Baltazar Duran was happy just to be among the final three contenders for this year's Sueño MLS honor, so when the announcement that he'd won Major League Soccer's annual talent search arrived Sunday afternoon at Univision's Miami studios, he almost couldn't believe it.
The 15-year-old midfielder from Cicero, Ill., was “happy, surprised, emotional,” when he was given the trophy on the Republica Deportiva telecast, but the real reward will be the opportunity to win a spot in the Chicago Fire's Academy.
If his name hadn't been called – if the award would have gone instead to midfielder Miguel Acosta of San Diego or defender Isaac Arellano of Las Vegas, Nev. – Duran still would have been ecstatic.
“I was happy because I was one of the top three,” he told MLSsoccer.com afterward. “I was with two of the people I met, and they were amazing. They became, like, a part of me. They mean a lot to me.”
Duran, who plays for Dynamic FC and attends Morton Freshman Center in Cicero, prevailed thanks to his dynamic play at left back during the final week of the competition, which wrapped up last weekend in Southern California.
“The decision, it was hard, because all three finalists are good players,” said longtime Mexican star Pavel Pardo, a Sueño MLS coach who finished his career with the Fire. “We're happy for Baltazar because he's strong, he's fast, he has good technique also, and he can play on defense and can play also as an outside midfielder.
“What I said to him: This is the beginning as a professional. The beginning to be a soccer player.”
Duran, Acosta and Arellano advanced a week ago from the national finals in Los Angeles, where 15 field players and three goalkeepers who survived tryouts organized by Orlando City SC, the LA Galaxy and the Chicago Fire gathered to train and play two matches under a staff led by Alfonso Mondelo, MLS's director of player programs.
Eduardo Muñoz, a former Chivas de Guadalajara academy goalkeeper who moved last month to Lafayette, Ind., last week won the Portero Allstate award as the annual talent search's top netminder.
The Sueño MLS winner previously was revealed at the same time as the Portero Allstate honoree, but Univision this year wanted to bring three finalists to their studios in Florida for the announcement. Sunday's telecast included profiles of Duran, Acosta and Arellano filmed in their homes and neighborhoods.
Acosta had an emotional reunion of sorts with his parents, whom he hasn't seen since they were deported to his native Mexico nearly six years ago. They were on satellite from Tijuana and spoke tearfully about their son, who told them he loved them.
Duran was accompanied by his mother, Silvia, and Arellano by his family.
Duran impressed the coaching staff, which also included former US striker Eric Wynalda and former Mexican international goalkeeper Martin Zuniga, with his attacking runs on the left flank in the Sueño MLS side's first match, a 2-0 loss to Chivas USA's U-16 academy team. His run through six defenders was a highlight in that game.
Acosta, who came through the LA Galaxy's sessions, impressed immediately with his skills, and he capped the five-day camp with a run past five defenders to set up a goal in the Sueño MLS team's 2-1 victory over an under-17 team affiliated with the Galaxy, the final test of the competition.
Arellano, who excelled in the win over LA Galaxy South Bay Navy Boys U-17, was selected captain of the Sueño MLS side in recognition of his leadership skills and the heart with which he plays the game. He was one of 25 second-day players at the Galaxy's sessions but failed to advance, so he tried out again in Chicago and made it to the final week.
“All three can be professionals, because they have the characteristics,” Pardo said Sunday. “The courage that Isaac has, he's one that you want to be successful. And Miguel was one of the best. He wants to play in the United States to make his dream, and living far away from your parents is not easy, but he's a good man.
“I have to say they're all good boys, good persons, and that's the most you can be, a good person.”
The summit of the Sueño MLS experience, Duran said, was making new friends and receiving advanced instruction.
“The best part was meeting my team: the players I got to play with, and the coaches, who taught me a lot,” he said. “They were great. They talked about their lives, how it was hard and not easy [to become professionals], how you've always got to keep it up. How every second is worth it, and how, no matter your ability, you have to try your best. It was great to play with the teams and learn how a pro plays.”