When the San Jose Earthquakes signed Gilbert Fuentes to a multi-year Homegrown player contract in January, they were proud to announce that, at 15 years of age, the U.S. youth international was the youngest signing in club history. The promotion of Fuentes from the U-19 Academy team to the first team was made in part to signal to other youth players in the Quakes system that they had a path to the pros here in the Bay Area.
“Signing Gilbert to a Homegrown contract was a priority for us and I would like to thank the Fuentes family, agent Rob Moore, MLS, and our entire staff in the youth development area for their commitment to get this done,” said Earthquakes general manager Jesse Fioranelli in a club statement. “At just 15 years old, he has quickly separated himself from his peers thanks to a strong technical ability and high soccer IQ, which has garnered the attention of the U.S. Soccer Federation.”
Buried in Fioranelli’s comment was a curious acknowledgment of Fuentes’ agent, Rob Moore, who is not yet a household name in U.S. Soccer, unless your last name happens to be Pulisic. Moore, whose agency, On Target Football Consultants, is based in England, was the man responsible for setting U.S. men’s national team star Christian Pulisic on his path of success with Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga, urging the teenage American to sign his first professional contract in Europe.
The mention of Moore by Fioranelli marked the first time the Earthquakes had included a player agent’s name in a press release announcing a new signing. Moore, who represents other U.S. players, such as Haji Wright and Nick Taitague, looks at Europe, especially Germany, as the preferred destination for top young Americans. In a profile published on The Ringer, he suggests that steering the best youth prospects in the U.S. to European leagues will be a win-win for the players and, ultimately, the U.S. men’s national team.
“I’m trying to set the bar higher,” Moore says in The Ringer article. “I’m trying to play a small role in helping America have more world-class players at the absolute top, which by definition will be few and far between. But the biggest challenge is the step just below that. In other words, more Americans playing at good clubs in good leagues in Europe. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Moore makes it clear in the article that, for the top-level American prospects, making the move across the pond is the best course of action, especially for players in the 16 to 18 year age group, a sentiment Pulisic himself echoed to the Players’ Tribune. However, rules regarding work permits make this a challenge for the under 18 set — while Pulisic was able to sign with Dortmund at 16 after gaining a Croatian passport, other Americans, like Josh Sargent, had to wait until his 18th birthday to official sign his professional contract with Werder Bremen. Rules vary from country to country when it comes to the age at which players can train, join academies, and sign professional contracts, making the timeline as to when a U.S. player move overseas a case-by-case scenario.
Until this January, when Fuentes was signed by the Earthquakes, Moore had shunned pointing his players in the direction of Major League Soccer as a league of choice. Completing the deal between the Tracy native and the Quakes gives Moore the first MLS player in his portfolio, a move that runs counter to his primary philosophy, but perhaps a sign that Moore recognizes that the growth of MLS academies cannot be ignored.
Fuentes joined the Quakes’ U-15 squad in 2016 from his club team Ballistic United SC in Pleasanton. Despite being age-eligibility for the U-17 squad during the current academy season, he competed exclusively with the U-19 squad and scored three goals in eight games before signing his Homegrown Player contract. Earlier this month, Fuentes was called into the U.S. U-17 national team camp in preparation for next year’s U-17 World Cup cycle. He has been on an upward trajectory for many years.
So why sign with San Jose? A big question mark in the signing of Fuentes, especially in light of Moore’s preferred path for elite players, is what’s in it for both club and player. Fioranelli, who prior to joining the Earthquakes as their general manager last year, worked on both sides of the negotiation table while in Europe. He has a strong foundation in player recruitment and placement from his days with AS Roma and Lazio, and prior to that as an agent. To personally thank Moore in his official statement is a sign that, together, the two have a plan for Fuentes, one that allows the teenager to be paid a salary while also getting significant development time with the first team. Perhaps, with the experience Fuentes will get in San Jose, the Quakes, with Moore’s influence, will be able to transfer the midfielder to a European side when he becomes age eligible in two years.
Regardless of what the future holds for the team’s youngest player, simply seeing a Moore client join MLS could open the door for other players. The agent has said repeatedly that having his clients sign directly with European clubs keeps the costs for those clubs lower than if transfer and compensation fees are added on. But if Moore, and other agencies, raid the MLS academy system for young talent too early, it undermines both sides’ ability to identify and nurture promising youth players. Not every teenage soccer phenom is going to be the next Pulisic.
Will Fuentes, then, be a trailblazer for other aspiring professionals, embracing the opportunity to develop for a few years in MLS before embarking overseas? Has Fioranelli taken the Quakes Academy one step further in creating a viable pipeline for the first team and a stepping stone to moving to the top European leagues? It’s very possible that in February 2020, when Fuentes turns 18, we’ll look back on this signing as a groundbreaking moment in the club’s growth.