DIEGO FAGUNDEZ’S BASEMENT bedroom looks just like what you’d expect from a soccer-crazy 19-year-old. Along the staircase, framed team and player photos line the walls, and a New England Revolution jersey hangs in a corner. In the room itself, soccer balls litter the carpet, sneakers and cleats sit in rows, and there are even more photos, from both on the field and off. Facing Fagundez’s neatly made bed, there’s a flat-screen TV hooked up to an Xbox that he and his buddies use to play FIFA soccer video games. The only difference between this room and that of your average teenager is that almost all of Fagundez’s stuff — the photos, the news clippings, even one of the video games — features him.
Fagundez lives a kind of double life. At work, he is a star midfielder for the New England Revolution, the team that put him in his first pro game at just 16 (he promptly scored). His 13 goals last season weren’t just the most of anyone on the Revs, they were the most by a teenager in a single season in the history of Major League Soccer. The slim kid with the mohawk and an easy smile has quickly become a fan favorite and the face of a resurgent team.
But at home in Leominister, where he’s lived for more than a decade, Fagundez is pretty much like any other teenager. He hangs out with the same friends he met when he was 5 and has been dating the same girl, now a high school senior, for years. Although he recently earned his diploma from Goodrich Academy in Fitchburg, which let him study around his playing schedule, he still helped his girlfriend with her science fair project. He loves fishing on nearby Shirley Pond and eating bowls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch soaked in chocolate milk. Although he reportedly made around $127,000 last season, he has very little interest in moving out of his parents’ basement.
“I’ve thought about it a bunch of times, but I’m so close to my family,” says Fagundez, who has an older sister and a younger brother. “Why move when I can be with them every day? My mom makes good food, and I don’t have to do everything.” A moment later, he adds, “I’m going to move out someday.”
Spend a day with Fagundez and it’s easy to see why people love him. Despite the records, the write-ups in Sports Illustrated, and the NBC Sports documentary on 36 hours in his life, he remains remarkably quiet and humble. Consider the 2014 edition of the FIFA soccer video game, which features a digital Fagundez. When it was released, the developer worked up a promotional version with his picture. “So imagine being a teenager,” the Revs wrote on their website. “Imagine the latest version of your favorite video game comes out. Now imagine you’re on the cover. This, folks, is Diego Fagundez’s reality.”
And yet none of this seems to go to Fagundez’s head. About the video game, he simply tweeted, “Never thought i’d see this.” He’s not a partyer, and he’s careful with his money. His splurges have been a small boat and a big black Ford pickup to tow it (though, at 5 feet 8 and 140 pounds, Fagundez also likes that the truck makes him seem bigger).
“It is pretty special to have a kid that is the same age as the guys and the girls that come out to the game and to not get caught up in it and be Bieber-esque, I guess you could say,” says Matt Reis, the now retired Revs goalkeeper whom Fagundez credits with helping make him feel at home on the team. This down-to-earth quality — this impression he gives that he’s the luckiest guy in the world — is perhaps why Fagundez’s room doesn’t come across as an egotistic shrine to himself. Rather than a declaration of his greatness, it’s an expression of his hope he’ll be able to live up to his dreams.
Now entering his fourth regular season with the Revs, starting with a game March 8 in Houston, Fagundez is preparing for his toughest challenge yet. He and his teammates know that after last season’s breakout, opponents will be coming after him. There have been plenty of soccer phenoms before, after all, but few have managed to stand up to the attention it brings on and off the field. But if the team is to continue its upward trajectory and fight for a playoff spot again this year, Fagundez will have to.
SOCCER IS IN Diego Fagundez’s blood. He was born in Uruguay, where his father, Washington Fagundez, became a professional goalkeeper in Montevideo at just 17 (Fagundez is named after one of his dad’s former teammates, Diego Dorta). His parents enrolled him in a club soccer program as a toddler. In those years, if Fagundez wasn’t practicing with his team, he was fooling around with a miniature soccer ball at home. He’d line up empty Coca-Cola bottles like bowling pins in the hallway, then see how many he could knock down, or he would dribble from room to room — at least until his mother, Alicia, kicked him outside. “I still do [that] once in a while, and I don’t get yelled at now,” Fagundez says with a smile.
In 2000, when Fagundez was 5, his family immigrated to Massachusetts, settling into an apartment in Leominster. He doesn’t recall much about those early days, save for the warm welcome he received. “I remember coming and meeting new friends,” he says. “These friends that I met when I was 5 are still my friends.” They’d play pickup games on the dirt and grass outside their apartment buildings, each harboring his own fantasy of one day going pro.
On special occasions, Washington would take his son to Foxborough to see the Revolution. There, after the games, the boy would inevitably head to autograph alley, pressing against the barrier for signatures of his idols like star forward Taylor Twellman, Matt Reis, and defender Jay Heaps (who now coaches the team). Someday, Diego told his parents, he was going to be one of the guys signing the autographs.
It wouldn’t take long to get his chance. The director of the Revolution’s youth academy, Deven Apajee, spotted Fagundez first during a game of 11- and 12-year-olds in New Hampshire, then at a tournament in Lancaster, Massachusetts. “What was refreshing was his creativity,” Apajee recalls. “There was some magic about him. He played with freedom, which kind of made you smile.”
Fagundez joined the Revolution Academy at 14. “It became pretty clear after two or three days of training that there was something special about him on the field,” says Bryan Scales, the team’s director of youth development. At 15, Fagundez was more than holding his own in games against 18-year-olds. “Frankly, he was head and shoulders above the rest of our academy players,” says Revolution general manager Mike Burns. “He was that talented.”
On November 15, 2010, the Revs brought the 15-year-old onto the team, making him the youngest player they’d ever signed to a pro contract (MLS has no minimum age). Too young for a driver’s license that first year, Fagundez’s parents had to drop him off at practice, a fact that let him get an extra hour’s sleep in the car.
Fagundez didn’t get to play in games until later in his first season, when it was clear the team wasn’t going to make the post-season. Still, he remembers the surprise he felt getting the nod. “I was like me? I’m going in?” he recalls. “I was very excited, because why should it be me when there were six other people who could go in.” He scored in that game and felt something shift. “I was nervous because I didn’t know what to expect. And then once I scored, it just went away,” he says. “I made a note to myself that I could play at this level.”
The excitement that Fagundez sparked his first season, scoring two goals in only a handful of starts, created unreal expectations for his second, during which he played in 20 games but scored just twice more.
But last season, Fagundez’s third, something clicked. He earned a spot in the starting lineup and fit nicely into one of the youngest and quickest teams in MLS. The Revs had instituted a fluid attack style that suited Fagundez, who scored 13 goals. He’s notched 17 in all, breaking another MLS record for a teenager, and he won’t turn 20 until next February. The team made it to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, and Fagundez was named team MVP. His teammates started to joke that the best way to dodge the crush of fans after games was to follow Fagundez out of the stadium, then slip away while he was signing autographs.
For the season ahead, Burns feels that there is much more to come from Fagundez. Last March, the team extended his contract, guaranteeing he will stay in Foxborough through this season, perhaps through 2017. “We still don’t think he is close to what we think his potential can be,” Burns says. “Neither does he, I don’t think.”
AS FAR AS CAUTIONARY TALES of soccer phenoms go, Freddy Adu offers an important lesson. At 14, the player seemed poised to become the sport’s biggest star. Early on, the youngest MLS player ever (and the highest paid) even faced off against the legendary Pele in a soft-drink commercial. But more than a decade later, Adu remains a journeyman who has been chasing playing time at nine clubs on three continents. The consensus seems to be his ego developed faster than his skills. “Unfortunately, his career hasn’t turned out the way we expected,” Pele said of Adu last year. “This happens to a lot of players.”
The Revs have worked hard to make sure the same fate doesn’t befall Fagundez. “He will be a bit more of a marked man this year — and going forward — than in years past,” Burns says. “He will have to continue to change and find ways to adapt, and he will.”
Fagundez’s parents, both in their mid-40s, continue to help on and off the field. Speaking of Fagundez’s knack for staying grounded, Matt Reis says, “I think a lot of that starts with his family and his father being a former professional — he can kind of give him pointers and steer him in the right direction.”
One of Fagundez’s strengths, says Burns, is his ability to not get weighed down by expectations. He plays the same whether he’s in practice or the biggest game of the year. “One of his best qualities is that he does play the game freely, and he plays it without that enormous amount of pressure that comes on young players,” Burns says. “He just goes out and plays for the love of the game, and I hope that never changes.”
While Fagundez and I are talking in his living room, a friend stops by. We soon end up downstairs, ready to play FIFA on the Xbox. Sitting on the edge of his bed, his friend lounging behind us, we pick our teams: Holland’s SC Heerenveen for me; for Fagundez, Spain’s Real Madrid with Cristiano Ronaldo, his favorite player. He slaughters me.
For a rematch, we even out the odds with MLS teams. I choose the Vancouver Whitecaps. He, of course, picks the Revolution, then makes sure to insert himself as the focal point of the offense. He ends up scoring two goals — with the digital version of himself — and wins again. He shakes my hand.
Before I leave, I ask what Fagundez and his friend will be up to later. It must be something exciting, I assume; the 19-year-old has the world at his feet and nowhere to be. Nah, they say. They’re just going to hang out, maybe go to a high school hockey game to see a bunch of their friends. Isn’t that what regular teenagers do?
Kevin Koczwara is a freelance journalist based in Worcester. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.