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Saturday, August 13, 2011
Updated: August 15, 9:05 AM ET
Revs' teen phenom soaking it in

By Scott Barboza
ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- For most 16-year-olds, obtaining a driver's license ranks among the top moments of their young lives. But Diego Fagundez doesn't care much about that.

He has his learner's permit, but Fagundez hasn't yet taken the driver's-ed courses needed to apply for a license. So, for now, Fagundez, the 16-year-old striker for the New England Revolution, gets a ride from his parents to the team's training sessions at Gillette Stadium from the family home in Leominster, Mass.

The arrangement isn't so bad.

"I let my parents drive in the morning so I can sleep an extra hour on the way in," Fagundez said after a recent practice. "On the way back, I'll drive."

By all appearances, Fagundez is a regular teen. He sports a Mohawk that makes his 5-foot-8 frame (that's according to the Revolution's website; he looks more like 5-6) seem a few inches taller. After training, Fagundez returns home and typically picks up the Xbox controller to play "FIFA" or hangs out with friends who are on summer break. During the fall, Fagundez attends Leominster High School, where he'll enter his sophomore year in September. He doesn't play for the school soccer team, however.

He's a professional.

A little more than a year ago, Fagundez, then 15, was signed by the Revolution as a "Home Grown Player." He was the youngest player to sign with a Major League Soccer team since former teenage sensation Freddy Adu, who was drafted by D.C. United at age 14 in 2004.

Diego Fagundez
Diego Fagundez in his debut last week with the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium.

Last Saturday, Fagundez made his professional debut in the Revolution's 3-2 loss to Chivas USA at Gillette. He entered in the 66th minute and had an immediate impact. About two minutes into his pro career, Fagundez worked to earn a penalty kick, which Shalrie Joseph converted for a goal. Then in the 86th minute, Fagundez tallied his first goal. He fielded Kevin Alston's long arching pass, turned a Chivas defender inside out and beat goalkeeper Dan Kennedy with a left-footer.

It was the first step in what promises to be a long, successful career for Fagundez. However, for as much as things have come naturally to the teenage star, now the challenge begins.

"You look at teenage phenoms and some of them have hit their peaks at 15, 17 years old, then at 25, you never hear of them again," said Mike Burns, Revolution vice president of player personnel. "Some guys develop earlier and others develop later. Some guys that might not be as advanced at 17 might become a fantastic player by the time they're 25. You never know.

"We hope we have [Fagundez] on the right track so that he's not one of those kids you don't hear about 10 years from now."

That's the challenge posed to Diego Fagundez, and it's one he takes seriously.

He still hasn't made plans to take those driver's-ed classes. They take too much time -- time that would be taken away from training.

"I'll get around to it," Fagundez said of getting his license. "I'm just trying to focus on soccer right now."

Soccer a way of life

The source of Diego Fagundez's talent is apparent. His father, Washington, is a native of Uruguay and played professional soccer in his home country. He was a goalkeeper, most notably with Central Espanol, one of a host of teams in the nation's capital of Montevideo. Diego's mother, Alicia Pepe, also played club soccer.

Fagundez had a soccer ball at his feet from the time he was 2. He was playing organized soccer by 4, around the time he moved to the United States with his family. Washington Fagundez had taken his family on a trip to the United States to visit relatives, and they never left. The Fagundez family has now called Leominster home for more than a decade.

Diego played youth soccer in Leominster before joining the FC United and FC Greater Boston Bolts travel clubs. He chose not to play with the Leominster Blue Devils, instead playing with the Revolution's U-16 and U-18 academy teams. He signed his professional contract in November 2010. That ended his days of neighborhood pickup games with friends.

"I don't want to do anything to put me in danger," Fagundez said. "I'll play basketball in the gym with everybody else, but that's about it."

Life has changed for Fagundez in the past year, but his parents and the Revolution have tried to make the adjustment less drastic. His progression to playing in the MLS has been gradual. Most of Fagundez's time is spent with the academy teams. He also began playing in the Revolution's reserve league games (think of it as the JV to the varsity team).

Earlier this summer, Fagundez sat on the bench with the top team as the Revolution faced Manchester United, which happens to be his favorite club team. He didn't play in the match, but the experience of watching world-class footballers like Wayne Rooney from a close distance wasn't lost on the youngster.

For a few weeks before his MLS debut, Fagundez traveled with the team to road games. He also played in the Generation adidas U17 Cup in Frisco, Texas. Fagundez scored two goals and had an assist in four games. He then returned home with the Revolution to make his debut.

"He has a soccer brain, he's very technical," said Burns, the Marlborough, Mass., native and former Revolution defender. "He really has a high soccer IQ, he's a smart player. I think growing up with his family, his background, I have to think that was a big factor."

Fagundez is part of a new generation of American soccer players who have a whole new set of options available to them.

For those of Burns' generation, the natural progression for talented high school players was to play in college before turning pro. Burns was named Massachusetts High School Player of the Year in 1987 as a senior at Marlborough High. He went on to play at Hartwick College before playing with the U.S. Olympic team in 1992. Burns played professionally in Denmark before starting his MLS career, which included five seasons with New England.

Now, American soccer is undergoing a philosophical shift. Akin to their European counterparts, U.S. pro teams are developing homegrown talent through academy systems. Players are still required to get their education, but training in soccer is streamlined with a progression of instruction from the junior teams to the professional ranks.

"The U.S. soccer academy system, as a whole, we're still evolving," Burns said. "Compared to every other country, the emphasis on education here is extremely high so that it's rare that a 16- or a 17-year-old becomes a pro soccer player. It's very unique."

Fagundez's circumstances are more the exception than the rule, so Burns and his staff have made it a priority to not put too much pressure on him too soon. He's a 16-year-old kid, after all.

Fagundez isn't about to get ahead of himself, either.

"I'll get a couple yells every practice from the older players if I'm doing something wrong, need to work on something or I'm in the wrong place," said Fagundez, who cited Joseph and Argentine defender Franco Coria as mentors on the team. "They let me know how I'm doing."

Perhaps Fagundez's greatest asset is his willingness to learn.

"He goes out there and has fun, but he listens and he's respectful of the older guys he's around," Burns said. "He's taken a lot in, but he also has that confidence that's required to be a professional athlete."

Immediate impact

They were shouting his name before he was even in the game. The anticipation for Fagundez's debut had been building in the previous weeks as he began traveling with the team. With the Revolution trailing 2-0 to Chivas, Fagundez's entry provided a spark to a club desperately searching for a boost on offense. The Revolution have scored a league-low 25 goals this season.

We hope we have [Fagundez] on the right track so that he's not one of those kids you don't hear about 10 years from now.

-- Mike Burns, Revolution vice president of player personnel

A chorus of "Diego! Diego! Diego!" welcomed him onto the field.

"I was so excited, I couldn't believe it," Fagundez said. "I had to confirm that it was me [coach Steve Nicol] was calling. I was a little bit nervous, but once I got on the field, my nerves just went away."

Washington Fagundez was in the stands.

"I don't know how to say it," Washington said in broken English, recalling the sight of Diego entering the match. "I thought, 'That's my son.' It was beautiful."

Diego heeded his father's advice to "play happy," but the youngster kept the experience in perspective. Even after a dazzling debut, Fagundez said he simply wants to prove the hype is warranted.

"As soon as I got in, I wanted to prove that I belonged there," he said.

His coach, along with soccer fans across New England, took notice.

"He's like that every day," Nicol said of Fagundez's excitement. "Obviously, coming on and making his debut, he was excited, but you saw him this morning. He's not any different this morning than he was on Saturday night. That's a great thing to be in being a good professional, a top professional. You have to bring that passion every single day."

Watching out

Washington Fagundez has been a fixture at Revolution practices during the past couple of weeks.

The team's front-office staff and coaches greet him with hellos. He returns an enthusiastic grin to each of them. He enjoys watching the goalkeepers go through their training. Washington has remained active in the game; he instructs local high schoolers on the fine points of playing goal in one-on-one training sessions.

When Diego started practicing with the senior club, Washington would take a nap in the car. Then Burns invited Washington to come and watch the sessions.

"I like watching them train," Washington said on a perfect morning in Foxborough. "I like this."

If Diego had his driver's license, Washington wouldn't need to come along, but you get the feeling that the elder Fagundez has become a fixture. He's not an overbearing helicopter parent, imparting wisdom to his son as a former professional himself. Instead, Washington is content to soak up the atmosphere.

"Life has changed for Diego," Washington said. "It's changed a lot in the last year."

After the day's training session is over, Diego is met by reporters and asked whether he expects to start in the Revolution's next match.

Already an old pro at the media game, the teenager coolly replies, "Of course I want to start, but I'm not going to say that I want to start because I'm still working hard and fighting for my spot. There's a lot of other people fighting for their spots in the starting 11."

Fagundez talks about how the professional game is much more physical than what he's experienced with his club teams. He says there's much to learn, but he also has an air of confidence. It's not a cocky, haughty sense of entitlement, rather it's a confidence in his ability, the feeling that he belongs on the big stage.

And all indications show that he's correct.

"I didn't expect it this soon," Fagundez said of his MLS debut, "but I've been working hard at it, so I feel like I deserve it."

Scott Barboza is a high schools editor/reporter for ESPNBoston.com.