HANOVER, N.J. — As an energetic kid growing up in the Bronx, Omir Fernandez marveled at what his idol Cristiano Ronaldo could do with the ball, as well as the energy and passion in stadiums he witnessed upon watching games on TV.
This is what he wanted to do, he decided. The path, though, wasn’t quite clear yet.
Fernandez traveled to Queens where he played for Blau-Weiss Gotschee, one of the oldest and most respected youth programs in New York. There he earned invites to US U-14 camps, meeting Tyler Adams for the first time.
Adams told him that the New York Red Bulls were starting a U-14 team and the coach at the time, Jeff Zaun, thought Fernandez would be a good fit. Adams served as the intermediary, giving Fernandez Zaun’s phone number.
With his father, Omir, Fernandez traveled to the Red Bulls training facility and saw a completely different environment.
“It was really different. I was at a place where if you couldn't make it to practice, it was kind of okay. It wasn't held to a standard like it was here,” Fernandez told MLSsoccer.com. “Seeing that really impacted the way I thought about the game and how much I matured as a player. I saw so many kids staying after practice, kids coming early, how much it meant to them. And it made me realize how much it meant to me as well. It gave me all the materials I needed to succeed. It was just up to me.”
Fernandez said the daily roundtrip was more of a grind for him than his father, who never complained about sacrificing to help his son toward his dream.
“My dad really didn't think about coming from work, straight after that not eating and then going to practice every day. He never thought about that,” the former All-American at Wake Forest said. “He just thought about the opportunity. And I was so young. I was just like, so much to do, so much work, but he never thought about it like that. He just wanted me to embrace the opportunity. And he knew what could happen in a place like this.”
What happened was Fernandez climbed the RBNY academy ladder. It’s what makes Fernandez’s current spot, as the 21st Homegrown signing in club history, even more special.
Fernandez has scored in back-to-back MLS games, started three times and appeared as a substitute in seven more. He said a lot of clubs talk about building through their academy, but there’s a lot of lip service. At Red Bull, it’s part of their ethos.
“I feel like this is a place that's so much different than every other place. This is actually a club that prides themselves in giving people an opportunity if you want to work hard,” Fernandez said. “From a young age, I noticed that, you know, with being moved up to higher categories with the U-16s and the U-18s. They wanted to give the young guys an opportunity if we worked hard, and I was for sure going to work hard to make my dream come true.”
Being from the Bronx, though, what would have happened if New York City FC had a U-14 team at the time he joined the Red Bulls?
“I don't know. I'm not gonna lie,” he said. “Because I'm pretty sure Gotschee started partnering with NYCFC. At a young age, we never cared about the distance. My dad never really cared about how far something was. But we probably would have given them both a shot and whichever I felt more comfortable, but then again I'm glad that didn't happen because I'm really happy where I'm at here."