CARSON, Calif. – The first impression Sueño MLS coaches had of Baltazar Duran as the national finals kicked off last week in Southern California was how quiet he appeared.
The second impression: This kid is good.
The 15-year-old winger from Cicero, Ill., made a huge splash in the first game the 18 Sueño MLS survivors played in Los Angeles, putting an otherwise dominant Chivas USA on their heels with his runs up the left wing in a 2-0 loss to the Goats' Under-17 Academy team.
Alfonso Mondelo, who as MLS' director of player services coached the Sueño MLS side, and his staff were wowed by Duran's performance, then watched how he handled adversity as he struggled two days later against a U-17 team affiliated with the LA Galaxy.
He was an easy choice as one of three finalists for this year's Sueño MLS honor – along with midfielder Miguel Acosta of San Diego and defender Isaac Arellano of Las Vegas – which will be announced in Miami on Univision's Republica Deportiva telecast Sunday afternoon, and at least one of the coaches believes Duran, who hopes for an opportunity to join the Chicago Fire's Academy, is the frontrunner in the annual talent search's ninth edition.
He might have seemed shy to start the week, but once he'd made his mark against Chivas USA, he opened up.
“Baltazar, who's going to win this thing, in my opinion, was so quiet,” said former US national team and MLS star Eric Wynalda, who was part of the Sueño MLS staff. “I saw the videos of him talking, when he was announced [as one of six qualifiers at the tryouts] in Chicago, and for him to get where he is now from where he was from – just to watch him eat dinner, watch him entertain the group – his personality just came flying out.”
Duran is a left winger by trade, but he played primarily at left back for the Sueño MLS team, and if he seemed a little lost to start things off, a little advice from Wynalda lit a fire in him.
“Balta wanted to play,” Wynalda said after last Thursday's game. “The reason for that is because we were telling him to go every time. He's never played left back in his life, so I said, 'We don't care if we get scored on, what we do care about is if you can provide us a little cover and show us what you're all about.' And he looked pretty good.”
Duran, who plays for Dynamic FC in Cicero, says his performance during the week grew from the comfort he felt once he got to know his fellow Sueño MLS competitors.
“I got to know everybody; I was comfortable with everybody,” he said. “It just felt like a team I've been with a long time. I had confidence with my team, and I tried my best. [Making the cutdown to three players] means a lot. It shows hard work does pay off.”
His signature moment was a run up the flank from midfield into the attacking third against Chivas USA, in which he beat three defenders on the line, then took on three more, beating them, too.
“[He was shy] until somebody said, 'Hey, kid, you're good,’” Wynalda said. “I think he realized, 'Hey, I can do this,' right in the middle of this thing. And we had some fun in the Chivas game. Obviously, he was the standout, and there were reasons for that. It was funny when he came jogging back [from a successful run] and said, 'Hey, coach, it worked.'”
Things didn't come so easy all week for Duran, who struggled at times against LA Galaxy South Bay Navy Boys U-17 two days later on StubHub Center's stadium field. He had some uncharacteristic giveaways and made few sprints into the attack.
That helped illuminate another of his dimensions. He kept pushing, improving as the match went on, never letting the errors bother him.
“We worked on that,” Wynalda said. “We called it convenient amnesia. I love convenient amnesia. You cannot focus on what's happened, you have to focus on the next play. It's part of the game. It's a turnover sport, and once we get to the point where we realize that, it makes the game go so much easier.”
Duran, the seventh of Adolfo and Silvia Duran's eight children, says his teammates and coaches at Dynamic FC share in his Sueño MLS success.
“If it wasn't for them, I probably would have quit soccer,” he said. “They always told me to keep my head up and always focus because they knew I had potential to be someone. They got me where I'm supposed to be. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be here.”