DUARTE AIMS HIGH AT CD NACIONAL
With the Portuguese Primeira Liga only six games old, one player hoping to break out is young American Sergio Duarte, who has already made his first-team debut.
Duarte, 19, signed a three-year contract with CD Nacional over the summer after three impressive years at the club's youth teams, ranging from their U-17 to U-19 teams. Since then, he has already made his first-team debut when he played the last 34 minutes in a 3-1 Primeira Liga loss to Moreirense on August 26.
Duarte's background is very unique. His parents are from Portugal but moved to Long Branch, N.J. after they were married. Although Duarte was born there, around the time of his first birthday, his family moved back to Portugal.
When he was nine, Duarte and his parents moved to London and it was there were he began to play soccer seriously, with local youth teams.
In 2009, at the age of 16, it was arranged for him to have a trial with Nacional where he immediately impressed. Duarte was then brought into the club's youth teams for three years until his first team contract was signed this past summer.
When he signed his first team deal, Duarte knew it was going to be difficult to earn minutes at his young age but he was determined to make an impact.
"We have a very big squad [of 32 players] with a lot of experienced players, so I knew it was tough to get regular, first-team football on my first season," Duarte told YA. "But, I kept working and that earned me [getting] called up for a few games and I managed to play some minutes. It is hard for a young player, in their first season, to get regular, first-team football in a league so competitive as the Portuguese Premier league. I was aware of that. So my goal was just to try to learn as much as possible and make the most of the few playing minutes I was awarded."
Moving forward this season, Duarte and Nacional have significant challenges ahead. Even after only six games completed, Nacional sits in 15th place in the 16-team league with just five points. The standings do remain extraordinarily tight in the Primeira Liga with just three points separating Nacional from fifth place.
In recent seasons, Nacional has been a steadily improving team in Portugal. In the 2008/09 season, they qualified for the Europa League and defeated FC Zenit Saint Petersburg (Russia) to advance to the group stage. Nacional qualified yet again in 2010/11 but were eliminated by Birmingham City in the final playoff prior to the group stage.
Despite the slow start this year, Duarte is very optimistic that they can compete for another European berth and believes the team will finish towards the top of the Primeira Liga standings.
"CD Nacional is near the bottom of the table, but that was due to a bad start in the league," Duarte discussed. "We were a bit unlucky in a few home games we had. That does not concern me. I am aware of the quality of the team and we have demonstrated that in preseason. So I'm sure it's a matter of time before we win some games and start moving up in the table into the top six places, where we belong. I'm confident we are going to finish in the top six places and qualify for the Europa League."
Duarte's role within Nacional's system is to help the team in their possession. He likes to play as a defensive midfielder and help his team quickly transition from defense to offense.
The Portuguese league's attacking style suits Duarte, who enjoys having responsibilities on both sides of the ball.
"I'm more of a central midfielder and I play best as a defensive midfielder," Duarte said of his role. "I like to make the ball do most of the work. So, I'm always looking for open spaces to receive the ball and assist my teammates; so, passing would be one of my strengths. I could say I'm quite an aggressive player, as well, but in a good way. I always try to be well-positioned to recover as many balls as possible, to regain possession."
In the international arena, Duarte is eligible to play for either the United States or Portugal but has yet to be called up by the youth national teams for either country.
While he did not live for very long in the US, Duarte actively follows the US National Team and hopes to earn a call-up to the US U-20 team this cycle, as they attempt to qualify for next year's World Cup in Turkey.
Duarte appreciates the approach to youth national teams in the US more than he does with Portugal, who are generally interested only in players from the big clubs.
"To be honest, the way they manage the youth national teams here is not correct," Duarte explained. "They only pick the players from the big teams, like Sporting Lisbon, Benfica and FC Porto. They don't really bother to go and watch other players from other teams. That is why I want a chance to represent the US National Team. I just want to show what I am capable of."
His motivations for wanting to play for the US are more than simply his frustration with Portugal's system. He is still has family in New Jersey and, before his move to London, wanted to return to the US to live. An opportunity to play for the US, even at the youth level, is something that would be an honor to both him and his Portuguese family.
"It would be a huge honor to represent the US National Team," Duarte concluded. "Although my family is Portuguese, I've always followed and supported the US National Team. I would be extremely happy if I just got one chance to represent the US National Team. My parents would be extremely proud as well."