Teen star Diego Fagundez a driving force for New England Revolution's playoff hopes

Most high school kids dream of playing in the pros.

Few get to say they already do.

Diego Fagundez's astronomical rise to MLS stardom is a something of anomaly in a country where teenagers are often considered too young to turn pro, but also an inspiration to a generation of aspiring soccer players.

The Revolution’s first-ever Homegrown Player, Fagundez signed a senior contract in November 2010 at the age of 15. After spending the spring and early summer of 2011 playing reserve-team and US Open Cup matches, he moved to the first team full-time that July. In a glimpse of what was to come, he scored in his MLS debut less than a month later.

Now 18 years old and in his third year with the club, Fagundez has become the fresh face of a franchise leaning forward into the future. His exciting, composed, technical play has won over fans, while his signature (sometimes colorful) Mohawk has turned him into a heartthrob among the club’s young female following. 

“Right away, what stood out to me was his innate ability, his instincts and awareness of the game,” says Revolution coach Jay Heaps. “He’s playing and moving. That's what he does best. He can receive on the run without breaking stride. Those are things you just can’t teach.

“Last year, he may have been a little inconsistent, and maybe he relied on those instincts too much. This season, the real change has been his commitment to all the little things that make a professional a better player.”

The rest of the league has certainly taken notice, too. Fagundez, who was recently ranked No. 5 in MLSsoccer.com’s 24 Under 24 series, and was featured on NBC Sports’ MLS 36 (above), can no longer be simply considered an emerging talent.

Heading into a huge matchup Saturday against the Montreal Impact (2:30 pm ET, MLS Live in US, TSN/RDS in Canada) and with a shot at the first playoff appearance of his career within sight, he is on the verge of establishing himself as one of the best players in the league.

And he still lives with his parents in his childhood home.

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Fagundez and teammate Kelyn Rowe have scored a combined 19 of the team's 44 goals this season for the Revolution

(USA Today Sports)

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So far this season, Fagundez is fifth in the league in goals, with 12. He has appeared in every single league match for the Revolution since the end of April, starting 25 of their last 27 matches. His six assists are second on the team.

“I honestly don't know if I was expecting to get so many starts,” says Fagundez, who started in eight of 20 appearances last year. “But once I started getting more minutes, the confidence boosted up. Then the first goal came, then the second, and my confidence kept going higher.”

To put Fagundez’s achievements this year into perspective, no other teenager has ever scored 10 goals in a season, and no Revs player of any age has scored this many goals since Taylor Twellman finished with 16 in 2007.

Fagundez has already tied Eddie Gaven's MLS record of 16 goals as a teenager, and Freddy Adu, arguably the most famous teen to ever play in MLS, scored only 13 league goals over four years before he went on his worldwide soccer odyssey.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Fagundez’s emergence, however, is the bigger picture his success represents, and what this means for how MLS teams find and develop young talent in this country.

For years, MLS tried taking a page out of the playbooks for the NFL, NBA and MLB, who primarily use a conveyor belt of pro-ready talent emerging from the collegiate level. But it simply wasn’t so cut and dried with soccer. Throughout the rest of the world, soccer talent is identified at a young age and the most promising players routinely begin playing with the men in their late teens.

Thanks to the recent emergence of MLS clubs’ youth academies, young players in the US and Canada have been presented with an alternative way to advance their careers other than through college, most notably 2010 Rookie of the Year Andy Najar and former New York Red Bulls youth phenom Juan Agudelo, both of whom have inked contracts with European teams.

And then there’s Fagundez, the latest and perhaps best in an increasingly long line of talented players to make good on a chance in the academy system.

“I feel lucky to have had the opportunity I did,” said Fagundez, whose family emigrated from Uruguay to Massachusetts when he was five. “If I didn't join the Revs [Academy] at 14, maybe I wouldn’t be where I am now. Maybe I would still be bouncing around youth clubs and not make it as professional at all. If not for them, I definitely wouldn't be here now.”

The debate over how and when to groom young talent is not, however, eschewing the importance of education. Plenty of the league’s best players ascended from the college ranks (Fagundez’s teammate Andrew Farrell is a Rookie of the Year frontrunner after three seasons with Louisville) but there’s no such thing as a traditional path to the pros anymore given the US’ diverse talent pool — both culturally and economically — of aspiring soccer players.

“That's one thing I tell everyone,” said Fagundez, who is on track to get his high school diploma in January. “You don’t have to be thinking, ‘OK, I’m going to go to high school, then college, then maybe make it as a pro,’ anymore. It doesn’t have to be that straight line.

“If you are good enough, you can now go from high school to turning pro. Or you can be like Scotty Caldwell (a rookie Revolution midfielder, who worked his way into the starting XI this year after a standout career at Akron). Maybe you don’t have the experience yet, so he went to college, did well, and won a national championship. For him that was what was right. For me, I wouldn’t say I was ready, but I was ready to take that step.”

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Fagundez has become a captivating star for the Revolution's fans, especially the teeanged crowd at Gillette Stadium.

(USA Today Sports)

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It hasn’t by any means been an easy path for Fagundez, however. By the time he was a sophomore, his professional career became so time-consuming that he had to take a different path to earning his diploma.

He began taking night classes, online classes, and worked with tutors. He changed high schools so that he could take an alternative curriculum that allowed him to bypass the normal school day. He has studied for tests in hotel rooms, and written papers for English class during road trips.

His most recent essay, for example, was coincidentally about The Outsiders, the 1967 coming-of-age novel written by S.E. Hilton when she was just 18 years old.

“It just pushes me to get school over with faster, that’s for sure,” says Fagundez, who adds that gets playfully teased by his older teammates about doing his homework. “But it’s always been a priority for me, my family, and the team to get my diploma.”

According to Heaps, Fagundez getting his diploma has been a major priority of the club from the beginning.

“His signing was a big deal for the club,” the Revs’ head coach says. “Part of making it work was the importance of his finishing high school because we want the kid to have every opportunity to succeed not only on the field, but in life. He’s had to learn over time how to balance the two. But it obviously hasn't taken away from his progression on the field.”

When asked about the biggest difficulty adapting to life as a pro, Fagundez’s answer is one of the few times his age becomes obvious. It wasn’t the speed of play, the duration of the season, or even physicality of the league — although bulking up from 125 pounds when he was signed to 150 now was no easy trick.

Driving himself to training — which takes an hour each way — takes its toll on him. For the first two years he was with the senior team, he didn’t have his license, so his parents drove him to and from training.

“Before, I’d just sleep in the car and get an extra couple of hours sleep,” he says. “Getting used to waking up, driving alone, and then driving back has definitely been the hardest thing.”

An ongoing joke among Revolution staff is that when they see Diego’s father, Washington, or mother, Alicia Pepe, at the nearby Dunkin Donuts, they know that the young son is probably the only player who needed a ride from a parent to make it to practice.

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If the Revs make the playoffs, the trio of (from left) Andrew Farrell, Fagundez and Juan Agudelo will have the last laugh.

(USA Today Sports)

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With all of Fagundez’s success, it’s hard to project his potential trajectory over the next few years. For the immediate future, his priorities lie on continuing his growth as a player with the Revolution.

But Fagundez has already had to field questions about where his international allegiances lie, and diplomatically, he’s left the door open for both his native Uruguay and the US.

“My parents have never pressured me,” Fagundez says. “My dad’s happy with the US He always tells me if I get the opportunity with the US, that I should take it and that it can’t hurt. It’ll only help me get better. If I wait for one, I may never get the chance for either.”

Heaps, for his part, doesn’t see it as a matter of if, but when European clubs and national teams come calling.

“I think everything is on the table for this kid,” Heaps said. “He continues to get better and hopefully he continues that trajectory. That's the key. Can he continue to perform for a few years? Then all those things — Europe, what national team, it all comes into play.”

For now, however, Fagundez is just enjoying the ride.

After all, he’s the one with the keys.