WHIPPANY, NJ — Thursday morning temperatures touched 90 degrees and it was even hotter on the turf at the New York Red Bulls training facility.
As his understandably-drenched teammates walked into the comforting embrace of their locker room and with it, air conditioning, attacker Omir Fernandez continued to work 100 yards away, curling chance after chance with both feet into the goal.
Just a bit of extra work for the emerging Red Bulls star, who is no stranger to getting some extra work in under inconvenient conditions.
Moving to the Bronx from Manhattan at the age of seven, the son of Mexican immigrants found a way to play the game he loved outside academy work on the asphalt and sidewalks of 138th street — just a stone’s throw away from the 6 line.
“I used to play on the street til I was 14 or 15,” Fernandez began. “It brings back good memories…There aren’t many cars that go by so you can play on the road, but we usually were just on the sidewalk. It wasn’t too big but we didn’t need much”
He would play every position — picking up plenty of road rash as a goalkeeper where he would emulate one of his idols in Mexican legend Guillermo Ochoa. The most capped keeper in Mexico National Team history also spent a decade with Club America, which is one of the most famous clubs of Mexico’s top soccer division, Liga MX. It’s the league that Fernandez grew up watching and is still the marine event of every weekend in his family’s household.
But in his more natural attacking position, he imitated the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo — the reason he grew up a Manchester United supporter — but was still objective enough to admit that Lionel Messi is the greatest player of this generation.
“As a little kid, it was always my dream to play but you never really knew it was a possibility,” Fernandez said. “It was just kind of a dream and when you’d play you’d imitate other players and imagine that there’s people watching you and playing in big stadiums and stuff like that.”
He was put on track to achieve that seemingly-elusive dream in 2011 as just a 12-year-old when he joined the Red Bulls’ academy. Over the next eight years, he climbed the youth ranks, attended an ACC power in Wake Forest, broke into the senior side in 2019, and scored his first professional goal against one of the Mexican sides he watched growing up, Santos Laguna, in a CONCACAF Champions League match in Torreon, MX.
But it hasn’t been until this season that Fernandez settled into more of a starring role fueled by a new brand of confident soccer that has come up with big goals that have been hard to come by for the Red Bulls this season.
On May 9, he scored the lone goal in a 1-0 victory over DC United to lift New York into the Round of 16 of the US Open Cup. Just four days later, he scored the game-winner in a derby-day victory over rivals NYCFC. He’s recorded either a goal or an assist in four of the Red Bulls’ last five matches (one goal, three assists) with a direct hand in exactly half of the team’s last eight tallies.
All the while, a new-found ability to surround himself in gratitude has laid the necessary mental groundwork to help his physical abilities flourish.
“I’m just trying to enjoy it now that I’m here,” he said. “I wasn’t really doing it much when I first got into the league but now that it’s my fifth year here, I’m trying to really enjoy going out there and being in front of the fans and playing in stadiums because that’s what I grew up wanting to do. I play a lot better when I think that way.”
The right environment only fosters that mindful demeanor and it’s no coincidence that he’s found this new level of form since the introduction of manager Troy Lesesne in early May.
“He’s somebody that I told to his face that he’s one of the first people that has given me a lot of confidence as a player,” Fernandez said. “That’s my biggest thing as a player when I get shown confidence, I tend to reciprocate and get results.
“I’m having a confident year for sure and I’m really happy so far.”
It’s kept the Red Bulls afloat as they continue to look for consistent offense. They needed penalties to defeat the New England Revolution after a scoreless draw in the Leagues Cup opener on Saturday and have scored the second-fewest goals this season in the Eastern Conference.
A result over another Liga MX side on Sunda night, Atletico de San Luis, will punch the Red Bulls’ ticket into the Round of 32 of the Leagues Cup where the budding responsibility of being the big man for the big occasion awaits Fernandez.
Good thing he spent his childhood emulating some of the best — one of them even calling MLS home with Messi joining Inter Miami.
“When people don’t score, they’re going to look at the attackers. I’m one of them,” Fernandez said. “I tried to imitate these big players — Ronaldo, Messi — and if I want to be anywhere near their level I have to accept the pressure. I can’t just score all the goals and score and celebrate and be happy. I have to take that pressure when things don’t go right.
“This year out of all of them is when I’ve accepted that pressure. I’m like ‘OK, it’s fine. They’re going to blame me.’ And that’s what I want. As much as I like the good, I have to accept the bad.”