With all due respect to Roanoke and its youth clubs, the Southwest Virginia town is not known as a soccer hotbed. A local population of about 100,000 residents provides a limited talent pool and the nearest top-tier academies are several hours to the north and west in Richmond and Washington, D.C.
That didn’t stop Daniel Pereira.
Showcasing himself as best he could as a dominant, do-everything midfielder for Northside High School and VBR Star SC, the Venezuelan transplant beat the odds just to earn a Division I scholarship from nearby Virginia Tech, and now he’s gone a step further as the No. 1 overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft 2021 presented by adidas, selected by Austin FC after just two NCAA seasons.
Watch: Austin FC select Daniel Pereira as No. 1 pick
It’s an incredible rise for a 20-year-old who arrived on these shores barely five years ago, escaping the chaos and dysfunction of his homeland with his parents and brother in search of a better life.
“We heard about it, and we’re living it, me and my parents – that's what my mom talks about the most. Every interview she gets, she talks about the American Dream,” Pereira told MLSsoccer.com earlier this month. “How it's real, that we're living it.”
Daniel spoke little English when they emigrated and had to adapt quickly when he was plunked down in a totally new environment. Soccer proved a crucial means to doing so. He’d honed his skills as a member of the youth academy at Venezuelan top-flight club Deportivo la Guaira, and his dedication to the craft kept his development on course, even tucked away in the hills and valleys of Appalachia.
“I always had it in my mind, even back in Venezuela. I always wanted to be a pro,” Pereira explained. “When I moved here I knew soccer wasn’t big here, at least the area where I was at. I just didn't care, to be honest, I just tried to play as best as I could.”
Recruited by several of his state’s top D1 programs, future Orlando City star Daryl Dike hosted him on a campus visit to the University of Virginia, and the two hit it off, building a friendship even after Pereira picked the Cavaliers’ rivals in Blacksburg. When Dike moved on to MLS and flourished as a rookie last year, it drew Pereira’s attention to the league – and strengthened his own confidence in making a similar leap.
Watch: Austin FC head coach Josh Wolff explains why they picked Daniel Pereira
He kept chasing that vision even as COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the planet in 2020. When the Atlantic Coast Conference decided to press on with an abbreviated fall season, it gave Pereira and his Hokies teammates a vital chance at further exposure to professional scouts, though at the cost of a stringent testing and social distancing routine not unlike what MLS players experienced.
“We were really grateful,” he said. “[COVID] testing three times each week, in the mornings at 6 am, this is challenging, just because you wake up early, go get tested for 10 minutes and then you go back to sleep. Then you got class like two hours later … it's challenging but that's what we signed up for being a student-athlete. It was a good year, we got our season in, we had a great run.”
After the season’s end, he and his family waited anxiously for news of a Generation adidas contract offer from MLS. That stress pales in comparison to the limbo they find themselves in when it comes to gaining asylum status from the U.S. government, however, yet another process that’s been disrupted by the pandemic.
“It was going at a good pace, the whole asylum thing,” said Pereira, whose extended family has been scattered to Brazil, Canada, Panama, Spain and points further afield by the agonizing collapse of Venezuela’s society and economy. “But my mom told me that COVID slowed down everything … It could be tomorrow, it could be in 10 years. We just don't know.”
Though some of his pre-draft conversations with MLS technical staffs included the prospect of a positional shift to fullback, he’s most comfortable as a box-to-box center mid, influencing the game on both sides of the ball. Joining expansion side Austin FC in their debut season may well give him a chance to stake his claim to significant playing time out of the gates.
“I still can't believe it, that I signed and I’m in MLS,” he said with a small shake of his head. “I'm about to play against people that I’ve watched since I was young. [Carlos] Vela, big-time players in MLS, big-time players that are going to come to MLS.
“That's always been my goal, and I'm glad I got to make it.”