Danny Acosta has never been short on confidence. At age 12, he walked into Rio Tinto Stadium for the first time and told his father that he would call it home someday. In the years that followed, he rose through the Real Salt Lake academy, facing off with some of the brightest prospects in American soccer.
Now, that confidence has carried him through a whirlwind 2017 that’s truly served as his coming out party on the professional level. Burying a tournament-clinching penalty kick against the country he called home for 12 years? Becoming a vital piece of a playoff push at just 19 years old? Responding to a U.S. Men’s National Team legend’s trash talk with the swagger of a veteran? That’s confidence, and, if harnessed and unleashed in the right way, that belief could make Acosta American soccer’s next up-and-coming left back.
Before that process truly begins, though, Acosta needs to prove himself on the club level, and the RSL defender’s initial impressions have been strong. After rising through the club’s academy system and earning time with the Real Monarchs in years prior, Acosta is now a fully ingrained part of the senior team, making 15 appearances while providing two assists from the left back position.
“I set out some goals. I put them on my notes on my phone,” Acosta told SBI. “My first goal was to be in the best possible shape for the national team. I accomplished that by going to Costa Rica for camp in December. Then I wanted to make the qualifying team. That was a main priority too. When everything with the national team was done, coming back to RSL with all of the experience in CONCACAF, I wanted to continue that momentum with RSL.
“So far, all of the goals I wrote about have been accomplished,” he added. “Now, I’ll have to set some new goals.”
Even today, Acosta remembers his first real goal. Born in Honduras, Acosta didn’t have the easiest upbringing. He recalls playing soccer in the streets barefoot with no ball. When he moved to the U.S. with his father at age 12, Acosta was brought into an entirely different world, one which soon put him on a winding path towards RSL.
He recalls the first time he walked into Rio Tinto Stadium with his father. It was 2010, and RSL was playing the New York Red Bulls. Acosta looked at the stadium and back at his father before telling him that his dream was to someday play on that field. Two-and-a-half years later, he was in the club’s academy playing under former academy coach and current RSL assistant Freddy Juarez.
At the time, the RSL academy housed some of the best young players in American soccer. It featured Justen Glad, Sebastian Saucedo and Brooks Lennon, three current RSL regulars that have long been focal points of the U.S. youth pool. Despite being a bit younger, Acosta is certainly in that mix, and he has been since his first impression with the club’s academy.
“One of the first things he did on his tryout, I remember it perfectly, we were playing a small-sided game and he tackled Brooks from behind,” Juarez told SBI. “As a trialist, most people would shy away from hitting one of the star players. Brooks got up and Danny didn’t shy away. He just went on with the game. He kept at it. That speaks volumes of a player. Most players will go to a tryout and probably won’t kick one of the best players and, if they do, they’ll be scared. That wasn’t him.
“He’s always had that chip on his shoulder. There’s a good and a bad to it.”
Acosta still has a lot of growing up to do, according to Juarez, but he has seen some big jumps in the 19-year-old defender’s maturity in 2017. He has seen him grow from physically gifted academy project to legitimate defender. He saw a player too talented for the U-18 pool, but still not yet ready to embrace all it took to be a professional.
That process began in 2017, and some of it can be traced back to the U-20 Men’s National Team and Acosta’s experiences on the international level.
The defender was named to the Tab Ramos’ U.S. roster for CONCACAF qualifying, and he immediately circled Honduras as a dream matchup. He told his father and friends from back home that he’d love to see his country of birth on the tournament finale and, if he did, he’d score on them.
He did just that, scoring the winning penalty kick as the U.S. won, 5-3, in the penalty kick shootout following a scoreless draw.
“The day of the game, I was excited,” Acosta said. “I was looking forward to it. During the shootout, Tab asked me if I wanted to go fourth. I said, ‘Nah, let me go fifth’. When I saw their guy miss the PK, Tyler Adams was going to go take it, and I said I would take it. I was just trying to put the ball in the back of the net.
“I know I’m from Honduras, but I’ve been with these guys for three or four years. Those are my brothers. The best feeling was putting the ball in the back of the net and lifting that trophy for that first time. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Acosta continued as the starting left back at the U-20 World Cup as the U.S. advanced to the quarterfinals before falling to eventual finalist Venezuela. It was an experience that showed Acosta that he truly belonged at any level, giving him a major boost heading back to the club level.
When Mike Petke was hired four games into the 2017 season, RSL began a youth movement as Lennon, Saucedo, Brooks and Acosta rapidly became the team’s young core. The group has veterans like Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando leading the way, sure, but the academy products have stepped up to push the team back into what looked like an impossible playoff chase.
Acosta’s work as a left back has been much improved. He brings physicality to the game to go with speed and power. He has shown an improved ability on the ball and he’s working on timing his runs to get into what is suddenly a young, dangerous RSL attack.
Still, the defender admits that he’s nowhere near a finished product. He says he frequently seeks out Chris Wingert to talk about matchups. Wingert has been in MLS for quite some time, and Acosta says picking his brain on other players around the league has been a major benefit.
It’s that aspect of his game that needs refining. The mental part is still Acosta’s biggest weakness, Juarez says, it’s and one of the things the RSL coaching staff is working hardest on. At some point, the hope is that the defender grows from Danny Acosta, the prospect into Danny Acosta, the professional.
“He’s a guy that we’re very hard on,” Juarez said, “and it’s not just being hard on a young guy. We see a lot of growth still. He’s not awake right away when he gets to training. There are things that he has. He has so many gifts on the physical side, that the mental part of it is something we constantly work on… It’s not huge strides, but little steps we take with Danny. Sometimes he still takes steps back, but if we get that piece, we’re going to have and the U.S. is going to have a very talented defender in their pool.
“I was a part of Edgar Castillo’s development,” Juarez added. “Danny is a better defender, but the passion for the game and being a student of the game, and by no means am I saying he can be that, but he has the presence of a Maicon. He has that strength, that power, that speed and can get from box to box. If he really accepts and takes this as a profession outside of soccer and inside of soccer, he can be that type of player: just a powerful outside back that’s a physical presence that has the quality to pass and maybe get a goal every so often. He could be that type of player.”
If he gets there, and that’s a big if, Acosta could some day make that leap to the next level. Left back has long been an issue for the U.S. Men’s National Team and Acosta’s efforts on the youth level and with RSL show he has the attributes to someday be a part of the U.S. pool.
Right now, that’s what he wants to do. He’s eligible for Honduras still, making it a possibility that he someday represents his home country, but the U.S. is truly home to Acosta. It’s given him the life he’s always wanted, and his dream is to someday represent the U.S. on the international stage.
Recently, as part of RSL’s playoff push, Acosta went head to head with someone on that stage. The defender helped lead RSL to a 2-0 win over the Seattle Sounders, putting the club right back into the postseason picture. After the match, cameras caught Acosta and Clint Dempsey exchanging words, and the defender didn’t back down after a strong performance against one of the best attackers in USMNT history.
“People trash talk on and off the field. The camera caught me doing that, but the camera didn’t catch what he was saying before,” Acosta said. “You have to respect him. It’s Clint Dempsey, but at the end of the day, you’re on the field.
“I’m the type of guy where it doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter to me. It could be Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, but I’m going to do my best to try to stop you. That motivates me when people trash talk. I like that. Go ahead and do it. I’m a young guy and people think they can put me down but they won’t. I have confidence and a mentality. If people trash talk, I’ll back it up on the field.”
He’ll get his chance in the coming weeks. Real Salt Lake has two vital games remaining, and they may need to win both if the club hopes to make the playoffs. In a year many believed was a major rebuild, RSL could turn 2017 into something special.
It likely won’t be the last playoff push of Acosta’s career, especially if the club can keep its young stars in-house. But, all of these years after announcing his dream of becoming a future RSL star, Acosta is looking to take that confidence and that belief and mold himself into exactly what he always saw himself being.
“I’m a young guy and I know that,” Acosta said, “but I can still play. I’m here for a reason, and that’s all that matters.
“If you put the work in, anything is possible, and I did that,” he added. “It’s a blessing. I look back at it and it’s all a dream come true. I dreamed about this, but this is just the beginning. The sky is the limit. “