Diego Fagúndez: The Rising Star of MLS

While the New England Revolution’s 2013 campaign may have ended sooner than they had hoped, after falling to eventual champions Sporting Kansas City in the Eastern Conference semi-finals, the team can still take heart from a season in which they have wildly surpassed expectations.

Making their first post-season appearance since 2009, the team’s future under head coach Jay Heaps appears enviably promising, thanks to a blossoming group of young players who have shown an enormous amount of growth over the course of this season and now look set to form the team’s core for years to come.

Though the status of one key part of the side’s 2013 success, forward Juan Agudelo, remains up in the air, in the likes of Kelyn Rowe (21), Andrew Farrell (21), Scott Caldwell (22), A. J. Soares (24) and Dimitry Imbongo (23) the Revs still boast a promising crop of talent to put their faith in for the future.

One youngster in particular however stands out amongst the rest, with the potential to become a superstar, not only in MLS but on a global stage. That player is the team’s 2013 MVP, Diego Fagúndez – an 18-year-old attacking midfielder, who plays with all the flair and confidence that belies his young age. The attacking instincts and soccer brain which have helped Fagúndez fast-track his way into the Rev’s first team would suggest that the game is in his DNA and indeed, it is.

Born in Uruguay, where his father, Washington, was a professional goalkeeper for Central Español, Fagúndez’s family moved to Massachusetts when he was five, settling in Leominster – just an hour’s drive away from Gillette Stadium. Excelling on the local soccer scene soon thereafter, a family friend began taking him to Revs games in Foxborough, where Fagúndez would get his first sight of club legends like Taylor Twellman and José Cancela – a fellow Uruguayan. From then on he began dreaming of one day starring in MLS alongside such names.

Fagúndez would come one step closer to realising that goal when he became the Revs’ first ever Homegrown signing in November 2010, after playing a year-and-a-half with the team’s youth academy. Making his MLS début in August of the following year against Chivas USA, the then 16-year-old would go on to score after coming on as a substitute in the 66th minute, flashing several signs of things to come.

Gradually assimilating himself into the side over the course of the next season, Fagúndez would be thrown into the deep end at the start of 2013, when Heaps deemed him ready to contribute more consistently to the first team. Despite initial scepticism that it all may be too much too soon, the head coach’s trust in his youth movement has been justly rewarded, as Fagúndez’s impact has been nothing short of phenomenal. Making up for his small stature (5’8”, 150 lbs.) with outstanding pace and skill, the youngster has not only been able to adjust to the league’s physicality (playing in 31 games with 28 starts) but finished his breakout season with a team-high 13 goals and seven assists to serve as the focal point of the Revs’ attack.

Undoubtedly one of MLS’ rising young stars, Fagúndez has also quickly become a favourite with fans (especially of the female variety), earning the title “the Justin Bieber of MLS” amongst team-mates, while starring as the subject of one of NBC Sports Network’s MLS: 36 documentaries.

Still living with his parents at home, while studying to earn his high school diploma in the coming months, Fagúndez’s rise to the pros has been a fairly meteoric one and it may not have even been achievable were it not for the recent emergence of MLS clubs’ youth academies, allowing players like the young Uruguayan-born midfielder to embed themselves into a professional environment much earlier than was previously possible. In fact, in MLSsoccer.com’s annual ’24 Under 24′ series, in which Fagúndez placed fifth, eight of the players ranked were home grown signings. Plenty of league’s young stars are still drafted through the college ranks of course but the emphasis is increasingly being placed on cultivating talent from a younger age.

Regrettably, when one of these young MLS stars brakes through, it’s inevitable that ominous comparisons are made to the league’s arguably most famous teenage sensation, Freddy Adu, and his subsequent failure to live up to expectations. Already though, Fagúndez has tied Eddie Gaven’s MLS record of 16 goals as a teenager, while Adu himself only managed to score 13 over four years before embarking on his worldwide soccer odyssey – one which is currently in limbo.

Those who have seen him in the flesh will certainly tell you that Fagúndez is far from a flash in the pan, which also leaves us somewhat reluctantly wondering when he might decide to test the waters overseas. It’s clear that his future lies in one of Europe’s top leagues but it’s also plainly apparent that he would hugely benefit from a few more seasons in MLS to grow as a player and work on his deficiencies. A few yours ago, a young talent like Fagúndez may have been better advised to head abroad ASAP but, with the way the league has come on in leaps and bounds over the past few seasons, it’s now a more than suitable place for a promising player to develop. With a new contract signed earlier this year which could keep him with Revs until 2017, Fagúndez is a huge talent but one who still has a long way to go and, while he’s still getting playing time and happy to continue shining for his local side, it makes perfect sense for him to stay in the States.

As for those resolutely hoping to see the teenage star ply his trade in the Premier League sometime in the near future, they may be forced to wait a while. The refusal to grant team-mate Juan Agudelo a work permit for his move to Stoke City has highlighted how wholly convoluted the process can be and, with Fagúndez possibly not playing international football (a crucial requisite) for the next few years, that poses an obvious problem.

The reason he may not be playing international football has nothing to do with talent of course – both the U.S. and Uruguay want him – but simply nationality law. Fagúndez has stated he’d prefer to play for the United States national team and recently received his green card, which is the first step toward becoming a U.S. citizen. That process however takes five years (unless he marries a citizen, in which case it’s three), meaning fall 2018 would theoretically be the earliest date Fagúndez could get his passport and thus suit up for the country he has called home for the past 13 years. There are also a number of stipulations (such as that he has to live in the U.S. for 30 months in those five years and cannot be outside the country for more than six months in a row) which could pose a potential problem if Fagúndez were to move to club outside MLS during that period. In the interim, having been called up to Uruguay’s youth teams in the past, Fagúndez could simply decide that the wait just isn’t worth it and go with the country of his birth – much to the chagrin of many American fans no doubt. It wouldn’t be a Giuseppe Rossi-style betrayal but it’s a scenario which would undoubtedly leave a fair few supporters upset.

While Fagúndez’s national team future may currently be hazy, if he continues to build on the form he has demonstrated in 2013 then it’s surely not a matter of if, but when, big European clubs come calling for his services. For now though, the player some have dubbed “the next Landon Donovan” is simply enjoying taking MLS by storm and fans should savour every moment of it while it lasts.

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