When Daniel Pereira first arrived in Roanoke, Va., from his native Venezuela, he wasn’t quite sure what to make of American soccer culture. At 15 years old, just a freshman, Pereira entered his first tryout for the Northside High soccer team without knowing what the varsity and junior varsity teams even were.
When he was handed a slip at the end of the day that told him he made the varsity team, he had no idea of its significance.
“All the guys were like, ‘Oh my god, you made varsity as a freshman,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know what this means,’” Pereira says.
Five years later, Pereira is a bit more aware of his surroundings, even if he’s still treading new ground. He made history when he was selected first overall in the 2021 MLS SuperDraft by expansion club Austin FC, becoming the first Venezuelan-born player (and first South American player, for that matter) to be the draft’s top choice. Moreover, he was the first selection of a club vying to win over its city with an authentic brand and exciting style of soccer.
In another moment of transition, playing at a higher level in an unfamiliar city with new teammates, Pereira will try to do what he’s always done: let his play speak for him.
Pereira’s journey to Austin began in his hometown of Caracas, where he first played soccer in kindergarten, around five years old. His half-brother, Alexei, is seven years older. That didn’t stop a young Daniel from tagging along to play pickup with him and his older friends. The much older boys would push him around a little on the pitch, but Daniel’s fervor for the game only grew from those times with his brother.
“I was good, obviously not at their level, but at a level that I would keep up, so they would let me play with them,” Pereira says.
Pereira progressed through the youth ranks of his hometown club Deportivo la Guaira, playing all the way through the under-16 squad. Then, two weeks after his 15th birthday, his life was upended.
With Venezuela in economic and political turmoil, his parents decided to move their small family to the United States in search of stability. That meant the teenaged Pereira would leave his club, friends and the comforts of home behind.
“I was a kid. I was 15; I have all my friends. I was going to a country that I didn’t speak the language,” he says. “It was a big challenge for me and my parents as well.”
Alexei had previously moved to Roanoke to live near an aunt. So over the summer of 2015, Pereira and his parents packed their bags and made the journey 2,000 miles north to join Alexei at their new home.
A four-year letterman at Northside, Pereira lived up to his freshman-year hype. He rose up the recruiting ranks as one of the top players in the area, earning a visit from longtime Virginia Tech coach Mike Brizendine.
Brizendine showed up to a club team event where Pereira was playing on just a quarter of a field under temporary lighting. The coach's first impression of the young Venezuelan was, well, underwhelming.
“I got there, he’s not that big,” Brizendine says. “He’s kind of messing around. It’s like man, he has something, but I don’t know.”
Then, a switch flipped. Pereira dribbled past his entire team and scored, flashing his quickness and technique. Then, back to his laid-back demeanor, laughing and joking with his teammates. Brizendine explained that it made his recruitment difficult, not seeing Pereira in ideal circumstances, but Virginia Tech extended a scholarship offer three weeks later nonetheless.
In another setting where he had to adapt, Pereira adjusted quickly to the college game. He became a regular starter early in his freshman year. By the end of the season, he was one of the Hokies’ most important players.
“At the end of the year, he was running the team in his play … he was calling the shots,” Brizendine says.
It was toward the end of that five-goal, five-assist freshman season that Brizendine realized how special a player he had on his hands. Playing box-to-box at a variety of midfield positions, Pereira showed off a natural feel for the game and technique that most freshmen didn’t possess.
“In all my years of coaching here at Tech, almost 20 years, I’ve never seen a young man as quick as him,” Brizendine says. “His first three steps are electric.”
After his solid freshman year and an abbreviated sophomore season, Pereira decided to move on to the professional ranks. He was one of the top prospects heading into draft day—an almost surefire top-10 pick.
Almost all the buzz around Austin FC’s first overall selection leading up to the SuperDraft was surrounding Clemson midfielder Philip Mayaka, but Austin FC sporting director Claudio Reyna uttered Pereira’s name instead (Mayaka went third to Colorado). It was a surprise pick, even for the selection himself, who says he was caught off guard. The announcement sent him and his family into pandemonium, with Pereira rising out of his seat to hug parents and Brizendine clapping jubilantly behind him.
“He’s a very hungry, humble player,” Austin FC head coach Josh Wolff told the broadcast after the selection. He’d better be—the club already has a stable of veteran midfielders poised to compete for valuable minutes on the pitch.
In December, the club traded for fourth-year midfielder Ulises Segura from DC United. Days later, it made a move for NYCFC midfielder Alex Ring, a box-to-box player who has started 112 MLS matches and seven playoff games. And in January, Austin signed former New England Revolution player Diego Fagundez. The 26-year-old Uruguayan played 10 years in Foxborough, racking up 53 goals and 45 assists. Austin didn’t stop loading in the midfield there, making its most significant addition and spending Designated Player money on Argentine attacking midfielder Tomas Pochettino in February.
The transition to the professional game is sure to provide a steep learning curve, as Pereira says he already sees the difference in physicality just in training. He’ll have to work his way into a crowded rotation, too, with the preseason matches against MLS competition that kick off this weekend a good place as any to start. But history tells us it won’t take long before Daniel Pereira fits right in.