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It’s dusk in South Florida, and one couldn’t ask for better weather. 

There’s barely a cloud above Chase Stadium as the late-February sun slowly begins to dip beneath the field’s pink, black and white dotted stands. Meanwhile the stars of the night’s match are set to take the pitch in just a few moments. 

It’s Real Salt Lake vs Inter Miami CF on Major League Soccer’s opening night. In the bowels of IMCF’s temporary home, RSL Head Coach Pablo Mastroeni is giving his first team talk of the season. 

Fidel Barajas, RSL’s new 17-year-old attacker, is drinking in his first-ever MLS pre-game preparations, hoping to potentially debut on American soccer’s biggest stage. 

RSL is wearing their hexagonal gold “Beehive State” kits, and the temperature outside is comfortable enough to excuse wearing short sleeves after the sun slips below the Gulf of Mexico.

Years from now, these details might be lost in the fog of time, but there’s no doubt it will all come back to Barajas crystal clear. 

Throughout the week, Barajas was told by the RSL coaching staff that he may be making his debut in Miami. Around the 60’ minute, he hears his name shouted down from the bench to the subs warming up on the endline. 

“It was insane,” Barajas said. “I got up, did my thing by warming up, then I looked over on the pitch and saw Messi, I just thought, this is really happening.”

“I processed that during the warm-up, slapping myself in the face, pinching myself like "is this really real?”

You never forget your first. A couple deep breaths later and Barajas was on the pitch for his first ever MLS match, playing opposite arguably the greatest to ever play his position. 

Barajas undoubtedly earned his MLS debut on the first matchday of the 2024 season. His stellar preseason during RSL’s warmup trips to Portugal and California confirmed the hopes Sporting Director Kurt Schmid had when he decided to sign another young player from the USL Championship

Back to Barajas, he’s on the pitch and scanning the field and the crowd. Under the lights and Floridian night sky, Barajas spots his support system. 

A group of seven of his biggest fans traveled to Fort Lauderdale to see their guy fulfill his dream. 

“I saw this little pile in the crowd, it was amazing,” Barajas said. 

“Every time I go back home I see them. Before I signed professionally and moved away we’d be together every day. So living two years away from home, it’s been hard without seeing my family and friends. To have them at my debut was so cool.”

That support system doesn’t stop at the stands, he also joined mentor Diego Luna on the pitch for the first time in a competitive match. Luna, the first young USL Championship player to join RSL and shine in MLS, was a big inspiration for Barajas when he chose to join the Claret-and-Cobalt this winter. 

So many dreams coming true at once, so many years of hard work spilling over into one special night in Florida. Barajas left the field disappointed by the result, a 2-0 loss to Miami, but was ever grateful for the opportunity.

“It meant everything,” Barajas said. “It has always been my dream to be playing in the first division. I also wouldn't believe anyone that would’ve told me when I was five years old, that I would play against Messi. Even at 17, I wouldn't believe them, but really it's a dream come true.”

As the season continues, Barajas can’t wait for the opportunity to leave a good first impression on the home fans this Saturday against LAFC. He has goals to nail down a spot in the starting XI, gain more confidence in himself and create more chances with the minutes he receives. 

For now though, it’s an important reminder to take a step back and admire the journey that led you to where you are now. 

The sun will rise in Utah on Saturday morning and then, it’ll be time to focus on another game, just like how the team regrouped last Saturday for their match against St. Louis. The details of Miami already rapidly flying behind in the rearview mirror. 

If you need a reminder though, it’s not a bad idea to ask Fidel Barajas. He’ll never forget.

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