When Diego Fagundez made the drive from his Leominster home to Foxborough — as it turned out, his final one as a member of the Revolution — Wednesday afternoon, he heard coach Bruce Arena tell the Zolak and Bertrand Midday Show that the team had offered the club’s first-ever Homegrown player a “good offer” two months ago, and that Fagundez had rejected it.
Period. End of statement.
In a deep-dive 25-minute telephone interview with BayStateSoccerSentinel.com Wednesday evening, Fagundez said there’s just a tad more to it.
“The Revolution offered me a contract,” Fagundez said. “Me and my dad counter-offered them. When we counter-offered, it wasn’t us saying no; our counter was pretty decent.”
According to Fagundez, the Revs offered two years in the vicinity of $300,000 per year. Fagundez, who has long taken a number of so-called “hometown discounts” over the course of his 10 years with the club and earned $205,000 according to the most recent figures provided by the Major League Soccer Players Association in May 2019, said his counter was for approximately double the Revs’ offer.
“That was so they could counter and come down (in price) and we could come to an agreement,” he explained. “They counter-offered (with the original offer). When (Brad) Friedel was here and I didn’t play at all, the contract he offered me was better than the one offered this year — and I played more games.
“I haven’t been getting paid, let’s be honest. I think everybody understands that. I’ve had good years, and I still wasn’t getting treated what I should have.”
Fagundez said the original offer came on Oct. 1. Nearly three weeks later, the counter to the counter came in the form of a letter postmarked Oct. 21 that he provided BayStateSoccerSentinel.com via a photo screenshot — “The contract we presented Diego on October 1, 2020 is an extremely competitive proposal. If you do not wish to accept our offer you are free to explore free agency. However, we will withdraw our offer on November 1, 2020.”
For those keeping track, Nov. 1 was a Sunday — the date of the final regular-season home game for New England this year against DC United, a game which, had Fagundez played in it, would have marked his record-breaking 262nd league appearance with The Boys In Blue and given him the top spot in the club’s history book. He had tied the record he now shares with Shalrie Joseph the previous Wednesday night in New England’s 1-nil loss to the Red Bulls in Harrison, NJ.
He dressed for the matches against United and Philadelphia, before not dressing the playoff matches against Montreal, Philadelphia, and Orlando City. He was an unused substitute Sunday.
Fagundez said Arena never gave him clarity into the situation until last Wednesday, Dec. 2.
“I sat down with him before going to Columbus,” he said. “And I said, ‘Look Bruce, I just want to know what’s going on.’ He said, ‘Diego, you’ve been great at training, you’ve been doing well.’ He said, ‘Since you’re not going to be here next year, we’re trying to give players who are going to be here the opportunity.’
Fagundez said that he appreciated Arena’s candor.
“That made me feel better than them not telling me anything for four weeks,” he said. “It’s one of those things that when you put a deadline on a contract, especially when you want to feel like they want you here — and trust me, if I could have fixed my numbers, I would love to stay in New England and play for this organization. Leaving today was sad knowing I won’t be here for a while. Hopefully I can come back someday.”
DF14 added that he’s looking at free agency — which begins next week for Major League Soccer — with an open mind; he noted he has already received a number of foreign offers. This will be his first foray into leaving New England on a free transfer, thanks to the MLSPA and the league agreeing to a 24-and-5 point in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, where a player aged 24 with five years’ of service can enter the free agent market. As a free agent, the Revolution will not receive any remuneration; as Fagundez was a Homegrown player, New England would have received 100 percent of the transfer fee had they sold him while under contract.
“We do have offers from Mexico, we do have offers from Spain, we do have offers from Uruguay. We do. That’s not a lie,” he said. “The offers are there. Right now, we were trying to see what was happening here and what was going to happen.”
He added that he hopes his phone buzzes next week with offers from other MLS clubs who could use a player with 10 years’ experience — and isn’t saying no to other American clubs, such as those from the USL Championship.
“If there was a good money offer to go (to USL Championship), sure,” he said. “My doors are always open for any team. There’s not one team I will close out. If there’s a good opportunity to go somewhere, I’m going and taking the chance. If I could have signed with the Revs again and the numbers were right, I would have stayed, easily. Without hesitation. I would signed the napkin with the right numbers on it.
“As hard as it was to say my good byes, the player needs to be happy and he needs to go somewhere where he feels loved. The fans made me feel that way, but when they offer you a contract you don’t think is right, then you know it’s time to go and open new doors. That’s the way I’m looking at it. It’s not the way I wanted to end playing for the Revolution.”
Fagundez had said his good byes to the fans in an Instagram post Tuesday night; he said he spoke with team president Brian Bilello prior to departing Gillette, who thanked him for his years of service to the club.
“It’s a sad day,” he said.
Our pre-dinner time conversation soon turned to not only the most recent completed season, which saw Fagundez and the Revolution reach the Eastern Conference Final for the second time during his tenure in Foxborough, but to his entire time with New England.
As a bright-eyed 15-year-old with a distinctive mohawk, Fagundez entered the scene and made his pro debut in April 2011’s US Open Cup competition. He made his league debut in August of that season and scored his first pro goal, the first of 53 in the league, minutes after coming onto the pitch against Chivas USA.
During his first seven seasons with the Revolution, both Steve Nicol and Jay Heaps played him at the No. 7, out on the left flank. He experienced a breakout season in 2013, where he scored a season-high 13 goals and assisted on seven others.
That changed at the start of the 2018 season: with Heaps gone and Friedel now the coach, there were changes. After Lee Nguyen, the incumbent No. 10 since 2013, held out and arrived three-and-a-half weeks late to training camp, Friedel moved Fagundez to the No. 10 position. Friedel caused a touch of controversy with his post-match news conference following a 1-nil defeat to FC Dallas on April 14, where Nguyen had been left out of the match day squad for the sixth straight week. Friedel had said, when asked if he wished he had Nguyen available for selection, “No. Diego Fagundez has won the No. 10 role, fair and square. Diego has performed very, very well, and there’s no need in that game — I would never, in a million years, taken off my No. 10 and put on another No. 10. If I wanted to do that, I would have brought Zach Herivaux off the bench and replaced him with Diego.”
In 2018, Fagundez scored 9 goals and assisted on 10 others, his second-highest career scoring total, out of the No. 10 role. He scored his 50th career league goal in the season finale against Montreal that season.
During the 2019 preseason, Friedel brought in Spanish playmaker Carles Gil from Deportivo de la Coruña while the club trained in Marbella, Spain. Gil subsequently took over the No. 10.
But Fagundez did not go back to the No. 7: Friedel instead moved him to the defensive midfield as a combined 6/8.
He accepted his role.
“I love the way Carles plays. He’s an amazing player. I would have been awesome playing next to him as a Double 10 and stuff; I think we could have made a lot of stuff work. Especially when we played in preseason in Spain, we did well together, but once they transformed me into a 6/8, then I knew it was going to be hard for me,” he said. “(The switch) was a hard one for me; I had 9 and 10 in 2018, my second best production year, and they moved me to a 6/8.
“I think people need to understand that I wonder why that (switch) happened when I was playing the position I actually know how to play and doing well for eight years, why would you switch someone?”
Fagundez notes that the 6/8 position is different in terms of playing style to the manager’s preferences. Under Friedel in the first two-plus months of the 2019 season, he had the freedom to join the attack and track back to defend.
Under Arena, he preferred the 6/8 to do otherwise.
“For Bruce, it’s stay back; if you can get up there, get up there,” Fagundez explained. “It’s hard when you have players like Gustavo (Bou), Adam (Buksa), Teal (Bunbury), and Carles up there; they want you to get the ball to them and let them do their magic. And here I was as a 6/8; I knew how to play as a 10 and I wanted to be a playmaker playing as a 6/8. They didn’t want me to do that.
“As a 6, you’re more of a defensive player. Scotty (Caldwell) does it perfect. He wins the ball and gets the ball to the attack; he does that very well. A 6/8 is like Kelyn Rowe who likes to attack and defend at the same time. I knew I could do the attack and defense, but it’s not my playing stye. I don’t know how to be the best defender or win tackles; if I have to do it, I will, because that’s every position, you have to do that, but I knew I wasn’t going to ever be good at it. Once Bruce came, that’s where they saw me the most.”
Fagundez did not score his first goal of 2019 until July 17, when he turned a 1-nil lead — scored by Bou on his debut — into a 2-nil lead in the 82nd minute against Vancouver. Four days later, he made his first noticeable start in the defensive midfield at FC Cincinnati, where he replaced an injured Luis Caicedo and helped the Revs secure a 2-nil win. He then scored his second goal of 2019 in the 75th minute of a 4-1 win over Orlando City on July 27.
Two goals in 10 days — and he didn’t score again until Sept. 23 of this year against Montreal, his final goal in the Revolution navy blues. Eight days later came the contract offer.
Fagundez acknowledges the lack of offense and notes that it can be hard to reconcile the fact that a formerly offensive-minded player can’t put up similar numbers in the defensive midfield.
“I think people are seeing my last two years as bad years, but I couldn’t control where I played and the positions they wanted me to play — positions I hadn’t played before,” he said. “I think everyone knows when the player is happy and is playing in his position and does well, you’re going to get paid. But when you’re playing a position you’ve never played, you don’t know how to play it, just learning it, it’s kind of hard to do well. I still tried to do everything I could to help the team every time I stepped in; I worked my ass off and gave 110 percent of myself every time I went in, and I had fun doing it.
“The way people were seeing it, ‘Yeah, Diego’s not scoring, Diego’s not assisting.’ But what they didn’t understand is that I wasn’t really playing as an attacking-minded player. I was playing more as a defensive player. You can’t get the best numbers out of me, especially in a position I’ve never played.”
Fagundez rejects the assertion from a segment of the fan base that he has peaked as a player.
“I don’t think I’ve peaked,” he stressed. “I don’t think (Friedel or Arena) gave me the opportunity to peak. I think when I was peaking, they hit me with a wall and that’s when I wasn’t able to peak. They put a roof on it.
“Numbers never lie: when Jay was here, I was scoring seven goals a season. Then Friedel came and I scored 9 goals, and then none. In 2018 when I was the No. 10, Cristian Penilla had 12 (goals) and 8 (assists), and Teal had 11. So you’re saying in one of my last best years we had two attackers in front of me with more than 10 goals, and the next year here I am with two, and barely involved with the team? People need to understand what was happening. The last two years beginning with Brad and then with Bruce, I wasn’t playing, I wasn’t playing the position I was; of course I’m not going to do well. And this year, I wasn’t playing my position, I played my position a little bit. I thought when I played my position, I did well.”
He did play in the No. 10 at times this year. When Gil went down with a re-aggravation of his ankle injury during the MLS IS BACK Tournament in Orlando, Fagundez played the first half of the third group stage match, a scoreless draw with Toronto, at the No. 10, before moving back to his 6/8.
Arena tinkered with the No. 10 role, at times bringing Bou to control the tempo, as well as Penilla.
“Penilla wasn’t happy there,” Fagundez said. “He was telling me all the time that ‘I didn’t want to play as a 10.’ That’s not how he played.”
Following the Sept. 6 win over Chicago and after the Revs utilized a 4-4-2 formation with Tommy McNamara and Bunbury playing in the middle with Fagundez off to the right, I had opined that even after Arena jury-rigged with the No. 10 that it didn’t look like he rated Fagundez or Rowe, both formerly offensive-minded midfielders, as No. 10’s… even though they were in-house and healthy options.
Two days later, Nguyen was back in the fold following a five-match stint with Inter Miami.
I brought that particular point up to Fagundez on Wednesday night.
“That’s the question I always asked myself,” he said. “I’m a true 10 player, and I never got the opportunity to prove that I could play that position. When Carles went down, I said this is where I have to step up and help the team as much as I could, but even then, I wasn’t getting the chance to do that. I don’t think that was fair for me, but the coaches made the decision. I never went up to the coaches and start fights with them and ask questions why they did this; I only asked was why am I not playing and what I have to do to play.
“I don’t know how (the last two years) could have been better. I think if I played (my) position, or if they actually gave me more opportunities to go in games and not just 10-15 minutes a game; it’s hard to show yourself in 10-15 minutes a game, especially when the game is tight. People need to see overall where I was playing made the difference.”
Fagundez feels he can reclaim his position as a No. 10, albeit in a new location.
“I have to be the same Diego I was in 2018 when I was the 10 and had the 9 and 10. I know I have the potential and I have the skills to show to people and I will prove it to people wherever I go that that’s where I should have been playing instead of making up a position for me, a position I didn’t know how to play.
“I love this organization as much as anyone. I was a fan before I signed, I was a fan when I signed… this club means a lot to me, so people need to understand that. It wasn’t that I didn’t give a crap; I cared a lot. It’s been a rollercoaster, the last couple of years.
“That’s the thing: I don’t want to be the bad guy. At the end of the day, I care a lot about this club.”