LJ Figueroa is one step closer to reaching is goal to go pro

Tina Harbuck
The Destin Log

LJ Figueroa is one step closer to reaching his goal – to become a professional soccer player.

Figueroa, 15, a former Destin Marlin and Fort Walton Beach Viking, caught the eye of several development academies in the last couple of months and has landed a spot on the MLS Next Orlando City Youth Soccer Club.

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"It's crazy (just thinking about being here on the team)," LJ said.

LJ Figueroa is part of the MLS Next Orlando City soccer club.

"A part of me always knew, but in reality it wasn't in my plans when I was planning forward," he said.

According to the MLS website, Major League Soccer’s elite youth development platform, MLS NEXT, encompasses more than 11,000 players across 113 clubs and six age groups, including 30 professional MLS academies, five USL academies and 78 additional elite academies.

"It's definitely a challenge, but mostly it's been fun ... trying to figure out a new system of playing," LJ said. "But all the players and coaches have the same goal in mind, so it's a lot of fun."

Although it's a lot of fun, it's work as well.

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The team practices 6:30-8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, plus he practices in the morning with different people, so he's practicing soccer four to five hours each day with games on the weekend.

This past Saturday his team played the Florida Rush Soccer Club also out of Orlando. LJ played a little left forward, center midfielder and striker.

LJ Figueroa, at far left, in action at Saturday's MLS Next game in Orlando.

But the road to get to where he is now on the MLS Next Orlando City team happened pretty quick, once the ball started rolling.

His dad, Luis, was instrumental in getting that ball moving.

"It was always the plan, that this year we were going to gear up and get him out to what they called the development academies," Luis said.

The MLS Next program is for young players to start training like pros, training with pros and some being trained by pro coaches. Luis said it was where you have the best players vie against the best before going off into the pro ranks.

LJ Figueroa, 15, is part of the MLS Next Orlando City soccer club.

"They are playing with kids with the same environment and working in an 11-month season where they are not allowed to play any high school sports anymore," Luis said. "He is in a pro program. You go out and watch these practices ... this is the real deal, no kidding."

But how did he wind up in Orlando?

A local trainer suggested that they look at Barca Academy in Arizona. Luis pulled together a highlight reel of LJ in action and Barca wanted to see him immediately.

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While in Arizona, Luis started sending the highlight reel to other academies since Barca had shown such interest in LJ.

In the matter of one day, Luis had confirmed interest from other clubs like DC United, Atlanta United, Jacksonville Armada, Orlando City, Tampa Shockers and IMG Academy to name a few.

"I put my business development hat on that I do for work ... and I went to work for my son," Luis said, sending out the highlight reel and an email. "I got on the horn and got all those guys to bite."

Luis Figueroa and his son LJ are having the time of their lives as LJ meets the challenge of playing for MLS Next Orlando City youth soccer club.

"We never made it to Atlanta or Jacksonville because of the COVID, but honestly we found what we wanted in Orlando," he said.

But before Orlando, they did go to Tampa for a tryout and made the team.

"We stayed up all night ... just high as a kite on happiness," Luis said.

The next day they went to IMG Academy in Bradenton.

"Word is getting out ... coaches are starting to talk. Places were starting to offer without even seeing him play," Luis said.

They headed over to Orlando where he tried out for Orlando City.

"He goes out there and flat out destroys everybody in Orlando City, killed them," Luis said. 

On the drive back home to Destin on 1-10, just past the Busy Bee, Luis and LJ get the call from Orlando City saying they want him.

Luis and LJ made the move to Orlando three weeks later. He found a home less than a mile from the soccer field.

As part of the MLS Next program, which is in its inaugural season, LJ will be traveling all over against other MLS programs.

"We're fortunate in Florida that we have a governor that is allowing our kids to play," Luis said. "Whether you like our governor's politics or not .... he's letting my kid play ... letting my kid progress."

Luis said the teams are taking all kinds of COVID precautions with coaches wearing masks and making sure people are distanced in the stands.

Making the move to Orlando has been big for the Figeroas.

"This was a huge jump off a cliff," said Luis, who has called Destin home for the past 35 years. "This was the biggest leap of faith I've ever taken.But for him to get all the looks from the MLS clubs, all of the coaches I've talked to said that's amazing. A huge blessing."

"It's been an amazing experience that you wish every parent could have with their kid," he added.

The plan now is, "Go pro ... there is no other option. We're either going pro, if it doesn't work out he and I'll buy a franchise and go live our lives, but he'll know he had the opportunity to go as far as he possibly could in the sport," Luis said.

And LJ is not taking any of this opportunity lightly.

"I'm thankful for all the coaches and people that helped me get here," LJ said. "I couldn't have done it by myself and my dad is the most important part - without him I would still be probably at Fort Walton Beach High School right now."

He also spoke highly of Isaac Machoado, who kind of took him under his wing this past summer and worked with him.

"He's someone I've always looked up to ... without him I know I wouldn't be here," LJ said.

Luis has been taking it all in as well.

"It's been a great experience. I'm very thankful to all the coaches and people that helped us to get to where we are ... help to develop him to the player he is today, that have given time and energy to his development and training. I'm  very thankful for all that," Luis said.

Although LJ is doing well right now, soccer wasn't always his best game. He played basketball and baseball and around age 8 or 9 decided to give soccer a try.

"When I started I wasn't really that good," LJ said.

Nevertheless, "I'm the type that if I'm not good at something and I care about it, then I'm going to try as hard as I can," he said.

He watched YouTube videos and learned and got better at the game.

His grandmother, Marylia Figueroa, who LJ stayed with a lot, said he was always a determined youngster.

"He used to come in and say, "Mehmaw ... I'm going to play up there. I'm going to leave one day and no way you can stop me," she said.

And now he's almost made it and grateful for his Mehmaw.

"Mehmaw was always at the field, she was like my mother," LJ said, noting she's already making plans to come down to Orlando for some of his home games.

The rest of the Figueroa gang, LJ's sister Adriana, who was a Miss Destin contestant for 2020, and younger brother Jordan will be making the move eventually.

But for now, "We're having the time of our lives over here," Luis said.