HANOVER, N.J. — When Omir Fernandez heard his name mentioned among the New York Red Bulls’ starting XI during a team meeting two days before a critical Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal showdown against Santos Laguna, his reaction was similar to when fans saw the team sheet an hour before Tuesday night’s kickoff in Torreon, Mexico.
“While you’re sitting there, you really get shocked, but excited,” Fernandez said after training Thursday. “I kind of felt like, ‘Wow, such a big game, a quarterfinal game where we need to come out strong, and my name is called for the starting lineup in a difficult place to play.’ I was counted on, so I was really excited, motivated, but nervous — but mainly excited.”
Fernandez, a relatively unknown 20-year-old homegrown player newly signed and with one MLS appearance under his belt, was tasked with the responsibility of trying to help dig the Red Bulls out of a two-goal hole.
And he was asked to do so at Estadio Corona.
The son of Mexican immigrants, Fernandez grew up in a household where Liga MX was almost always on the television. He loved the league for its entertaining players and passionate fans.
“I grew up watching a lot of Mexican soccer because of my parents,” he said. “And I’ve known, watching these environments, how hostile they can be and how crazy they can get.”
Fernandez said he remembered the words Red Bulls coach Chris Armas told the team leading up to the game, about the importance of near-post runs, about getting numbers in the box. “Good thing,” he thought, “That’s one of my strengths.”
And then Fernandez scored.
“As a young player, sometimes you need a couple of minutes to feel the game, to feel comfortable,” Royer said. “And that he makes that run and scores a goal shows that he’s a hungry, young player, and that he’s totally committed.”
The deficit Santos needed 90 minutes to create was halved in just four minutes.
What a moment, what a time to score your first professional goal.
— Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League (@TheChampions) March 13, 2019
“I don’t know if you can tell by my celebration, but I couldn’t believe it,” Fernandez said. “It was something that happened so quick, I didn’t even realize what was going on. But it was like a dream come true to me. It was so exciting, a great moment in my life.”
There were instant celebrations, tear-filled ones in the Bronx, N.Y., and in the small Mexican town of Alpoyeca, Guerrero, where more of Fernandez’s relatives live.
“I called my dad [after the game] and he was up, and he was telling me my mom started crying with my sister and couldn’t believe it, and that all my family back in Mexico was watching the game,” Fernandez said. “He was just so excited.”
The Red Bulls leveled the series just five minutes later on a Royer goal, but Santos needed only nine minutes late in the second half for an avalanche of goals to eliminate New York from the competition.
But in the defeat, Armas found out he’s got a “real option” in Fernandez.
“He’s got qualities with the ball. We say he’s like [Florian Valot] this way. He’s got some elegance to him,” Armas said. “But he runs, and he runs behind and he can chase. His recovery runs are great.”
And Fernandez has additional confidence that he can play on the biggest of stages. That he belongs. That he can contribute in a big way.
“To know that I’m able to perform as well in those kind of big games, that gives me confidence, but also motivates me,” he said. “There’s a lot of competition on his team, a lot of great players, and you just want to be able to compete with them.”
The first professional goal is checked off the bucket list. Now Fernandez wants to open his MLS account — and what better place to do so than at Red Bull Arena Saturday against the San Jose Earthquakes.
“For sure I want to play at Red Bull Arena,” Fernandez said. “It’s such a great experience and I know the atmosphere is always great. To get a win on the home opening and, obviously, be able to score, would be amazing.”