Soccer was not only an outlet for Omir Fernandez to stay safe in the South Bronx, the sport also ran in his blood.
That passion led him to the professional ranks where today, the 22-year-old Mott Haven native is a member of the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer (MLS). Fernandez made his professional debut in 2019, and on March 12 of that year, he scored his first professional goal in a 4-2 defeat to Mexican side Santos Laguna. On May 25, 2019, he netted his first MLS goal in a 2-0 victory over FC Cincinnati.
The youngster has come a long way from playing soccer at a park on 114th Street in Harlem.
“When I started playing soccer with my friends, I wanted to be a professional soccer player,” he told the Bronx Times.
At age 6 his family moved from Harlem to Mott Haven. Fernandez said it was somewhat similar to Harlem, but there was always loud music at, the area was dangerous and there was always a lot of people in the street at night.
According to Fernandez, what kept him on the right path was his busy schedule, his family and the pitch. While his dad Omir never had the chance to play professionally, he and his wife, Maria, passed the love of the game onto their son.
“Everything that I do and what I am is because of them,” he said. “They’re the reason I am the player I am.”
Fernandez began playing soccer at 4-years-old when he joined a small league that played at Jefferson Park in Harlem. Then, from age 6 on, he played travel soccer and it soon became his life.
He was a small kid, who was fast and just wanted to score goals. Fernandez attended Columbia Secondary High School in Morningside Heights in Manhattan where his sole focus was soccer.
Fernandez even had some teachers tell him soccer wouldn’t get him anywhere in life.
“My thing was always soccer, and I didn’t want to enjoy anything else,” Fernandez said. “I didn’t want to fall back on anything.”
At age 13, he joined the New York Red Bulls Academy in New Jersey and trained with them five days as weeks for five years. Going to New Jersey to train was not easy, but the juice was worth the squeeze, he said.
Many people that were members of the Academy team are now on the club today.
“Since I was 13, I’ve been learning how to play the Red Bull way,” he said.
Fernandez didn’t know much about colleges, but schools heavily recruited him. He was the No. 26 recruit for the class of 2017 nationwide, and the No. 2 ranked player in New Jersey.
He ultimately chose to play for Wake Forest and during his freshman year was a super-sub coming off the bench in 23 matches. In his sophomore season, he became a starter, playing in 21 games and scoring 12 goals with six assists. While at Wake Forest, he began to sense he had a good shot at making it professionally. During that time, Fernandez also played for the New York Red Bulls U-23 team.
On Jan. 26, 2019, Fernandez signed his first professional contract with New York Red Bulls. At the age of just 20, Fernandez’s lifelong dream had come true.
“I’ve always wanted to play for the Red Bulls,” he said. “When I saw the opportunity, my parents knew we couldn’t pass it up.”
Over the years his style of play has changed a lot. Fernandez was originally a fast dribbler who focused on scoring, but due to his hard work and coaching, he is now a more well-rounded player who can play defense and pass well.
While he is humble and takes nothing for granted, some days he still can’t believe he plays for the Red Bulls.
“It’s way better than whatever I dreamt it would be,” Fernandez said. “It’s amazing to play for the New York Red Bulls. They’re the team I grew up watching. To think, really, me this kid from the Bronx. I can never forget where I came from.”
Reach Jason Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (718) 260-4598. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.