Konrad De La Fuente left Barcelona to chase his dream and U.S. forward is just getting started

Each skilled soccer participant is chasing the dream of changing into the most effective, and for a lot of his profession, Konrad De La Fuente was the uncommon performer who appeared poised to dwell them out on the very highest degree. He joined La Masia, the famed academy of FC Barcelona, when he was simply 12, and regularly stored rising via the ranks in the direction of the hope of a spot within the first-team squad.

Till he did not. Granted, De La Fuente made it additional than most, garnering three first-team appearances — two within the UEFA Champions League — in addition to intensive time with Barcelona B in Spain’s second tier. However there was additionally the truth that he made the bench for the primary staff 18 instances final season, with nary a minute in league play. Regardless of rubbing elbows with Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique, his ceiling, not less than in that second, had been reached.

So De La Fuente pursued an alternate path this summer season, securing a switch to Ligue 1 facet Olympique Marseille, and relatively than feeling like he is given up on his Barca dream, it is extra a dream deferred. At simply 20 years outdated, there’s nonetheless time.

“I am an formidable individual, so for me, it wasn’t that onerous to depart [Barcelona],” he advised ESPN through phone whereas on worldwide obligation with the U.S. in early September. “My objective is to finish up taking part in for Barcelona in the future, and I do know that one of the simplest ways for that to occur was to depart, as a result of I must get these first division minutes.

“I had some good affords — I selected to go to Marseille. The perfect factor I might have achieved for my growth was to start out getting skilled minutes early, to develop as a participant and hopefully in the future get again to Barcelona.”

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The summer season of 2021 wasn’t the primary time De La Fuente felt the itch to maneuver on. Firstly of 2020, there have been studies of Bundesliga curiosity, however the powers that be in Barcelona satisfied the Miami native to remain. Later that yr, newly arrived supervisor Ronald Koeman counted himself as a fan. However the 2020-21 marketing campaign proved to be troublesome, and never simply due to the dearth of LaLiga minutes. De La Fuente bounced between the primary and second staff; if he did not play for the primary staff on Saturday, he’d arrive dwelling with Lionel Messi & Co. at 4 a.m., solely to then meet up with Barca B and play for them on the Sunday.

Feeling that he could not serve two groups effectively, De La Fuente requested that he be allowed to focus his taking part in time with Barcelona B, and the teaching workers agreed.

“My routine modified a bit,” he mentioned. “In the event that they had been positive I had no likelihood of taking part in with the primary staff on the weekend, I might simply stick with Barca B on that Saturday and prepare with Barca B. Then on Sunday, I simply performed. That means, I received to play consecutive video games with out skipping any, and that [continuity] actually helped.”

Certainly, De La Fuente completed the season with six targets in 22 league appearances with the Barca B — not that Marseille wanted a lot convincing when the summer season switch window opened.

De La Fuente had caught the attention of Marseille president Pablo Longoria again when the manager was the sporting director at Valencia, and the participant’s availability rekindled that curiosity. From there, a telephone name between De La Fuente and Marseille supervisor Jorge Sampaoli satisfied each side they’d profit from the transfer. Sampaoli was gained over by De La Fuente’s perspective and felt he had the work ethic required to succeed, whereas the participant was assured that the previous Sevilla and Chile supervisor might transfer his profession ahead. Given Barcelona’s struggles with monetary difficulties, the worth was proper, too — a relative cut price at $3.5 million.

“It isn’t a failure. It is the fact of being in a type of large golf equipment,” mentioned present Houston Dynamo supervisor Tab Ramos, who coached De La Fuente with the U.S. U-20 nationwide staff. “That is the way it works. You usually are going to finish up at one other large membership. In case you’re not ok, you clearly do not make it. He is made it to a giant membership now, and I feel that is extremely optimistic.”

In some methods, De La Fuente’s on-field and off-field personalities appear at odds; he is soft-spoken away from the sport, however boasts the requisite competitiveness and confidence as soon as the whistle blows. Ramos remembers a participant whose impression was extra of a sluggish burn than a bolt of lightning, a performer who gained him over just a little bit at a time.

Today, De La Fuente says he is refined his strategy. He is all about duels. And profitable them.

“Each participant I feel has their very own small ‘sport inside the sport,'” he mentioned. “Mine is simply coping with the man that is marking me, simply going at him on a regular basis, beating him 1-on-1, creating probabilities and scoring.”

It is this space that Sampaoli is making an attempt to intensify much more. De La Fuente remembers that in moments when he feels he must sluggish the play down — one thing Barcelona tends to do at instances, for strategic functions — Sampaoli implores him to disregard these instincts and hold attacking.

“He desires me to push the ball ahead any time I get the prospect,” mentioned De La Fuente. “Keep open once I get the ball, push the opposite staff’s protection again, go 1-on-1. Create scoring probabilities as a lot as I can. If I am in coaching and I attempt to play easy, he is like, ‘no, each time I would like you to proceed to go,’ in order that it comes pure within the video games. I am not stopping.”

Two assists in three league video games level to a speedy acclimatization course of, although there are nonetheless issues to be taught in Sampaoli’s idiosyncratic 3-3-1-3 formation. It has helped that defender Alvaro Gonzalez, who got here from LaLiga himself in 2020, has taken De La Fuente underneath his wing, and he is bonded with Arsenal’s on-loan midfielder Matteo Guendouzi as effectively.

“To date it is turned out very well for me,” De La Fuente mentioned of the transfer. “I am actually glad.”

His membership is not the one venue the place there are changes to be made; the identical is true of De La Fuente on the worldwide degree. He confirmed flashes of his potential within the U.S.’s 0-0 draw with El Salvador, particularly early within the second half. However there have been additionally instances when he drifted out of the sport, and he admitted there have been some points of the chaos of CONCACAF which have taken some getting used to.

“The velocity of the sport I feel is slower, however from a aggressive standpoint, I feel it is totally different,” De La Fuente mentioned about World Cup qualifiers in CONCACAF. “Right here, it is like a combat each sport. In Europe, it is extra managed. To not reduce our opponents right here, however in Europe there’s extra technical high quality and within the opposing staff as effectively. In CONCACAF, opposing groups aren’t as technically good as European groups, so that they make up for it in different methods. Towards El Salvador, each 50-50, guys are coming in just a little bit with their cleats up, two-footed tackles on a regular basis. All of the [loose] balls, they’re going to be getting in with their elbows up.”

He added, “All these little particulars make the distinction.”

Now De La Fuente is again in Marseille, the place further expertise in Ligue 1 in addition to the Europa League — they go to Lokomotiv Moscow on Thursday — beckons. So do his goals.

Further reporting and knowledge from Julien Laurens and Sam Marsden | Konrad De La Fuente left Barcelona to chase his dream and U.S. ahead is simply getting began


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