The first hurdle was cleared when Leo Fernandes earned a coveted spot on the Philadelphia Union’s roster.
The next hurdle was cleared when he maintained that spot through hard work and dedication day in and day out.
Lately, Fernandes has been jumping through the roof.
He played his first minute in league action as a 90th minute substitute in a 1-0 victory over the Chicago Fire on May 18.
Then came a major coup – Fernandes’ first career start in a 2-1 victory over the Ocean City Nor’easters in the third round of the U.S. Open Cup. He played 89 minutes before leaving in place of Michael Farfan.
Fernandes not only played 89 minutes, but he performed more than admirably.
“I thought he was good,” Union manager John Hackworth said. “Out of all the performances we gave tonight, I thought Leo was one of the real bright spots. He got this opportunity because he earned it. It wasn’t me trying to throw a bone to anybody saying, ‘Hey this is the Open Cup so I’m going to start a rookie.’ Leo was our best option especially coming off of Montreal with Kleberson and Michael Farfan (playing a lot). His performance tonight was excellent.”
When Fernandes saw his name among the starting 11, it was a special moment. But he also knew that meant showing his mettle on the pitch.
“It was an amazing opportunity,” Fernandes said. “I was happy (Hackworth) let me play 90 minutes tonight. I was out there doing the best I can and I was happy for the opportunity. I was happy with the win. I felt fresh and anytime you have an opportunity to play, you have a lot of energy. It’s pretty easy for me to get up for the game. Again, I’m just happy we won.”
Getting that rare chance to start might be nerve-wracking.
Fernandes clearly channeled his energy and played a rock-steady match in the midfield.
“It can bring his confidence to a new level,” said captain and midfielder Brian Carroll, who scored the winning goal just before extra time expired. “He got his opportunity, handled it and was comfortable out there. He used his speed and skill in the midfield, passed the ball forward, churned out space. Time will tell but he’s earned this opportunity. He took it and showed what he could do out there.”
Carroll recalled what it was like to receive that first start.
“Absolutely I was nervous,” Carroll said. “I think being nervous is healthy. It means you want to do well for your team and I think he did that tonight.”
Did the start validate Fernandes’ work ethic in training?
“It means a lot and it shows (Hackworth) is noticing I’m working hard in practice,” Fernandes said. “It’s good to play and I’m happy to get the victory.”
Fernandes is hoping to get many more starts in the future. This much is certain: he’ll keep pushing as hard as he possibly can in training to prove he belongs. There are still more hurdles to climb.
“It’s not hard to be patient,” Fernandes said. “There are a lot of good players on the team. The easiest part is just working hard every day. The best thing is being able to play soccer because it’s a blessing.”
Contact Union writer Andy Jasner at firstname.lastname@example.org