FOXBOROUGH — When the Revolution started their academy program in 2008, the goal was to become a pipeline for local players to rise up the ranks, from competitive youth soccer all the way to even MLS.
“The reality of it is that the vast majority of our academy players won’t play professional soccer,” said Revolution general manager Mike Burns. “But for those few who are good enough and do become professional players, we think it’s a great way for them to get to be pro players.”
Burns and the team hoped to get rewarded, but few expected that, just five years after the academy began, two of its graduates would be playing such pivotal roles for the Revolution as they try to make a run toward the playoffs this season.
Diego Fagundez, 18, is one of the Revolution’s flair players. His speed and nifty foot skills help the team on offense, as he has a team-high seven goals to go with four assists.
And Scott Caldwell, 22, uses efficient passing and pure consistency as a holding midfielder to protect the Revolution’s back four.
The teammates are an example of how there isn’t one direct route from an MLS academy to the major league team. Fagundez and Caldwell have made their way up the ranks in different ways.
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On a humid August afternoon, with threatening clouds overhead, Caldwell takes part in a one-touch passing drill, pinging the ball around in a 10-yard circumference with four teammates. He is soft-spoken but plays a vital role just in front of the Revolution’s backline, acting as the main pipeline between defenders and attacking midfielders.
Caldwell says his playing style reflects his personality. He describes himself as “simple. I don’t like to complicate things.”
Rookie right back Andrew Farrell, who is Caldwell’s roommate on road trips, enjoys hanging out with the Braintree native and agreed that simplicity is a trait of his.
“He’s kind of low-key, likes to read,” said Farrell. “He’s just simple.”
Caldwell captained the Revolution’s inaugural academy team during the 2008 season and opted to play in college before trying to go pro.
His University of Akron career was a success. Caldwell was a captain his junior and senior years, leading the Zips to an NCAA Division 1 national championship to cap his senior year.
And while playing at the highest level of collegiate soccer, Caldwell was working diligently on academics. He graduated with a 3.93 GPA and an accounting degree.
But there’s one more hurdle to leap in his academic career. It’s no cakewalk, either.
“I’m working toward my CPA degree,” says Caldwell. “There are four exams, and I passed the first one, but it’s tough.”
During his rookie season in MLS, Caldwell is taking an online course through Becker Professional Education in the hopes of passing the next three exams.
“I go to a few courses here and there,” says Caldwell. “But I have a lot of study material and I’ll put in some studying and go from there.”
When he’s not engaged in leisure activities such as reading — Caldwell is a fan of mystery novels, and enjoys Dan Brown and Harlan Coben — he can be found at a Revolution training session, bettering his skills at the defensive midfield position he has taken hold of.
“Our smartest players have to be in the middle of the park, and for him to be there as a rookie speaks volumes about his ability,” says Farrell.
At the start of the season, the Revolution had four good options to start in the midfield role.
There was Kalifa Cisse, who played in the English Premier League. Clyde Simms, who has captained the Revolution, was also in the mix. And Andy Dorman was a 31-year-old veteran.
The other player was Caldwell, an MLS rookie.
Five months into the season, Cisse had his contract terminated by mutual agreement with the club, and Simms is struggling with a turf toe injury. Dorman has made only one start.
Caldwell, meanwhile, has been playing significant minutes since late May, helping the Revolution’s creative midfielder, Lee Nguyen, run the show.
But Caldwell is quick to distance himself from the notion there was ever an order among the choices.
“I don’t look at it that way, as a pecking order,” he says. “Each and every day, every player is fighting for a position. Each day in training, you have to work hard — that’s how I view it. You’re never safe, and you’ve got to keep getting better.”
One thing that impresses coach Jay Heaps is Caldwell’s consistency. That’s part of the reason he is now starting. In the team’s last home game, against the Chicago Fire, Caldwell completed 62 of 68 passes (91.2 percent) in a 2-0 victory.
“I think we had a lot of competition [in March], and Scotty knew how difficult it would be for him to get on the field,” Heaps says. “I think it really elevated his game. Scotty just kept grinding out excellent practices and really good performances in scrimmages.”
Lighting it up
A player who shares Caldwell’s hard-working mentality is Fagundez. The Leominster native feels at home with a soccer ball at his feet.
“It is something that I love to do, and I would do it 24/7 if I could,” he says.
Fagundez starts at left midfield and plays in an advanced position on the field. He takes on defenders and scores using his quick pace and shifty footwork. He has been successful to the point where opponents zero in on him as part of the game plan.
Fagundez’s personality is reflected in his appearance. He has an earring, two tattoos (his last name on his left arm and a soccer ball with his number, 14, on his right calf), and enjoys wearing bright colors. He sports a spiky, gelled-up Mohawk, too.
His shoes are as flamboyant as his playing style. On this day, he wears bright orange and black Hypervenom Nike kicks, one of an estimated 100 pairs of cleats he has owned in the last two years.
“To tell you the truth, the brighter the better for me,” Fagundez says. “Everything that’s bright, those are my colors. It’s who I am.”
When he was 15, Fagundez was taking classes at Leominster High School and playing for the Revolution’s academy team when he was told Burns wanted to meet with him after a practice.
“Once we got there, we started talking a little and all of a sudden we started talking more soccer, and then the contract came up,” Fagundez says. “It was surprising and exciting. I was a little shocked.”
Fagundez signed his senior roster contract on Nov. 15, 2010, at age 15.
One challenge Fagundez faced at the time was keeping the news from his friends at school, because it took two or three months to complete the paperwork involving the contract.
“It was hard,” he says. “It was all secret. Once we signed the paperwork and I could tell people, it was just a relief.”
Unlike Caldwell, Fagundez is putting off the idea of getting a college degree for now while pursuing his professional soccer career.
“Going to college was never a goal of mine,” he says. “Since I was little, I just told people that I wanted to be a professional [soccer player].
“For me, to go to college would be a step back. That’s not what I wanted to do. Everyone can take a different path to get [to MLS]. And I’d rather play soccer.”
Fagundez is working toward completing high school at Fitchburg Alternative High School, where he takes classes a few nights a week after training. He says it could take six months to a year before he earns his degree.
“Getting school done is hard when you have a career,” he says. “It’s something I was never ready for, but I always have to step it up and do everything I can to get [the degree] done.”
Different paths to pros
The dichotomy between Caldwell and Fagundez’s careers, even though they started at the same academy, is an example of the multiple paths available to achieve success in American soccer.
“Each guy is such a unique case in the sense that Diego was 15 [when he signed], didn’t want to go to college, and Scott wanted to go to college and it gave him four more years to develop his game,” says Burns, who has held three administrative positions for the Revolution since 2005.
“It shows to the players who are coming through the academy, there’s not one set blueprint. There are many different ways to get to the first team.”
“There isn’t just one way to get to a professional team; there are many ways,” Fagundez says. “Me and Scott both went different ways. I didn’t want to go to college and Scott, he did, and he wanted to get his degree.”
Burns says Fagundez and Caldwell have set more than one benchmark for academy players. After all, the two aren’t fringe players anymore.
“They have taken very different paths,” says Burns, “but they’ve both seen significant minutes this year and are important to us.
“I think it says a lot about our academy program about where we started, where we’re at now and where we hope to go.”Nick Ironside can be reached at email@example.com.