Though there may have been a stroke of luck in ending up with Real Salt Lake, Freddy Juarez always knew he'd be a coach.
Whether it would be leading an MLS team into the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs this weekend, albeit on an interim basis, or taking a U-15 side from his hometown of Las Cruces, New Mexico to their next tournament, Juarez is doing what he always thought he would.
And he's still the same Coach Freddy as he was when he and RSL Homegrown fullback Aaron Herrera were together on one of those Las Cruces teams, when they were together at the RSL academy or now in the first team.
“The crazy thing about Freddy, he hasn’t really changed," Herrera told MLSsoccer.com. "From the Las Cruces days, he’s a guy that, no matter what happens to him with success, he’s going to say the same. Usually the head coach will sit in the front of the bus or first class on the plane, Freddy doesn’t do that. He always sits in the same spot – second row, on the left – and he doesn’t like the lifestyle of first class. He wants to feel a part of the team.”
Juarez began his coaching career while he was still a defender playing for the El Paso Patriots and Minnesota Thunder, finding ways to pocket some extra money. It wasn't a lavish lifestyle, as he was trying to make a living do what he loves.
“I found a passion for coaching early," Juarez said. "I played in the USL, you didn’t play the whole year. So, when you’re not playing, what are you doing? Even during the season you’re running camps to make ends meet. Then I’d always go home and coach in the offseason. I loved it.”
As Real Salt Lake were forming their academy in Arizona, they began identifying young talent in neighboring areas, including Herrera and other players in a youth team Juarez was coaching. They asked if Juarez wanted to join the project, too.
"They asked if I wanted to come essentially be a chaperone living with the kids and being a coach. For me? Yeah," Juarez said with no hesitation. "I’ve been fortunate enough that the club made a decision to go to Arizona. It was almost meant to be.”
“He was an assistant coach, he was like a dad to some guys, chaperone like he said," Herrera chuckled. "He did all that stuff. He did it all.”
Living in the same building as his players, Juarez was an important figure in their lives. As such, he had that annoyingly parent-like quality of always knowing when his kids weren't totally following the rules.
"So we had this 10 pm curfew and every time we were out past that curfew, we thought we were sneaky," Herrera said, recalling a story from the academy. "Sneaking in a backdoor to the performance center, because they had soccer tennis, ping-pong and all that. Somehow, Freddy would always know. Five minutes after curfew we’d get a text from Freddy: 'What are you guys doing in the performance center?' How does this guy know where we are right now?! It would end in us doing laundry the next day for everyone.”
From there, Juarez worked up the ranks at RSL, with stops at every exit ramp. From a "chaperone," as he called himself at first, to overseeing the academy, to becoming the Real Monarch's first head coach then joining the first team coaching staff in 2018, before being named interim boss this season.
Freddy Juarez on the mic ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/XAgbqoaKpQ— Real Salt Lake (@realsaltlake) July 23, 2018
It was integral to his own personal growth.
"Every level has prepared me for this," Juarez said. "I don’t know if everyone has to do it that way, but for me it was great.”
So, what's changed since he shifted seats on the bench from assistant to the top chair?
“I’ve been asked that question a lot," Juarez said, preparing his response. "Obviously it does change a little bit, but I wasn’t, like, the funny guy assistant. If anything has changed, I think people see me as the guy who makes the final decision. So I might not be as popular as I was as an assistant – if I was even popular – but that changes some of the interactions. It’s hard to keep everyone happy, but that’s my goal. The top coaches know how to make sure every player feels valued. Some coaches try to keep their 11, 12 or 13 that they continue to go-to, happy. I’m challenging myself to keep the roster engaged and all fighting for the same goal. Will I accomplish that? No. If that’s my target, then I’ll get the majority.”
“Freddy’s a low-key guy," Herrera added succinctly.
As for playing style, Juarez prefers a possession-based approach, something he has been preaching since coaching youth.
Since Juarez took over at the end of July, RSL are in the top third in MLS across possession, passes completed and passes completed in their own half. They are also tied for second in wins in that time.
“We do want to have possession. If I’m starting from the back, ideally I’d like to have answers to get out of pressure without just putting the ball up for a 50/50," Juarez explained. "Can it happen all the time? No, but I’d like to. I’d definitely like to control the game with possession. But I don’t need a number of passes before we can go forward. If we can’t go forward, we pass the ball until we can. We have to move the ball to give us the opportunity to go forward. ... It’s not so much different than anyone else, but I value the ball a little bit more.”
Now, heading into the playoffs, Juarez has the chance to give the club extra reasons that he's the man for the job on a permanent basis.
“I tell my staff that every day we’re here to help the team," Juarez said. "That’s our job. How can we help players feel better, continue to develop? We’re here to serve the players, try to create an environment where we can produce. If you don’t have happy players or players that get better, then you don’t have a winning team and we don’t have a job. Simple as that.”
Herrera is proof positive of that ethos.
“Our relationship is super important," Herrera said. "It’s cool that both of us were able to make it out of Las Cruces, we’ve always had a close relationship. I can text or call him whenever I need advice on or off the field. It’s the same in return, he’s always texting me to see how I am. When I’m at national team camps, he’s asking how it’s going. We’re talking tactics, I really cherish our relationship.”