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Hard work pays off: Philadelphia Union's Leo Fernandes turning heads after strong start to 2014

CHESTER, Pa. – When Leo Fernandes learned that the Philadelphia Union had revamped their midfield in the offseason with three marquee acquisitions, the first thing he did was go to the gym.

His goal was simple: to get bigger, stronger and faster than he was during an uneven rookie season in which he didn’t have any goals or assists in 281 total minutes.

The results so far have been startling: in just 125 minutes, he’s currently tied for the team lead in goals and assists (one apiece) and is tied for second in shots (six) and shots on goal (three).

“In the offseason, I worked really hard,” Fernandes told reporters following Tuesday’s training. “It made me work even harder when I saw all of the midfielders come in. … Coaches told me to come in as fit as I can. I tried to be the fittest person on the team. I tried to get stronger, so I hit the gym a lot. I tried to get better on the ball technically. I tried to improve everything basically.”

His teammates certainly noticed the improvements, with some saying Fernandes was the best player on the team during the preseason. And other teams are now starting to take notice now, too.

One week after logging his first MLS assist, Fernandes scored his first career MLS goal after coming on as a second-half sub in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Columbus at Crew Stadium – and he very nearly bagged the equalizer too.

“He obviously has proven he belongs here this year,” Union manager John Hackworth said. “Preseason, he was definitely prepared for the opportunity he was given and he played well. I say it all the time, but players have to be ready for when they get their name called. Leo, early in the season, has gotten his name called twice and has played very well. It’s a great sign for him and a great sign for us, too.”

While it might be hard for Fernandes to work his way into the starting lineup of a crowded midfield that features, among others, the three newcomers that made him work so hard in the offseason – Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueira and Cristian Maidana – Hackworth noted that “you can put Leo in place of somebody else and not miss a beat.”

His teammates certainly seem to feel the same way, marveling at his progression from a shy, mostly overmatched rookie in 2013 to a confident attacker with a nose for goal in 2014.

And, in honor of his first MLS goal, they all signed the game ball from Columbus and presented it to him Monday.

“The kid’s been phenomenal,” center back Aaron Wheeler said. “There’s no other way to say it. He’s been an absolute gem. You can see it in training too – his confidence is at a different level right now.

“Hopefully it’s just the beginning.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.