European teams. For me, that’s the dream, to play at the highest level I can play and push myself against the best of the best.
Then again, MLS is a growing league and there’s a lot of talent. We played Toronto and New York and Sporting and all these teams that have really good forwards. I was playing against Sebastian Giovinco and [David Villa] and that’s definitely nothing to shake your head at. Who knows? There are a lot of possibilities out there.
I’ve got to ask you about the Mike Petke tweet. That’s one of my favorite moments of the year. Has to be the first time a head coach has tweeted back at you, right?
Drink plenty of water, eat carbs, bed by 10, get ready for Saturday https://t.co/ITaSmis5jV— @petkemike (@petkemike) July 28, 2017
It must have been a Friday night (editor’s note: Thursday, actually). I was a little bored. After the game, we have a regeneration session on Sunday and off on Monday usually. I figured maybe I’d find out what other people are doing in Salt Lake, so I tweeted it trying to get some input, maybe some hikes or laser tag or something. The funny thing is Mike didn’t even follow me at that point, so someone must have tagged him in it. He tweeted, ‘Be in bed by 10, and drink lots of water.’ I thought it was hilarious. I had to go in and make it clear that it was not for that particular Friday night. It was for the off day.