“My game is to be quicker and outsmart the opponent.”
The voice emerged from the computer speakers with quiet confidence. It belonged to Omir Fernandez, the New York Red Bulls latest homegrown signing. Despite his relatively low profile at the professional level, Fernandez game has earned him plaudits ranking as the number 5 player in college soccer per TopDrawer Soccer.
Speaking to Fernandez, it was clear how humble he was, quick to praise his teamates and those who played roles in developing his game.
His game developed over time, starting in New York City parks, and then through the Red Bull Academy. Eventually, it led to Winston Salem, where he had a breakout year at Wake Forest, scoring 12 goals and recording 6 assists.
Since birth, soccer has been a part of Fernandez’s life. His family is from Mexico, and both of his parents played the game. Despite exposure to all sports, Fernandez only showed an interest in soccer.
“[My father] took me to a park one day and brought everything that he had,” Fernandez reminisced. “Football, Basketball, Baseball, even a soccer ball. [But] I was never interested in the rest of them just kicking the ball.”
He fell in love.
From there it was all soccer. At age 5, he started playing organized soccer in a rec league.
“I was playing there just enjoying myself,” said Fernandez. “I didn’t know there was an academy or better teams, I just knew there was the league I was in and then professionals.”
There was something else Fernandez did not know at the time; He was playing with kids 4 and 5 years older than him. When his dad saw he could handle that they started looking for bigger things.
The next level
After being turned down by a few local clubs, he got a chance to at BW Gottschee, based out of Ridgewood, NY. He spent 7 years at the club and earned a call up to a USA U-14 National Team camp. The camp featured players like Tim Weah, a teammate of Fernandez’s at Gottschee, as well as Tyler Adams.
It was Tyler who played a role in Fernandez joining the academy his Freshman year of High School.
“Tyler and I went to U-14 national team camp together,” said Fernandez. “And he was texting me saying coach [Jeff Zaun] really wants you at Red Bull. You should come.”
It was not an easy decision to join the academy, but one that he couldn’t pass up.
“I was at Gottschee for 7 years,” Fernandez said. “And it was a club I cared about the most. It gave me everything, and it was hard for me to say goodbye. But once I spoke to Tyler, and especially coach Jeff, he was really convincing. I was like, ‘this is an opportunity I can’t pass up’. And luckily I didn’t.”
The academy years
When you think about academies, you think about teams full of kids chasing pro dreams or a college scholarship. But its also a family. Family is a word you hear a lot around the Red Bulls first team, and it is something that flows throughout the organizational structure down to the academy.
“Before joining the Red Bulls, a lot of people told me these academy don’t treat you how a family should treat you.” said Fernandez. “They just treat you as another number and then don’t care about you. I went in and the experience was the complete opposite. The Red Bulls was like a family to me. Even though right now I’m a college student, going from the academy, they know everybody. They don’t forget about you, everyone in the club knows who you are”
The experience in the academy is something he credits to his growth.
“At 14 I was getting crazy exposure training with the 16’s. Playing with top quality players all the time, I was able to really improve my game”.
Fernandez also experienced a change in philosophy during his tenure at the academy.
When he arrived at the academy, the high press system was not in place yet. Instead, the Red Bulls utilized a more patient, possession based approach. Then a seismic shift at the top facilitated a major change in the Red Bulls approach.
Ali Curtis took over as Sporting Director for the Red Bulls and appointed Jesse Marsch head coach. The Red Bull Global philosophy followed suit. The change at the top trickled down to the academy. A more proactive style meant a more athletic, tactically disciplined player was required.
“When we won the ball, we would press it. When we didn’t have it, we wanted it back as fast as possible,” said Fernandez.
While in the Academy he got the shot to spend preseason with NYRBII in Tucson, AZ. where he impressed fans. He credits his easy transition to his experience in the Academy.
“I’ve been around for a long time,” said Fernandez. “And I knew what the system needed in my position from practicing in the academy. How they focus on that stuff, I was able to do my thing. [To] really focus on me, and not making sure the system was done because I knew it.”
Growing up, Fernandez dreamed about being a professional athlete. So, when the college process started he wasn’t sure what he would do. He didn’t even know much about the schools. Originally he looked at schools like UNC and Columbia. Then, he heard of Wake Forest.
“The coaches called me and they brought me on my visit. I started to meet some of the guys and I knew it was a place to develop.”
Wake Forest is one of the top programs and Fernandez considers choosing it as “one of my greatest decisions”. Wake Forest held two Red Bull academy alums in Kevin Politz and Steven Echevaria on the roster during his freshman year. He didn’t overlap with them in the academy, but met them when they would come home to play PDL. Fernandez settled in easily with the academy alums, and they took care of him because of the mutual connection.
It took some time for Fernandez to become a regular with Wake Forest. The transition wasn’t the easiest. Going from being a top recruit and a key player at a top team, to a bench player was hard. However, it was something that he took in stride, knowing great players were in front of him.
“I understood that my time would come. All the coaches would say, ‘if you have 5 minutes, 10 minutes, make those minutes count’.” Fernandez certainly did. He scored 6 goals and added 5 assists his Fresman year. “As a sub, I wanted to prove I shouldn’t be on the bench, and help the team win.”
During his Sophmore season in 2018, Fernandez started every game. The experience of being a bench player helped him. It also helped him mentor new freshman, who were in similar situation to Fernandez in his Fresman year. Now he was making an impact on and off the field.
Despite the breakout season, Fernandez focused less on his stats and more on the team.
“I think it was more the team success,” said Fernandez. “We lost a lot of players. [Our opponents] saw us as a very young team. They didn’t know we would do. The team’s success created my success.”
Fernandez grew up playing with guys like Tim Weah and Tyler Adams. Both have played at the highest level for the U.S. Men’s National team. Seeing their success motivates him.
“These are your friends that you still talk to daily. They tell you about that experience and how amazing it is when you reach that level. It just pushes you because they did it. If you work hard, you can do it”.
Now, progressing at the next level is Fernandez’s focus. Learning the Red Bulls’ system at the next level and becoming an integral part of the Red Bull first team are paramount. Knowing that the Red Bulls are one of the best teams in MLS at giving young players opportunities keeps him motivated.
“It something that drives me every day,” said Fernandez. “Because Red Bull gives the opportunity to the youth and it a system I one day want to be a part of because I know they can help me take my play to the next level”.
Fernandez is just the latest in a long line of talented youngsters making their way to the pro level. It is a testament to the Red Bulls’ ability to scout and develop talent at the youth level, and it is a system many teams want to immitate. But, despite the academy upbringing, Fernandez still looks back fondly at college soccer.
“I think a lot of people talk bad about college soccer and stuff like that. There are a lot of great teams, that play its not just kick and run or being physical. I feel it was a good place for development for me.”
Fernandez has a bright future. It started in the parks of New York City, and continues with a homegrown deal with the New York Red Bulls.