When Miami-born Konrad De La Fuente moved with his family to Barcelona at the age of 11, he already had a natural ability that suggested he had found an ideal new home. At La Masia, the infamous Barcelona academy which has produced the likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, they refer to this ability as Barça DNA.
“I can play on both wings, I’m fast, I dribble well, I’m good at one-on-ones and I’m a goalscorer,” De La Fuente tells the Guardian via email, before listing the players who have influenced him.
“The first-team player that I admire most is, of course, Messi, but given my characteristics as a player I also follow [Ousmane] Dembélé closely,” he says. “In terms of players from the past at Barça, I really like how Neymar plays, because of his ability to overwhelm opposition players and his speed.”
Rubén Martí is a coach at Marcet, the renowned youth academy De La Fuente joined when he first arrived in Barcelona (De La Fuente trained with Marcet before moving to CF Damm and then finally to La Masia at Under-13 level). Martí describes the young winger’s ability to “destabilize” opponents using the Spanish word “desequilibrante”, which perfectly describes the confusion he causes in opposition defenders. “On top of this he’s really fast, making him the perfect choice to play on the wing,” says Martí.
Pedro Marcet, head of the Marcet academy, says De La Fuente’s talent was obvious from the start. “He already stood out when he arrived in Barcelona,” says Marcet. “He was different because he had a very high technical level. He has great peripheral vision, amazing drive on the ball when shooting and dribbling, and is able to play at a high intensity.”
That explains why De La Fuente is so admired by La Masia’s coaches, who saw a player who understood the Barcelona game while he was still in his early teens; a game based on pressure, possession and positional play.
De La Fuente also demonstrated his ability during his outings in the Uefa Youth League this season, as Barcelona progressed to the semi-finals. De La Fuente believes his experience in Uefa youth competitions, and the upcoming Under-20 World Cup, will help him prepare for the next stage of his career.
“The U-20 World Cup, like the semi-finals of the Youth League a few weeks ago, is an extraordinary opportunity for me to gain recognition,” he says. “I think that all of the players who will participate in this World Cup are privileged to be able to enjoy an event of such global dimensions. I hope to play a big role on my team.”
Despite the fact that, at 17, De La Fuente is the youngest member of the US squad, he is confident he can hold his own at the U-20 World Cup, which starts on Saturday in Poland. The team may well be the most promising group of young players in the nation’s history, and the US have a chance of winning. The group will also be reaching their prime when the US hosts the World Cup, along with Mexico and Canada, in 2026.
“My goal is to grow with the United States national team,” De La Fuente says. “Playing in the U-20 World Cup is the first step, and then I hope to earn a place in the senior side. Of course, I see myself playing in a World Cup one day.”
De La Fuente isn’t the only US youth international based in Europe. The country’s best young talents are increasingly moving abroad to learn their trade – more than half of the US U-20 World Cup roster play outside the United States – broadening their horizons in a way many believe the game back home is failing to do.
“His family moved to Spain for football,” says Marcet. “They thought Konrad was too good for US soccer and they wanted to go to a country where he could progress faster. Football was a priority for them.”
It will be difficult for De La Fuente to break into the first-team at one of the biggest clubs in the world, but the challenge – and the experience of the coaches around him – will make him a better player.
For now, the U-20 World Cup could turn out to be a pivotal moment in De La Fuente’s burgeoning career. Youth tournaments are about development as much as winning, but often the former leads to the latter. The man from La Masia could play a big role as he and his US teammates plough their own furrow away from their homeland, sowing the seeds of future success and perhaps giving a nation the global stars its football fans crave.