Diego Fagundez is leading a revolution in New England
NBC Sports Network recently shot an episode of its MLS:36 series featuring the New Revolution's Diego Fagundez. When it airs, viewers will likely catch a glimpse of a painting hanging in the player's bedroom that depicts club legends Alexi Lalas, Taylor Twellman and on the right -- portrayed as if he's about to blow a kiss to the crowd -- the documentary subject himself.
The artist, a Revs season ticket holder named Prairie Rose Clayton, explained on her website that each member of the trio was the "face of the team" at some point in its 18-year history. That's quite a lot to pin on Fagundez, an 18-year-old forward. He's still several months shy of earning his high school diploma and has all of 24 MLS starts to his credit.
But when one considers the desperation of the typical New England soccer fan, Clayton's painting isn't all that surprising. The Revolution, one of MLS's original teams, first tormented the locals with four MLS Cup final losses in six years. In recent seasons, it left supporters longing for those near misses. As competing clubs added big-name players and built gorgeous new stadiums, New England slid down the standings and into irrelevance. There have been three consecutive seasons without playoff soccer, and from 2009 through 2012 an average of only 13,159 fans per game showed up at cavernous, out-of-the-way Gillette Stadium.
Midway through the 2013 season, however, a teenager from nearby Leominster, Mass. has become a symbol of hope for the long-suffering denizens of The Fort. Fagundez is the leading scorer (five goals, four assists) for the 6-5-6 Revs, who are finding the net at a higher rate than in any season since 2008. With a win over the visiting Houston Dynamo on Saturday evening, New England will climb into playoff position.
"When I was in the broadcast booth [before becoming coach in November 2011], all I did was study games, looking at every team, over and over, how they were playing, how they were successful," said Revolution coach Jay Heaps. "I just felt there were style options that were fun to watch but that give you the chance to do both, to get three points and outplay teams. ... When you have more players who can play the game and take risks, you're going to have more opportunities to win in the long run."
And so Heaps, a hard-nosed, athletic defender who rarely was accused of playing with style, has built his squad around skillful players who are comfortable in multiple spots in a mobile and dynamic front five. It's an approach that's slowly changing the perception of Revolution soccer and which is proving to be pretty fun to watch -- which matters as the group gels and learns to win.
Fagundez is the youngest of a midfield/forward corps whose average age is a long way from 30. Juan Agudelo is 20 and Kelyn Rowe is 21, while Saer Sène, Jerry Bengtson and Lee Nguyen are each 26. Colombian Juan Toja is the grizzled vet of the bunch at 28.
Heaps frequently tinkers with the lineup, in large part because he can. Fagundez initially played up top but now is attacking from wider, more withdrawn positions. He often switches sides during a game. He has four goals and four assists in his past eight MLS matches, during which the Revs are 4-1-3.
"They're interchangeable. They penetrate. They like to receive the ball in different ways," Heaps said. "You can do more and more damage when it's unexpected."
Heaps lauded Fagundez's attacking instincts, his knack for connecting with teammates and his ability to receive the ball in stride and accelerate in a manner reminiscent of a young Landon Donovan. Heaps also mentioned his player's increasingly professional commitment to the physical and mental work required off the field.
"When he's in his zone, there's nobody better on our team," the coach said.
Such command and confidence in such a young player suggests that soccer is in his DNA, and it is. Fagundez's father, Washington, was a professional goalkeeper for Central Español in Uruguay, where Diego was born in 1995. The family moved to Massachusetts when Diego was five, and he began starring for local travel clubs soon thereafter. The elder Fagundez was -- and remains -- a constant, supportive and sometimes critical presence. Diego's first taste of MLS came when a family friend began taking him to see the Revolution in Foxborough.
"I remember they had legends. Taylor Twellman, one of the top scorers in MLS. He's one of the players I remember watching and thinking, 'Oh my God, he's good.' José Cancela was another one. He's from Uruguay, so I'd try to meet with him," Fagundez recalled. "When I was 12, maybe 13, I remember being on autograph alley and saying to my Dad, 'Someday I'll be on that side signing.'"
He joined the Revolution's youth academy in 2009, signed a pro contract in the fall of 2010 and made his MLS debut in August of the following year against Chivas USA. Naturally, Fagundez scored a goal. He has continued to juggle his nascent professional career with school and is currently working on completing his high school studies at an evening alternative program in Fitchburg, where math is his favorite subject.
"If you think about it, soccer is all about angles," he said. "Your runs, how hard you want to pass the ball or the way you want to shoot it. If you're pretty good at math, you can figure things out on the field."
Told that he sounds a bit like legendary Dutch player Johan Cruyff, Fagundez suggests that the number 14 he wears on the back of his jersey is "probably meant to be."
Talent brought him this far. Dedication comes next. Heaps said that he likes what he's seeing so far from Fagundez.
"He loves the game. If he's not watching a game on TV, if he's not playing, he's playing a [soccer] video game. If we're on a trip and I haven't given him a little film to watch, he's playing PlayStation on one of those little small things," the 36-year-old coach said.
"More so this year, there's been a commitment to buy into preparation, into how much film can make you better. Someone like Diego, if he has more information about the guy he's paying against, it adds to his arsenal, his natural ability. He sits there and watches with us and every time I'll quiz him on certain things that came out of the film, and he has the answers. He knows exactly what we're talking about."
Heaps said the NBC crew was granted total access to Fagundez, who was shadowed in meetings, at home and even aboard the boat he recently bought (Fagundez signed a new contract in March that's guaranteed through 2014 and could keep him with the Revs through the 2017 campaign. He'll make around $127,000 this year.)
As a coach, the access made Heaps slightly uncomfortable. But Heaps the New England native, long-time Revolution defender and former broadcaster is a big fan of the idea.
"There are people out there who like the sport, but if they know who Diego is, that he lives at home with his parents and he's just finishing high school, those things have currency," Heaps said. "People need to know who he is. He's going to be a player that people should follow."
Both the U.S. Soccer Federation and the Uruguayan Football Association are already doing just that. Fagundez played with the U.S. Under-14 and -15 teams a few years back and last fall appeared in two friendlies for Uruguay's U-20 side, which will contest the FIFA U-20 World Cup final on Saturday. He's not yet a U.S. citizen and feels no pressure to determine his international future.
Heaps and the Revolution faithful have plenty of plans for him, either way. For the coach, Fagundez represents his club's renaissance and, perhaps, the future of American soccer. He's a player who combines pace and technique, who is comfortably and seamlessly multicultural and who came up through an MLS club's own developmental system. For the fans, he's a local lad made good who now galvanizes an increasingly likeable and competitive team.
Attendance at Gillette still lags, but interest in Fagundez is growing. He's doing more interviews. He's been captured on canvas and by NBC. Heaps revealed that his players now joke that if they want to get to their cars without any detours after a game, the best bet is to leave the locker room with Fagundez.
"There are 100 to 200 fans who want autographs," Heaps said. "They can use him as a decoy."
Fagundez relishes the attention. It's part of the life he's always wanted.
"I'm not a normal 18-year-old that does what other 18-year-olds do," he said. "I have a job to do and I need to get it done. You can get kicked out or you can get traded. I'm just trying to prove myself. I'm 18 and I'm here to play against the top players in MLS. I don't want them to talk to me as a little kid. I want them to talk to me as a player."