Kyle Beckerman could see it right away. Brooks Lennon wanted to play.
The 19-year-old winger returned to Real Salt Lake this past offseason on a season-long loan from Premier League giant Liverpool. He wanted first-team minutes and he wasn’t waiting around.
“Brooks came in with the right mindset right off the bat — working hard, trying to get into the team as quick as possible,” Beckerman said. “When he got his chance, he took it and ran with it.”
It was a mindset fostered by competition in a Premier League youth setup. Having joined Liverpool in 2015, Lennon competed for a place in the Under-23 squad and earned one, making 12 appearances in the 2016-17 season, including seven starts and a pair of goals.
But the U-23 level is a means to a larger goal. The Paradise Valley, Arizona, native was scrapping for a place on a team that boasted the likes of Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Divock Origi and Daniel Sturridge, in addition to promising prospect Ben Woodburn. It forced the teen to grow.
“There’s players from all over the world fighting for positions. I got so many new experiences over there,” Lennon told Goal. “I grew as a player, on and off the field. I’m incorporating what I’ve learned over there in my game now.”
Real Salt Lake coach Mike Petke agreed, adding he believes the environment fostered a tougher, mentally resilient player.
“You can tell the competition that I’m sure he’s been through to get on that field and to be a part of that definitely molded him and made him a bit icier and a bit more competitive,” Petke said.
“I can speak from our academy’s standpoint. I’ve been there, observing them and I know the coaches there and the players and they do a fantastic job. But going over to Liverpool obviously takes it up a notch.”
Despite Lennon’s best efforts, Liverpool’s attacking options heading into 2017 left him unlikely to see much action in the first team. Rather than head to a lower-league side in England, he decided to return to Real Salt Lake, where he had excelled as an academy player to the tune of 31 goals in the 2014-15 campaign.
“I knew I wanted to go on loan to get some first-team experience and RSL was my club when I was going to the academy, before I headed over to Liverpool. They were open to having me come back — they were really excited for me to come on loan, so I think it was the best option for me.”
There was a lot to like for Lennon. The MLS side is investing in a youth movement that features names like Justen Glad, Danilo Acosta and Sebastian Saucedo — Lennon’s teammates with both the U.S. U-20 side and the RSL academy. The club also still had plenty of veterans with professional experience, and Lennon credited them with helping to make the transition smooth.
“I think some of the guys here have really taken me under their wing and showed me what it takes to succeed in MLS,” Lennon said. “They made the transition really easy and I feel really comfortable with this team.
“Obviously Kyle Beckerman is a guy who is a leader on and off the field. Chris Wingert, Yura Movsisyan — all these guys have given me tips on what to do and what not to do. I think having those guys on the team, especially as a young player, helps in confidence.”
Lennon did not have a long time to get acclimated. Before he played his first official game for the MLS side, Lennon suited up for the U.S. U-20 side in the CONCACAF Championship, hoping to secure a spot in the 2017 U-20 World Cup in South Korea. The youth national team did that and more, earning its first-ever title in the competition, with Lennon playing a pivotal role, scoring four times in the tournament.
While it delayed the start of his MLS season, he carried that form into the league, where he’s thrived despite his youth. Gifted with plenty of “power and pace” in his 5-foot-8 inch frame, according to Petke, the technical ability is there as well, evidenced by Lennon’s strong chance creation and crossing statistics.
He’s managed 15 chances created from open play. Not only is that tied for 11th in MLS, he’s played fewer games than all but three of the players ahead of him.
Lennon has also attempted 34 crosses this year, fourth most in the league, and completed 29.4 percent of them — well above the league average of 21.2 percent.
But beyond the physical gifts is a mental makeup to match. Both Beckerman and Petke complimented the teen’s maturity, with the RSL captain seeing a lot of similarities between how he and Lennon see the game.
“A lot of (what he does) reminds me of myself — it looks like he’s out there, trying to soak up everything he can from the guys and bring it to his game,” said Beckerman, who added Lennon spends plenty of time with him studying film, looking to improve in any way possible.
“He’s got a good head on his shoulders. It seems like he knows what he needs to do and just with that basic foundation that he has, it’s going to really help him going forward.”
As for where Lennon will be as he does go forward, that question remains unanswered. In January, he could return to Liverpool and fight for a place on a team that is currently battling for a spot in the UEFA Champions League.
He could decide to remain with RSL, aiming to build a new core alongside his fellow U.S. U-20 teammates — something Petke thinks could lead to big things for the group if they put in the work.
“He needs to take every day as an opportunity to learn and improve,” Petke said. “He can’t sit back at 20 years old and say, ‘I’ve been at Liverpool, I’m going to the U-20 World Cup, I’m here, I’ve arrived.’ He has to constantly be the best player in practice.
“It’s the same thing I talk to with guys like Bofo (Saucedo), Danny Acosta and Justen Glad about. They have long careers ahead of them if they continue to do the right things. But that’s the big ‘if.’”
Should Lennon remain with the MLS club, Beckerman thinks great things could be in store for the teen.
“I think the sky’s the limit for him, I really do,” Beckerman said. “Hopefully Real Salt Lake can keep him here for a long time. He could be that face of the team here for years to come. He could break into the national team and be an impact player.”
But the immediate future is what Lennon is focused on. He was called into the U.S. side for the U-20 World Cup, taking place from May through June. After, he'll return to MLS and aim to get RSL into the playoffs.
Should his time with Liverpool be at an end, however, the winger does not regret going abroad.
“It was different. Living in a foreign country is hard sometimes," Lennon said. "You have to get used to the culture and coming from Arizona and moving to Liverpool was a big culture shock but I think I dealt with it really well and I enjoyed myself over there.
"I grew as a player and I got experiences that I wouldn’t have gotten if I didn’t make that decision.
“I’m really happy that I went to Liverpool for so long and that I’m still with such a historic club. I think me being in Liverpool was a really big thing for my career and I’m really happy I made the decision.”
Still, Lennon hasn't completely put Liverpool behind him yet. He maintains contact with the club, and has high praise for manager Jurgen Klopp, whom he interacted with when he trained with the first team.
“He’s a world-renowned coach, very passionate about the game, wants to win and you can just see that in the training sessions,” Lennon said.
“I think he liked how I played as a player and how I worked really hard and hopefully, I can continue to impress. You never know in the future.”