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In late 2017 my agent received some interesting news. To be honest, I was a bit distracted, because I was fighting for the Uruguayan championship with Peñarol. I had played for the club since I was 10 years old, so winning that title meant a lot to me. But now my agent was saying that I had a chance to join a new club.
I was curious. So I began asking some questions.
Like, “What’s the stadium like?”
“How is the training ground?”
And he told me that, well … there was no stadium yet.
There was no training ground either.
I just thought, Huh … that’s weird….
But then it became clear that we were talking about a brand new club called Los Angeles Football Club. I realized that all these things were being put into place and that I would have the chance to write a different kind of history. So I flew over and had a meeting with the club executives, and I was very impressed. I thought it was a great chance to keep learning and growing. In the end I accepted their offer.
I have not regretted that decision.
In fact, it has worked out perfectly. Just before I left I was able to win the championship with Peñarol. Then on my debut for LAFC I scored the club’s first goal. Last year we won the Supporters’ Shield, which was a wonderful moment. And this year, with the help of my teammates, I won the 2020 MLS Golden Boot, presented by Audi, as the league’s top scorer, with 14 goals in 19 appearances. Receiving that award was a big honor, especially since it was my first Golden Boot. Hopefully it won’t be the last.
By now I feel like one of the league’s established players, even though I am still just 22 years old. Things go so fast. Not long ago I was the kid looking to learn from the pros.
Now I am the one who should be helping the kids.
So I have taken an interest in seeing who is coming up from the academy. I really do feel that part of what makes great players great is their ability to make everyone feel included. I noticed that for myself in October, when I was called up — for the first time — to the Uruguay squad for the World Cup qualifiers. I was nervous when I arrived, since I was about to meet some of my childhood heroes, like Edinson Cavani, Luis Suárez and Diego Godín … but they were so humble. They made me feel as if I’d been part of the team forever. My nerves went away very quickly.
Today, when I look at the LAFC academy, three players stand out: Erik Dueñas, Christian Torres and Tony Leone. They are all 16 years old. Erik and Christian have already played for the first team in MLS. All three have promising futures.
Yet promise counts for little if you don’t take the right steps. And as someone who came through another academy — albeit a very different one — I have some things I’d like to share.
I think one of the most crucial things for a young player is to value where you are. You have to feel that you have arrived at a place that is important, and that this is a chance you have to grasp. This can be tricky to do in the U.S., because young players here develop in such a professional environment, at least compared to Uruguay. For instance, a big talent here will have the latest boots and a decent contract even though he’s still at the academy. That can make it tempting to take things for granted and relax, and then the player loses his hunger.
And that is one of the last things that should happen to a big talent.
Things go so fast. Not long ago I was the kid looking to learn from the pros. Now I am the one who should be helping the kids.
This is part of the reason, I think, why Uruguay produces so many footballers, even though we are such a small nation. We have a population of 3½ million, which is less than Los Angeles. We have to work hard, because nothing comes easy in Uruguay. I’m not saying that our way is better than the American one. They are just two different cultures. But I have experienced that the Uruguayan mentality can be very useful out on the pitch.
For instance, as a young player in Uruguay you have to give it your all just to get a pair of boots. At the Peñarol academy I often had to borrow boots. Even these would be torn up. We could be 20 players sharing a locker room that had space for maybe half that many. The showers would have only cold water, and sometimes no water at all. I never reacted to any of this. It was normal at the time.
Another big part of Uruguayan soccer is the competitiveness. Right from the moment we start out, at five or six years old, we play games against other kids the same age. We call it baby fútbol. There are tournaments and trophies, and every weekend is all about winning.
Soon you adopt a desire, a need, to win. And as a player, that helps you so much.
For my part, the need to win got stronger the older I got. At Peñarol it was just part of the environment. Peñarol is the most successful club in Uruguay, and once you get there they tell you about the history, the titles and the legendary players. They make you feel as if playing for Peñarol carries extra responsibility — which it does. So you are not even in your teens when you are told that you have to win every game. That does something to you.
Peñarol is a crazy club. By the time I was 15 I was playing in front of stands full of fans singing and shouting. Just to be clear: I wasn’t playing for the Peñarol first team. These were games far down in the youth categories.
When I did begin playing for the first team, it was as if my whole existence suddenly centered on winning. I realized that my actions on the pitch — and off it — were affecting the lives of so many people. Anything other than a victory was a disaster. The demands were huge. That kind of intensity has a beautiful side, like when you enter the stadium two hours before kickoff and the fans are already there. Or when you leave the team hotel and they are cheering you on as you walk out the door. There is also an ugly side, such as when you have lost a game and you can’t even go out in the streets because the fans will confront you. In either case, you learn.
One of the first qualities I developed was the ability to stay calm no matter what. I still have this. If I score a hat trick, I don’t get carried away. If I miss nine chances in a match, I don’t get too low. I keep my emotions stable. I think that has enabled me to score goals on a more consistent basis, and that is important because consistency wins you titles.
I understood that once I had won the championship with Peñarol.
Since then I have tried to use my experiences in Uruguay to help LAFC as much as possible. The Supporters’ Shield was a great triumph. Earlier this year we made our debut in the CONCACAF Champions League — we’ll play in the quarterfinals against Cruz Azul next week. I hope the supporters will see a young team with a lot of talent and class, and with a desire to win the title. I think they will.
I also hope that youngsters from the academy will keep making the first team. If I could give them another piece of advice, it would be to not waste a single day of training, because in soccer one day is a lot. Another thing is that no victory or defeat should ever rattle their focus on getting better every day. That is crucial.
And of course, I hope that they will stay humble, no matter how far they get. If I have learned anything at all, it is that humility and hunger are the two biggest keys to success.
Not just in soccer, but in life.
MLS academies have been identified as one of the most important resources for building on-field talent in North America. Through the Audi Goals Drive Progress initiative, Audi has committed $1 million per season in an effort to advance academies league-wide, and to drive progress for the sport. In honor of Diego Rossi’s Golden Boot, Audi is also contributing $20,000 directly to the LAFC Academy.