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Soccer phenom opts to learn from the pros

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By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / February 7, 2011

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Young athletes often dream of becoming professionals. In some cases, they even forgo college to take their chances on the big time.

Leominster’s Diego Fagundez is an even rarer exception. Fagundez is not only going to skip college, he will be bypassing much of high school as well to pursue a pro soccer career.

In November, Fagundez, 15, became the youngest player since Freddy Adu to sign a Major League Soccer contract when he joined the New England Revolution. And when he joins the Revolution first team for practice this month, Fagundez will be going head to head with veterans twice his age, including tough tackling midfielders such as Shalrie Joseph.

“I think it would be a fight for me and a challenge,’’ Fagundez said of training sessions with the Revolution. “But I think I would do good. Even if I’m on the floor 100 times, I’ll still get up, and I’ll keep fighting.’’

During the fall semester, Fagundez kept normal school hours at Leominster High (his favorite subject is algebra) but did not play for the school soccer team, instead performing for the Revolution Academy, the team’s youth development program.

Now, while classmates do their studies and his friends from the soccer team take a break from the sport, Fagundez will probably switch to night class in order to work out with the Revolution during daily practices. The Revolution have stipulated that Fagundez continue to progress toward a high school diploma, but his playing ambitions could take priority as the team prepares for the MLS season.

At age 7, Fagundez knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. And, at 5 feet 7 inches tall and 130 pounds, he is still growing.

“Size to me doesn’t really matter,’’ Fagundez said. “I even like playing against taller defenders because it’s easier for me. One thing I’m good at is getting the ball on the ground, dribbling, making something happen.

“Some things you can’t teach, you are either born with it or do it on your own. All the stuff I do I was born with it, I wasn’t taught to do it.’’

The Revolution are projecting Fagundez as a practice player and a candidate to perform in the league’s reserve division.

“He will benefit from playing against bigger and older players,’’ said Revolution midfielder Chris Tierney, 26, who grew up in Wellesley. “But it definitely will be an adjustment. I believe it’s become even more physical since I started playing — guys are bigger and faster, and the MLS is already a really physical league. In the end, quality on the ball and a soccer brain should be enough for him to do well.’’

Expectations for Fagundez will not be as high as they were for Adu, who earned $1 million in salary and sponsorships annually in the MLS but failed to fulfill his promise.

“The world is littered with kids who have been child prodigies,’’ said Bryan Scales, the Revolution Academy director who coached Adu in the US national team development program. “And then, all of a sudden, at some point they fizzle out. . . . I think Diego is different. He’s a playmaker, he’s got that passion, he’s got an imagination, the creativity, and soccer brain playmaking players need to have.’’

Fagundez will earn closer to the league minimum of $32,600 for players under 25 than the $70,000 average salary, according to a team source. He will be designated as a home-grown player, a product of the academy program.

Fagundez might have seemed like other precocious kids when he declared his professional intentions, but he had a clear career path in mind.

“I decided not to go to college when I was like 7,’’ Fagundez said in a recent interview before practice in Foxborough. “I even told my parents, my teachers, everyone — I did not want to go to college. Because all I wanted to do was play professionally.’’

Rooted in the game Fagundez’s father, Washington, was a professional goalkeeper in Uruguay, where soccer runs deep (the country hosted and won the initial World Cup in 1930). Diego was born into that culture, named after a teammate of his father’s, Diego Dorta, a former national team midfielder, and so enthralled with the game he brought a soccer ball along with him to school.

“In one hand the soccer ball, in the other hand the books,’’ Washington Fagundez said.

Said Diego: “I was 1 1/2 when I first started kicking a soccer ball. I set up bottles like bowling pins and tried to knock them down. I kept doing that and then my dad got me into a team.’’

Washington enrolled 3-year-old Diego in a club program. Two years later, Washington and Alicia Fagundez moved to Leominster for financial reasons.

“Players don’t make good money [in Uruguay],’’ Washington said. “I came here for the opportunity. I have been working for a painting company but, right now, I’m the driver — I give my son rides to practice.’’

Washington, who made his professional debut at 17, was fully in favor of his son’s signing. “I think this is your first step in soccer, I think he has a good chance to play’’ for the Revolution, he said.

Diego has been playing up since he was 9, in 2004. That year, coach Mario Prata brought Diego to perform in the state Under 13 team.

“A lot of coaches were against it,’’ said Prata, a former professional in Portugal who became the Revolution Academy’s first director in 2008. “He was young, he was kind of small. He was never going to be a big kid, but he is big in talent.’’

Diego still stands out because of his talent and small stature. He said he hopes to grow 2 inches — his father is 6-foot-1 — but points out many of the world’s best players are about his size.

The Revolution were prompted to sign Fagundez because he could soon have professional options outside the country. Three years ago, Caio Correia left Nantucket as a 16-year-old for his native Brazil, and is now a highly rated striker with a team in Rio de Janeiro. The Revolution Academy was conceived to corral such potentially elite performers.

“I think a lot of people were surprised we signed a 15-year-old to a professional contract,’’ said Michael Burns, Revolution vice president of player personnel who is a Marlborough native and former Revolution captain. Fagundez “had no desire to go to college, and chances are he would have gone outside this country to try to sign a professional contract. Since we have this program, and we feel he’s talented enough, that’s the reason we came to the conclusion to offer him a contract.

“This doesn’t mean he’s leaving school. Over the next couple years, if he develops to the point where he becomes a first-team player, we won’t let his education suffer. That’s very important.’’

Changes afoot For now, Fagundez is still training with the Revolution’s Under 16 team. Soon, he will begin practicing with the Revolution team, becoming fully immersed in the professional experience. That means exchanging the high school experience for night classes and abandoning the daily contact with friends.

“In school, they say, ‘Oh my God, here comes the star,’ and friends treat you a little differently,’’ Fagundez said. “Now, they are all asking me what’s going to happen as soon as I start practicing. They are all wondering what I’m going to do. Night school, it’s basically you and some other people you don’t know. I grew up with a lot of kids, I’ve known them since I was, like, 5. I’m definitely going to [miss them].’’

Chris Young, the Leominster High athletic director and boys’ soccer coach, is used to athletes moving on to other schools but not directly to pro teams.

“I’m not shocked by it,’’ he said. “I’m impressed with his degree of talent and if the powers that be in the game of soccer feel he needs to move up, and he gets paid for it, even better. I’m certainly not going to hold the high school experience over his head. I wish him all the luck — it’s still local kid makes good, and we’re all going to be rooting for him.’’

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

Correction: This story has been revised because of a reporting error that misstated the amount Fagundez would earn as a member of the Revolution.

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