FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The sensational stats, game-winning goals and accolades have all made it a season to remember for 18-year-old Diego Fagundez. Conversely, they’ve also made it easy to forget some of the hurdles he cleared along the way.
Despite scoring a team-high 13 goals (the highest season total for a teenager in MLS history), collecting seven assists (second on the team) and garnering the Team MVP award, it’s worth noting that Fagundez wasn’t even a starter back in March.
In the club’s first five games, Fagundez saw only 96 combined minutes worth of action. He didn’t even step onto the pitch in three of them. Adding insult to insult, the club was mired in a scoring slump, which left Fagundez’s exclusion from the lineup even more perplexing.
But instead of allowing frustration to creep in and take over, Fagundez went with the only recourse afforded to him since signing his first pro contract at age 15: He busted his tail behind the scenes.
He not only earned that spot -- he grabbed a hold of it and never let it go. After the Revolution suffered a humiliating 4-1 loss at New York on Apr. 20, Fagundez’s influence in a 2-0 win over Philadelphia was undeniable. He not only scored the opening goal and put the Revolution on course toward a desperately-needed three points, but his play altered the team’s style of play -- and for the better.
Prior to the victory, Fagundez was often slotted as a withdrawn forward/central attacking midfielder, which may not have best suited either the player or the club. But stationed out the wing, with a certain amount of freedom to find opportunities, it all suddenly clicked.
“We had him in a couple of different areas on the field (previously),” Heaps said. “He is someone that we finally said, 'This is the formation that we're going with,' and he was a big part of that formation (change). (It’s) how we wanted to play, and he was a big part of that.”
Heaps abandoned the traditional 4-4-2 formation in favor of a more dynamic 4-1-4-1. And it wasn’t long before Fagundez put the rest of the league on notice as a result.
Shortly after scoring his first goal of the season against Philadelphia, the teenage midfielder scored in four straight games between May 11 and Jun. 2. He assisted in two straight not long after, and helped cast the Revolution in an unfamiliar role: that of postseason contender.
Yet, just as impressive as his summer was shaping up to be, Fagundez admitted he hit a few speed bumps along the way.
As the Revolution slid into a midsummer funk, the youngster felt the pressure to do it all himself. Instead of looking for open teammates or space to operate, he went to goal full-throttle, sometimes with reckless abandonment. During a four-game stretch between mid-July and mid-August, he was dropped from the lineup.
"There were moments in which I was getting frustrated in which I just couldn't score a couple of goals or do anything well,” Fagundez said. “But, I needed to keep working hard and, from there, just move on."
And that’s exactly what he did. Two weeks after 3-0 humbling in Kansas City, Fagundez spearheaded the offense against Philadelphia. He scored a goal and added two assists en route to a 5-1 rout of the same club he found his groove against earlier in the season.
But even though his scoring prowess has done well to steer the Revolution toward its first postseason berth in four years, Heaps actually has a different take on what’s made Fagundez so successful this season.
“He sees how important it is to defend because a lot of his attacks are coming from when he's defending,” Heaps said. “He's engaged, and his breaks where he's receiving the ball are much more dangerous than if he's just out wide, or if he's just up top. He really realizes that his game has gotten much better because of how hard he plays both ways."
One person who Fagundez credits for helping him a more versatile player is Revolution captain Jose Goncalves. When Goncalves arrived in Foxborough this winter, Fagundez almost immediately gravitated toward him as he sought insight on how he could become a better player.
“At the start of the season, he was not a starter,” Goncalves said. “But I kept letting him know that he has to work hard and wait for his chance - and once you get the chance, don't leave it (out there).”
Goncalves also gave Fagundez an important piece of advice: Ignore those who say that there’s plenty of time to develop. The time is now, regardless of how young you are.
“When you want to play, and you are good enough, there is no young or old. There is only quality,” Goncalves said. “He realized that, and he took his chance and did well. He never gives up.”
That attitude has carried Fagundez and his teammates to the brink of its first postseason berth in four years. While Fagundez has never been one to rest his laurels on individual achievements, he couldn’t help but take stock of his season in the days leading up the Saturday’s season finale at Columbus.
"I am a little surprised,” Fagundez said. “But I knew that if I worked hard, I could get anything done and everything's possible. So, it was nice to come into this season and do what I did."