When your career is defined by media speculation over which national team you’ll represent, the responsibility of being a team's first ever Homegrown Player, and rumors about a transfer to Europe, it would be entirely understandable if pressure got the best of you.
Add in the fact that your first professional contract was signed at the age of 15 - a time when many of your friends are in their freshman or sophomore year of high school - and sympathy stretches even further.
Yet, for Diego Fagundez of the New England Revolution none of that has resulted in an inflated ego or sense of arrogance. Instead, the Leominister, Mass. native remains focused on improving his game every time he steps on the field and enjoying each minute of life as a professional athlete.
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Fagundez’s tale begins during November of 2010 when he first inked a professional contract with the Revs. Aside from sporting his typical spiky mohawk, he looked like an average teenager. From a physical standpoint there was nothing that separated the now 20-year-old from his academy teammates, but his skill and grace on the ball pushed him into then-manager Steve Nicol’s squad.
Instead of getting thrust right into the spotlight, the bright-eyed sensation moved fluidly between the academy program, reserve squad, and first team. That tempered developmental approach resulted in fantastic dividends and, as Revs fans now know well, Fagundez burst onto the scene in a 3-2 loss against Chivas USA in August of 2011.
With his team down 2-0, he entered in the 66th minute and by the game’s end had drawn a penalty kick and scored his first professional goal. For anyone in attendance or watching on television, those moments were full of excitement. After all, a 16-year-old kid had nearly brought his team back from the ashes in just his first professional game.
Yet for Fagundez, that moment was a culmination of hard work, and one in which he could express himself through the game he loves.
"I remember that first game I sat on the bench, we were just warming up, and I wasn’t expecting to go in," he said. "Then when they called my name I said, ‘Whoa. I’m going in’. That’s when the nerves started hitting me and I got excited, but once I went in they all went away and it was back to soccer. It’s something I look for, something I grew up with, so it’s the easy part."
In the blink of an eye, Fagundez’s promising MLS career had gotten off to a hot start. The attacking potential that led to a contract offer had manifested itself on the field and a boyhood dream was finally reality.
The fact he carved out both of the Revs’ goals that evening stands out, but the emotions that accompanied those contributions jump off the page the most for Fagundez. Simply, they’re feelings that he will never forget.
"I think it’s one of the best feelings knowing that they were counting on me... and [it was] something I didn’t really expect," Fagundez said. "But, I remember that day like it was yesterday. It’s one of those memories that can never go away because it’s in your career for the rest of your life."
As the memories from that fateful evening now remain with Fagundez, the fact of the matter is it was only one game. Opportunities to earn more playing time were out there and it was up to him to seize chances as they arrived.
On the field he did just that, though, as he finished with four goals, three assists, and 26 appearances by the end of the 2012 season. However, one major thing differentiated himself from all of his teammates: he was still just a kid.
While everyone else had a place of their own to live, a car to drive to work every morning, and possibly a significant other or kids waiting at home, Fagundez was still living with his mom and dad. Also unlike his teammates, he was working toward his high school diploma and didn’t yet have his driver’s license.
"To tell you the truth it was hard because my parents had to drive me to practice every morning, stay there and wait for me to be done," he said. "It was a huge commitment by them."
On top of that, there was the added to desire to just be a normal kid sometimes. Instead of hanging out on a Friday night with friends at the movies or a high school game, Fagundez would often be across the country in a hotel preparing to play a game.
It was an incredibly fortunate situation to be in with the Revs, but there still were difficulties that came his way.
"It was hard because all my friends were still in school and I wanted to play some high school soccer, but went pro instead," Fagundez said. "I knew that my career was more important because it was something that I dreamed of. It still is hard that way though because I’ll be on a road trip and my friends are back home and I’ll [ask] 'So, what are you guys doing today?’."
Little did he know at the time, all the things that made him different would lead towards success that few could have predicted.
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2013 was a breakout year for Fagundez, as he scored 13 goals and added seven assists. As he matured physically, tactically, and technically, he began to thrive in the 4-1-4-1 system Jay Heaps employed that season. His rapid ascent positioned him as one of the brightest young stars in MLS.
He was named the Revs MVP that season, he finished tied for fifth in the league in goals scored, and rumblings arose throughout the U.S. soccer community about whether his international allegiance would ultimately lie with his native Uruguay or the United States.
On top of all of that, opposing defenses were focused on stopping him and the pressure he faced began to mount - at least from the outside. For Fagundez, he knew that letting the pressure or spotlight get to his head would be detrimental.
He had to remain level-headed, focus on each game as it came, and let his dedicated work in training translate to success on the field.
"I wasn’t pressured because I was doing the thing that I loved to do," Fagundez said. "I went to training every day, worked hard, and then when games came a lot of things went my way where I was scoring goals, getting assists, helping out the team, and playing well."
Fagundez’s grounded and humble approach proved its worth in 2013 and is still reaping dividends today. As his coaches and teammates will echo, he is not one to be weighed down by personal or outside expectations.
Instead, his work ethic and love for the game usurps any hindrances. Nothing perhaps illustrates this attitude better than his recent time with the Uruguay U-20 national team.
In the time between the 2014 and 2015 seasons, he successfully helped the South American squad qualify for this year’s U-20 World Cup. Although not a consistent starter, he earned significant playing time in qualifying tournaments and gained valuable international experience.
However, much like has been the case with his MLS ventures, he is not letting his early international successes get to his head.
"It was an unbelievable experience that I’m not going to forget and now I just have to keep on working hard," Fagundez said. "There are some good tournaments coming up now and I have to make sure they call me in so I can do everything to help."
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Although it is hard to believe, 2015 is Fagundez’s fifth season with the Revs. He signed with the team in 2010 and many hoped he would be successful with the first team, but nobody anticipated him blossoming into one of MLS’ best ever Homegrown Players.
Nonetheless, here he is. Through a blend of confidence, humility, and skill, Fagundez is shutting the door on pompous behavior. Instead, he is gradually becoming a consummate professional who is focused on making the most of his opportunities and helping his team earn three points week in and week out.
"When I’m out there playing I try to do everything I can to help out the team, whether it be a goal or an assist or making a play defensively," Fagundez said. "That’s all that matters because I’m trying to earn my spot in the 11."
As he has also learned, earning a spot in the starting 11 is no easy task. Players, regardless of their salary or reputation, are fighting every week for a limited number of spots on the field.
Fagundez welcomes the battle. Competition makes places in the lineup that much harder to come by, but also creates a necessity to learn from mistakes.
Doing just that will make Fagundez’s career become all that more successful and he has already shown a willingness to roll with the punches. He is yet to shy away from adversity and all of that has resulted in more growth and maturity than anyone could have imagined.
While it remains to be seen when, or if, his growth slows down, he has already come so far.
"Every player grows little by little," Fagundez said. "When I first came in I was so young and making some mistakes that I shouldn’t have been making. Now I think I learned from them and am not making them.
"I still have to keep learning because my career is still a lot of time from now, but we have good guys on our team that can bring me along and...that’s the most important thing for me right now."