HARRISON, N.J. — Ever since he joined the New York Red Bulls academy and began taking the trips from Ridgefield, Connecticut to New Jersey in pursuit of his professional soccer dream, Ben Mines envisioned taking the field at Red Bull Arena and hearing the roar of the crowd.
From his time with the Red Bulls U-15s, when Jesse Marsch got his first glimpse of the promising winger, to his time with the Red Bulls USL affiliate last year, Mines made the same climb up the ladder that Matt Miazga and Tyler Adams made. He took the biggest step to date on Saturday, enjoying an MLS debut that couldn't have gone much better. Mines earned a start, scored the opening goal and earned man of the match honors in the Red Bulls' 4-0 thrashing of the Portland Timbers.
"It's amazing, just coming up through the academy is an incredible experience, with great coaches and great players," Mines told Goal. "It's the dream to play for the first team and that dream came true tonight."
Mines was one of several Red Bulls reserves who were handed starts on Saturday as Marsh prepared his team for Tuesday's crucial CONCACAF Champions League decider against Club Tijuana. Though he was the youngest player on the field, Mines was a player Marsch fully believed was ready for the opportunity. So much so, in fact, that he predicted Mines would score a goal.
"It was easy decision to put him on the field tonight," Marsch said. "I knew it going into last week that Ben Mines was playing tonight, and I was pretty confident that he was going to play well.
"For a 17-year-old in a man's world, he's fit right in," Marsch added. "He's not intimidated. He's ready for this challenge."
Marsch's confidence in Mines was a byproduct of the outstanding preseason the teenager enjoyed, a stretch where he was easily one of the team's best players.
"Just coming into preseason, and playing with these guys, everybody gave me confidence to be me and do my thing," Mines said. "I just came out here tonight and did the same thing."
A native of Ridgefield, Connecticut, Mines joined the Red Bulls academy as a high school freshman. Current Red Bulls standout and U.S. national team midfielder Tyler Adams first saw Mines when the two were teamed up on a Red Bulls academy select team for a tournament in Salzburg, Austria. Adams came away from that trip impressed with Mines, who is two years yonger than he is, and he was left convinced that the two could be teammates with the first team one day.
Not long after that, Mines caught the eye of his future coach.
"I remember seeing Ben Mines play - in 2016 was the first time that I watched him - and I think that he was on the U15 team then," Marsch said. "He would play out on the right wing and he was so aggressive and when he got the ball, he was so aggressive to go at guys and make plays. And, you know, you could see that he was still trying to figure out the defensive responsibility part, but you could see how gifted he was just with the ball on the move."
What Marsch first glimpsed two years ago was there for all to see on Saturday, as the teenager showed off his aggressive and confident game against the Timbers. Defensively, he helped Kyle Duncan deal with the dangerous Sebastian Blanco and offensively he made his mark in the 18th minute when his smart run put him in position for an easy finish off an excellent pass from Alejandro Romero Gamarra.
"It was an incredible feeling," Mines told Goal. "I just saw Kaku coming down the line, and made a run to the back post and finished it. Just hearing the roar of the fans after that, it was everything I imagined it being."
Now, at an age when most young American players are deciding on what college to go to, Mines has seen his professional career get off to a perfect start. This after Mines passed up a chance to play for reigning NCAA champion Stanford in order to sign with the Red Bulls.
"It was a hard decision, and I really took my time with it," Mines told Goal. "This is where I am right now and I'm happy with my decision."
After his impressive preseason, and unforgettable MLS debut, Mines will now have to focus on fighting for more minutes with the Red Bulls, and trying to turn more of his dreams into reality.