Dream becomes reality for Fagundez

In the afterglow of his dazzling debut, 16-year-old Diego Fagundez continues his progress

The following story was published in the Revolution’s “Match Day” program for the October 1 game against Seattle Sounders FC

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – It’s not often reality exceeds our dreams, but not even Diego Fagundez could’ve fantasized about a professional debut quite as special as the one he made on August 6 at Gillette Stadium.

Summoned off the bench in the 66th minute of a game which the New England Revolution was trailing 2-0 to Chivas USA, Fagundez was far from the typical substitute. At just 16 years old, Fagundez was the youngest player in Revolution history and the club’s first-ever Home Grown Player after rising through the ranks of the club’s youth program.

Simply stepping onto the field likely would’ve been enough to make it one of the most memorable nights of Fagundez’s young life, but the performance which followed in his brief 24-minute appearance sent shockwaves through Major League Soccer.

It took the Leominster, Mass., native approximately two minutes to make his presence felt. After weaving his way into the left side of the box with one of his first touches on the ball, Fagundez used a devastating cutback to lure veteran defender Heath Pearce into a lunging challenge which sent Fagundez sprawling. Referee Mark Kadlecik immediately whistled for the foul and pointed to the penalty spot, where Shalrie Joseph converted to cut the Revolution’s deficit to 2-1.

But Fagundez was far from done. Just six minutes after Chivas USA regained its two-goal lead, the teenage debutant sent the home crowd into frenzy by scoring his first professional goal, fighting off a defender before latching on to Kevin Alston’s searching pass and depositing a low shot into the back of the net. The Revolution’s comeback effort ultimately fell short in a 3-2 loss, but the evening still possessed a certain storybook quality.

While Fagundez handled the situation with aplomb – even urging his teammates to keep pushing for an equalizer just moments after scoring his first professional goal – upon reflection, the high school sophomore can’t quite fathom the method in which his debut unfolded.

“I was probably the happiest kid ever,” Fagundez said when asked what emotions he felt that night in Foxborough. “I don’t think I ever dreamed that playing in my first professional game, I’d draw a penalty kick and score a goal. I don’t think that ever happened in my dream, but I’m glad it did (in reality).”

Despite the gravity of the situation, Fagundez recalls a decidedly veteran approach as he prepared to step onto the field in front of thousands of fans, a scenario which would likely terrify most adults, never mind a teenager. Although he admits to feeling a touch of nerves as he stood anxiously at midfield waiting to replace Zack Schilawski, Fagundez claims he was more focused on his responsibilities as a substitute than he was on the crowd or his own remarkable accomplishment.

“As soon as I stepped on the field, I was actually focused on the game,” he said. “It was just standing at midfield waiting for Zack to come out, that’s when I got a little bit nervous. But as soon as I stepped on the field, it was all gone.

“I was just thinking, ‘I need to help out the team right now,’” Fagundez recalled. “’We’re down 2-0 but there’s still time to tie it up or even win it.’ That’s basically what came to my mind.”

Even after Fagundez drew the penalty kick, the youngster kept his wits. His instant contribution provided a momentary sense of satisfaction, but it was followed by the realization that his job wasn’t finished.

“It was like, ‘Okay, I did one thing, but we’re still down by one so let’s see if we can keep going,’” Fagundez said. “That’s basically what came to my mind. It wasn’t relief, because we were still down.”

Despite the final score line, it was an unforgettable night for Fagundez and all those in attendance, not to mention an evening which will forever live on in Revolution folklore.

One of those spectators watching from the stands was Director of Youth Development Bryan Scales, who has extensive experience mentoring Fagundez as the head coach of the Revolution’s Under-16 team. In fact, Scales was sitting alongside many of the Revolution’s academy players, who were in attendance that night to sign commitment documents for the 2011-12 academy season.

While the group was thrilled with what they saw from Fagundez on the field – “When he went on, it was a pretty special moment,” Scales said. “There were a lot of academy guys who were jumping up and down” – it didn’t come with the element of surprise which perhaps caught others unawares.

“The thing that I think makes Diego different from maybe some other players is that he really plays with no fear,” Scales said. “He isn’t afraid to try stuff and I think that showed in his debut. When he came on, he wasn’t afraid to go get the ball and take a guy on, and that kind of aggressiveness was able to draw a penalty.

“Then to be able to get the goal that he got was classic Diego, playing against a bigger kid, trying to figure out how to get by him and he figured out a way,” Scales added. “He’s one of those guys who you can put in a number of situations and he’ll be able to figure out how to adapt and survive in those situations.”

That adaptability will be critical for Fagundez in the coming weeks, months and years as the shine of his debut performance wears off and the daily grind of being a professional soccer player takes hold. After all, Fagundez now finds himself in a situation in which he’s fighting for playing time with seasoned veterans and competing against players which typically have an advantage in size, strength and experience.

“Now the hard work begins,” said Scales. “That day-to-day push to get into the starting lineup, realizing what it means to be a real pro and that this is your craft. Now the bright lights are off and he’s ready to go day-to-day now.”

Already that full immersion into professional soccer has begun for Fagundez, who no longer attends classes at Leominster High School but instead trains with the Revolution in the morning and receives schooling from a tutor in the afternoon. The intense dedication even extends to his family, particularly his mother and father, who drive their son to and from training every day because Fagundez is in the process of finishing drivers ed classes and is about six weeks away from obtaining his driver’s license.

The challenges which lie ahead are not lost on Fagundez and the resolute teenager is more than willing to tackle them at full speed.

“Just because I scored a goal and drew a penalty kick, I can’t be like, ‘Okay, this is over,’” said Fagundez. “I have to come in the weeks after that, I have to work hard. Hopefully I’ll get a spot in the 18 or even the starting 11.

“It’s more physical, of course,” Fagundez said of training with the first team on a daily basis. “I have to use more of my body, think faster and do a lot of things faster than I used to do.”

Those adjustments are precisely why Fagundez’s transition into the professional game remains slow and steady.

Following his scintillating debut performance, it would’ve been easy for the Revolution’s technical staff to simply throw Fagundez into a variety of situations and expect him to succeed. But as of mid-September, Fagundez had seen just 11 minutes of first-team action since that debut, making a late substitute appearance against the Columbus Crew on August 13. Otherwise, Fagundez’s match experience has come via reserve games.

It’s a measured approach which the technical staff believes is in the best interest of both the player and the club.

“If you throw him in there and the expectations are off the charts, and now you’re building the team around him and you put him in the deep end, he’ll be able to survive for a little while, but we have to look at this as an organization as the long-term development of one of our top players,” said Scales. “It’s something that you have to cook, not microwave. You can’t speed the process up.

“He’ll have his good days and his bad days and his days that are in between,” Scales continued. “I think the most important thing for him right now … is just making sure that he’s getting an appropriate amount of challenges on a daily basis and seeing how he deals with these things.”

For his part, Fagundez understands his development continues to be an ongoing process.

“[The coaches] just said to keep working hard at practices and just do what I do,” Fagundez said. “They told me not to focus on if I’m playing or not, just keep working hard and my chances will come.”

When that next chance will come remains to be seen, but when it arrives, you can be sure Revolution fans will be watching with great anticipation.

“This is his passion,” Scales said of Fagundez. “This is what he does and this is what he loves to do. I’m sure that when he was little, his dad didn’t have to bring him out to the backyard to play. He tried stuff. He went out there on his own.

“That’s the whole basis for being a soccer player is just that relationship with the ball,” Scales concluded. “He got it at an early age and fell in love with the ball. Combine that with a really good soccer brain and some really good athleticism and now you’ve got a kid who has a ton of potential and is inching toward fulfilling that potential.”