Wednesday night, October 14, 2020 may have seemed to be a “normal” game night for the Los Angeles Football Club in an anything but a normal MLS season. But that new sense of normalcy was turned on its head when 15-year-old Erik Dueñas took the pitch against the Vancouver Whitecaps in the 71st minute for the first time in his young MLS career and marked a milestone that can’t be understated.
At 15 years, 362 days, Dueñas became the third youngest player to ever appear in an MLS match in the 25-year history of the league, behind only Freddy Adu (14 years, 306 days) and Alphonso Davies (15 years, 257 days). But what the substitution actually marked was the realization of a dream for a Club that looked to establish itself as not just another sports organization in the overcrowded Los Angeles market, but a bastion of hope for the local community to provide so much more than sheer sporting entertainment.
To uneducated viewers, this seemed like the beginning, but, this debut had been in the works for years. Building from the ground up has been an ethos for LAFC since it first began with a dream and league approval on October 30, 2014. The dream began without a name, crest, colors, coaches, players or a stadium, only visions of what could be.
One of those visions included a pipeline to provide local youth players with access and an opportunity to become professionals. It is a vision that LAFC Co-President & General Manager John Thorrington has been talking about since the beginning.
“Very early on in my conversations with ownership, I said one of my goals for this organization is that the 17-year-old version of myself now, who grows up here playing in an academy and has a chance to go to Manchester United, stays at LAFC,” Thorrington told Soccer America in 2018. “If achieved, that would say a lot about what we’re doing at the academy but also what we’re doing at the first-team level, that it is an aspirational target that kids with options will go for and we have that pathway for that kid to play in our beautiful stadium.”
The LAFC Academy began forming early in the Club’s infancy, taking the pitch in 2016 even before the first team had selected a player, a strategy that was designed with a real purpose.
“It starts with our philosophy, which is that we want our academy to form the backbone of our first team,” Thorrington told MLSsoccer.com before the Academy’s first-ever match. “I look at these 12-year-olds and I’m incredibly jealous. They’re getting our full on-field focus, these kids are getting 100 percent of that. And I think that is just us acting on our philosophy and mission to really create the next few generations of talent, not just for our team but for our national team.”
One of those first kids to join the early Academy trainings was a skinny 11-year-old Erik Dueñas, who by all outside accounts looked a far cry from a typical American athletic protégé, but who possessed a hunger and attitude beyond his years.
LAFC’s Academy Director Todd Saldaña fondly looks back on his first experiences with Dueñas.
“Credit to John [Thorrington] and first [Academy] coach Joey [Cascio] in their scouting to be honest. They brought Erik into that [first] pool of players,” said Saldaña. “He was a local kid which was super exciting to find someone near (El Monte), but the personality of what we were hoping for too. You got a guy that's a street-soccer wise, tough, down to earth, family-oriented kid but just living and breathing the game.”
It was clear early on that the skill was there, but even at a young age, Dueñas’ attitude is really what impressed the Academy staff.
“We saw him develop from a center back, which obviously his profile doesn't come close to fitting that, but all the other qualities he had translated into an outside back that could get forward, make things happen and you know, he's grown within that position for us,” Saldaña said, “At the beginning, he was a little more conservative, and as we gave him more license and each year, he's grown into a guy that is such a solid defender but also can get forward and make plays and beat people and he doesn't care that the matchup can be taller or faster quality - he still finds a way.”
The journey was not without its challenges for Dueñas.
“He’s had other players he’s had to compete with,” Saldaña said. “There was a time where he was splitting time with another right back. There were times we had to put him at left back to accommodate both until Erik out and out won the spot. He was an example also of one of those guys that never complained. If you put Erik on the bench, or you said ‘You’ve got to work a bit harder and earn your spot for the next match,’ Erik never said a thing. He put his head down and sure enough would prove you wrong if you didn't start him, and prove himself right by getting himself on the field again.”
Dueñas was succeeding at the Academy level, but still at a young age, that doesn’t necessarily translate to first team placement, or crucial minutes in an MLS game. His signing and immediate incorporation into the roster was a testament to the trust and collaboration established between the Academy and the First Team that Thorrington had always envisioned. A true player pipeline.
This coordination on all levels is something Thorrington and LAFC head coach Bob Bradley made a priority, as Bradley and the LAFC first team coaches routinely stop in to the Academy offices to talk about players and the game in general. Saldaña and Academy Director Enrique Duran are regularly included in the coaches morning meetings to listen in on first team training plans and discuss player performance.
“It's just become so natural for us to feel connected to them,” Saldaña said.
This synergy makes it easier for the Academy to prepare their players for the next level, and it’s made all the better by their intricate knowledge, access, and insight into what the First Team needs and why.
Seeing the recent success of the first three LAFC Homegrown signings has invigorated the rest of the LAFC Academy players. When the pipeline was still a pipe dream, there was no tangible product to show what the vision could look like. Now, the success of Dueñas, Torres, and Leone is a proof in concept for the rest of the young players to look to.
“The younger players can look up and say ‘I can do this too,’” Saldaña said. “Tony, Erik, and Christian, they're great kids. They are still connected to the Academy and they popped on a couple of our zoom calls with the rest of Academy on their spare time. I think it's so great because it really hasn't been that long, and these are pretty young guys, so they still identify with our Academy players.”
On the other side, the LAFC Academy players have first team players that they can easily identify with.
“I think all of our players feel like they were able to compete with them,” Saldaña said. “The fact that they've been signed, it seems attainable. It just takes the motivation to another level.”
Dueñas realizes that while he has accomplished one of his goals, there is still a lot of work to do to continue to realize his dreams.
“I was nervous to get my first appearance with this amazing team, but I was also excited,” said Dueñas. “I felt ready to make my debut. I’m really honored, I’m blessed to this opportunity form LAFC and I hope to keep working hard and be learning everything I can on and off the field.”
“It's like everybody says, it is a process,” Saldaña said. “We're not just going to throw them in and expect them to play at the level we need them to consistently, it's going to be a process.”
Beginning with its inaugural season, LAFC has been talking about Making History, and in just three years they have done that and more. Watching the journey of Erik Dueñas, who joined the club as an 11-year-old and made his debut with the First Team in the 2020 MLS Season, highlights just how much history the Club is going to make.