FOXBOROUGH — When 17-year-old Revolution midfielder Noel Buck slammed a low, left-foot shot past US national team goalkeeper Sean Johnson last month, he became the second-youngest goal scorer in team history.
The Revolution won that game, 3-0, over New York City FC, reviving their playoff hopes. They then went into a three-game losing skid that dropped them to 11th place in the Eastern Conference (9-12-11, 38 points) going into their final home match, against Atlanta United Saturday. But the emergence of Buck and two other teenagers — Esmir Bajraktarevic and Damian “Tico” Rivera — have provided bright spots in an otherwise dark season.
“We’ve put a lot of time and energy into the pro pathway system, I call it,” said Revolution technical director Curt Onalfo. “When we signed Noel, he was 15 years old. We sat down with him and told him, ‘By the time you’re 18, we want you to have close to 60 games as a pro and position yourself for the first team.’ He did that timeline a little quicker than that.”
The arrival of Onalfo and sporting director/head coach Bruce Arena in 2019 signaled a ramp-up of the Revolution development program. The team opened a $35 million training facility behind Gillette Stadium and established a full-time residence setup, housing players from the academy and Revolution II squads.
The investment appears to be paying off as Bajraktarevic, Buck, and Rivera have provided depth and Justin Rennicks, 23, has scored two goals in 11 starts this season.
But in terms of precociousness, no one has yet matched Diego Fagundez.
When he was a high school freshman in Leominster, Fagundez signed a pro contract with the Revolution, having fast-tracked through the academy in a matter of months. In his MLS debut in 2011, Fagundez (age 16 years, 173 days) converted once and earned a penalty kick, going on to second place on the team’s all-time scoring list (53 goals) before departing as a free agent last year.
Fagundez, though, has proven an exception, arriving at the Revolution academy nearly the finished product despite his age. Most young players need guidance and game experience before they are ready to compete with the first team.
“I met him one time in Lancaster,” Buck said of Fagundez. “I must’ve been 6, and he comes in always with a unique look, and I remember the tank top and, like, a Mohawk. I got my boot signed and I still have the boot. I wore it so much that the studs rubbed off, so it was like an indoor shoe. The last time I wore it, I was slipping all over the place.
“It’s always a cool stat to be the youngest scorer. It’s very difficult to beat him, he scored so young. But it’s nice to be up there.”
Buck and friends might not appear as flashy as Fagundez, but once they hit the field, there is nothing shy about their games.
Rivera drove in a goal in the first minute of his first start, a 2-0 win over Inter Miami in April. In Bajraktarevic’s debut, he started in place of captain Carles Gil, nutmegging a veteran NYC FC defender near the end line in the opening minutes of a 1-0 extra time loss in the US Open Cup in May.
“The day before, in training, I was playing passive and simple, scared to lose the ball,” Bajraktarevic said. “And [Arena] told me, like, ‘You’re here for a reason. You’re a good player, keep doing what’s gotten you here.’ There’s no reason to change it.”
Rivera has become a dependable spark on the left wing. He nearly replicated his debut goal last month against the Chicago Fire in a 0-0 tie, drilling a shot off the right post from a Gustavo Bou backheel in the final minutes. The attempt was slightly deflected by goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina.
Buck learned the game playing alongside brothers Joe (now at Georgetown University) and Charlie (who died in 2016) under the guidance of their father, Steven, who grew up in England. Buck adopted role models from Chelsea FC — midfielders Frank Lampard and Mason Mount.
“Especially Frank, he’s such a class player, especially because what they do so well is they work hard,” Buck said. “You can say you love, like, how these other guys play, like Neymar. But they’re not putting in the dirty work on the field. That’s why I pride myself on being able to do anything. I’m not afraid to go in and tackle and run a lot.”
Which means not backing down against veterans.
“I mean, a lot of them are old,” Buck said. “I either haven’t heard of them because they were playing for the national team when I was 7, or, like, they’re just older. You slow down when you’re older, that’s just how it is. So, I’ve got a youthful step on me, so I can really get into it.”
Experienced players often try to capitalize on overly aggressive foes, luring younger opponents into committing fouls.
“I’m still going to get into it,” Buck said. “Make them feel me.”
The Revolution academy also provided a platform for Scott Caldwell, who played at Akron University before signing an MLS contract in 2012, and Isaac Angking, who went directly from high school in North Providence to the first team in 2018.
“There is more than one pathway, through college or going directly into the program,” Onalfo said. “And now we provide education for players.
“It is a difficult decision for some. For others it just makes sense, now that everything here is intertwined. We have a system and it works and it’s just the beginning. The goal is to have contributors come through the system.
“Inevitably, there is going to be a spell where we have injuries. There are going to be opportunities and they have to be ready.”
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at email@example.com.