Omir Fernandez was at a crossroads.
The 20-year-old was at Wake Forest University, physically preparing for the Demon Deacons’ spring season when his cellphone rang. On the other end was New York Red Bulls coach Chris Armas.
The process to possibly become the club’s next homegrown player was arduous and Fernandez didn’t know what was going to happen next. What he did know was time was running out. Wake Forest needed an answer. Was he returning for his junior year or was he becoming a professional?
Armas reassured Fernandez. He said the deal went through and soon relayed information about the first stop of preseason camp in Bradenton, Fa. Fernandez had just become the 21st homegrown player in Red Bulls history.
“I looked down and was still wearing my Wake Forest stuff. I was like, ‘In a week from now, I’ll be living my dream,” Fernandez told ProSoccerUSA. “I couldn’t believe it. The whole day I was thinking about what had just happened. It was exciting.”
Fernandez gathered himself enough to make a group call to both his parents, Omir and Maria, sharing the reality of his lifelong dream with them.
“I said, ‘We did it. Congratulations,’” Fernandez said. “Like me, they couldn’t believe it. But it happened.”
The Red Bulls aren’t just a team for Fernandez, they’re a club. His club. He made the round-trip journey from his home in the South Bronx to the training facility in Hanover, N.J., every day as a member of the academy. He took advantage of the perks of complimentary tickets to watch the first team games at Red Bull Arena.
“It’s exciting to be at a place where they give their young guys a chance,” Fernandez said. “They don’t just talk it, but they do it. When they say homegrown, your minutes start in the academy and it’s all true. It’s exciting to see the hard work and the time and dedication that was put in paid off at the end. It’s just getting started.”
Fernandez has thrived in his first preseason. The surroundings at the training facility, as well as the tactics, are familiar.
“I understand the philosophy of counter-pressing and pressing when you don’t have the ball and attacking quickly,” Fernandez said. “Obviously, it wasn’t something new to me. Being a part of the academy, this is my home. It wasn’t me going to a strange place and trying to pick up new things. It was just at a different level, doing the same things I’m doing.”
Fernandez said coming up through the academy, he’d hear about the guys who moved up the club’s pyramid and found success with the first team. Now, he’s training alongside them — players such as Derrick Etienne, Ben Mines and Sean Davis. And he sees Tyler Adams, a former academy teammate, starting and thriving at RB Leipzig in the German Bundesliga.
“You get more of a ‘Wow’ kind of feeling,” Fernandez said. “These are guys, like Tyler, a guy I played with. You see where he is now, and you’re like, wow, the hard work and dedication in this program, this team, allowed him to do that. It’s exciting in that, if I can put in the dedication and time to one day be where he is at.”
Fernandez watched Bradley Wright-Phillips and Danny Royer from the stands at Red Bull Arena. Now they’re working with him in the preseason. He’s had no problem integrating himself and impressing the coaching staff and veteran teammates even though being a professional is new to him.
“You can see he hasn’t wasted a day to prove himself with the team,” Armas said. “He’s dangerous, he’s scoring goals, but he’s a real nice addition because he gives us something different up the field.”
Red Bulls captain Luis Robles called Fernandez “a great kid, a great player,” and said his signing “continues to speak of what’s going on in this organization when you look at the academy. I hope the younger players continue to see there is a commitment to playing academy kids, kids that develop within the academy and get an opportunity sooner rather than later.”
Fernandez isn’t letting himself think too far ahead. He knows the work involved to make the first team. And then to step on the field. And then to see regular minutes and to be a perennial standout.
He’s also played at Red Bull Arena before, with Red Bulls II in the second-tier United Soccer League. But Fernandez knows, like his current trips to the training facility, his next time through the tunnel at RBA will be different.
“I think even now, when I come out to the training pitch and walk out the doors, it’s not real to me,” Fernandez said. “I don’t believe I’m doing what I’m doing. I think at that time it’s going to be like I’m just living my dream, but I want to take that moment and make the most of it.”