Figuring out where he belongs is not getting any easier for Diego Fagundez.
Like other 16-year-olds, Fagundez returned to classes last week. But in many ways, Fagundez is not the same teenager who enrolled as a freshman at Leominster High School last year.
Since signing a contract with the Revolution Nov. 15, 2010. Fagundez has displayed the talent that could lead to a productive professional career. That contract also enabled Fagundez to acquire a P1 work visa, which allows athletes (and entertainers) to work in the United States temporarily. Having the contract and the visa also allowed Fagundez to visit his birthplace, Uruguay, for the first time since he was 4 years old. He could return home without the worry of getting back into the United States.
“I’m looking forward to getting to talk to my friends and see more of them,’’ Fagundez said of his classmates at Leominster. It’s a little hard to adjust, coming from not going to school and just having practice. I usually wake up thinking about practice. It really is a big change.
“But I talk to my parents all the time and tell them I am just going to work hard until I start practicing again with the Revs, make sure I catch up and I’m on track so I can get ahead with studying. As soon as we start preseason, I’ll do the tutoring again. I’m not going to just stop school. I’m going to get my diploma.’’
Because of Fagundez’s youthfulness, small stature, and Mohawk hairstyle, there is a tendency to underestimate his resolve. Fagundez has been focusing on a pro soccer career since he was in kindergarten. Now that he is experiencing his dream, Fagundez is also dealing with the rigors of a contact sport.
After converting twice in six games — Fagundez became the first Revolution player to score in his professional debut in an MLS match — he was held out of the final match of the season. In the second half of the Revolution’s 3-0 loss to Columbus Oct. 15, Fagundez sustained a mild concussion in a clash with Chad Marshall.
“We are always concerned, especially these days, with concussions,’’ team president Brian Bilello said. “Diego has worked through it with our doctors and trainers. We are not doing any contact work now, so it’s a good time for him to rest up. It’s particularly worrisome because he’s a player, when you put him on the field, they can’t check themselves in terms of how they play. No matter how old a player is you can’t tell them to go out there and be careful. So, we need to find the right situations to get him on the field.’’
Fagundez was in what appeared to be a mismatch when he challenged for a ball on a Revolution free kick in the 69th minute against the Crew. Both Fagundez, who is 5 feet 8 inches, 125 pounds, and Marshall, listed at 6-4, 190 pounds, went down as the ball was cleared from the penalty area. Fagundez appeared to recover quickly, but was substituted in the 80th minute. Marshall stayed down, receiving medical treatment, then left the game, although he did return.
“He actually did get the worst of it,’’ Fagundez said. “I got a minor concussion, and he was cut and everything. He’s one of the biggest guys in league.
“But that’s basically telling everyone I’m not scared of the other guy. If I’m going to get hurt trying to score I’m going to go for it. OK, we’re losing, so that doesn’t mean I’m not going to go up for this and try to score.’’
Fagundez showed an exceptional knack for creating offense but seemed more effective in a reserve role, sparking the team off the bench. As the Revolution attack bogged down, former coach Steve Nicol placed Fagundez in a starting position. But no Revolution striker became established as a dependable scorer last season, partly because of the team’s lack of an effective passing game.
“I’m not just going to give credit to myself,’’ Fagundez said. “When I did good it was the team that helped me, in practice, in games. They gave me the chances and helped me play. But if, as a team, we didn’t do as good as we should have, that is the past and we’re looking to the future.’’
Fagundez got a look at both his past and possible future last month during a trip to South America that also highlighted another potential identity crisis — Fagundez is eligible to perform for Uruguay’s national team, but not for the United States.
“I got to see some of my family for the first time in 12 years,’’ Fagundez said. “I also went to see soccer games and soccer is different there. Over there it’s physical, the same as here. But it’s a different style of play. Here it is more direct. Over there, there is a lot of kicking each other and stuff. I saw Uruguay and Chile play and that was one of the best experiences I’ve had, [Luis] Suarez scored four goals in that game.’’
Fagundez has emerged as a candidate for Uruguay’s Under 20 team — anyone named for a former Uruguay national teamer (Diego Dorta, a close friend of Fagundez’s father) would consider that prospect. And Fagundez might not have a choice, since he was born in Montevideo and is not a US citizen.
“They were trying to talk to me about training with the team,’’ Fagundez said of the Uruguayan contacts. “But since I left, I’ll see if they talk with the [Revolution] coaches and see if they want to call me.
“I want to play for a country, not just for a club team. I want to play for a national team and that’s been a dream for a while. I want to play for the US if I get the chance. It’s a matter of who’s going to come first.’’
Uruguay won the Copa America this year and reached the semifinals of the World Cup last year. The national team is a major player on the international scene and its team members are earning big money in Europe. Being called in to the Celeste program can be a ticket to riches.
Meanwhile, Fagundez is making $53,000 annually, according to the MLS Players Union, and trying to establish a role on a team likely to be revamped under new coach Jay Heaps.
“Right now I’m having fun and training on my own,’’ Fagundez said. “I’m looking forward to next season. Everyone has to work hard and earn a spot on the team. No matter if the coach is Steve Nicol or Jay Heaps, when you’re a professional player, that’s your job.’’
Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.