Strong and resilient: these two words encapsulate the mentality that MNUFC2 have demonstrated in the first eight games of the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro season. They’ve battled through seven road matches, scored 19 goals, and produced some incredibly entertaining games with their never-say-die attitude.
There’s no doubt that this group of young men is full of admirable examples, but one midfielder’s influence has taken center stage during the squad's second year of play.
With six goals and two assists in just eight games, Diogo Pacheco is leading his team in more ways than one. His play on the field has been clear for all to see, but it’s his intangible qualities that have proven to be the most invaluable to his team’s performance this season.
Players like Diogo aren’t developed in a day; they’re the product of years of commitment and dedication. He’s battled for this his whole life, whether that was on the pitch with his team or off the field facing a cancer diagnosis.
Growing up outside of Lisbon, Portugal, soccer was always a natural path for Pacheco. He began playing futsal at just six years old, earning a life changing call just a few years later.
“It was probably one of the best days of my life,” he said. “My dad got a call from Benfica saying they were interested in me and wanted me to come on trial for a week. When he told me, I started crying. I was so happy about it. Then two days later, Sporting [CP], another big team in Lisbon, also called my dad. He said that since he spoke to Benfica first, I would train with them. I supported Sporting growing up, so it was very tough for me, but my dad and I have the same principles, and we stuck to our word. After a few days, I signed, and it was amazing.”
Pacheco stayed with Benfica until the age of 15, playing and learning alongside some of soccer’s most exciting names, including Renato Sanches and Rúben Dias. The lessons he learned with the club helped him earn a move to Belenenses, where he played until he was 18. After graduating from the youth ranks, he went to the Portuguese third division to pursue a professional career, but found his game stalling before too long.
“I couldn't really find anything that I was looking for, which was a first or second-division team,” he said. “So I started with a third-division team and just felt kind of stuck during the season. A coach reached out to me about going to the US. He said I could get a degree and play soccer there, and maybe in one or two years, I could be playing in MLS. At first, I didn't really know if that was what I wanted for my career. But I talked to my family, and they said, ‘Listen, Diogo, I wouldn't even think twice. I think it's a big opportunity for you, not just as a player but as a person, to get your degree.’ And the more I thought about it, I thought they might be right.”
With his mind made up to head stateside, Pacheco began looking for the right school. The biggest problem? He knew nothing about the American college landscape. With such a big decision ahead of him, he sought help from someone who had gone through the same thing.
That someone turned out to be the number one overall pick in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft, João Moutinho. He likewise grew up playing in Lisbon but went through Sporting CP’s academy while Pacheco was at rival club Benfica. Having played one season for the University of Akron before going pro, Moutinho’s experience was exactly the kind of thing Pacheco was looking for.
“I didn't know anything about soccer or universities—which ones were better or anything,” Pacheco said. “So I talked to João, who was in Akron at the time. He told me I had to go there. He put me in contact with the coaches, who were all amazing. We started talking, and they asked for some videos, some information. They helped me a lot with the process of getting visas and all this stuff, which was very complicated. But yeah, if it wasn't for Jomo, I had no idea where Akron was; how could I go there? I’ve got to thank everyone in Akron for where I am today, that's for sure.”
From the beaches of Portugal, Pacheco made his way to Northeast Ohio in 2018. When he arrived for preseason, he was buzzing for the journey ahead of him and ready to get started right away. However, his American Dream had to wait a bit longer.
“A few days after I got to Akron, my dad called me and said, ‘Oh, you remember the medical exams that you did last week? The doctor just called and said that you have cancer.’ And I thought— this is crazy—but I didn't even care. I was just so happy to be in Akron to start this season and this new experience on the other side of the world. I told my dad I'd go back for Christmas like we planned and take care of it then. And he said, ‘No, you're not understanding. You have to come now. The doctors say you have to remove it now.’”
Within 24 hours, Diogo flew back across the world he had just traversed. Days later, he went under the knife to remove the tumor from his thyroid, an operation that went smoothly and ended with a healthy patient. While most would take their time to recover from such an experience, Pacheco had different plans.
“I stayed in the hospital for two days, I think,” he said. “My family was always there to support me, and I'm very thankful for that. I stayed in Portugal for 10 days, way shorter than everyone was expecting when they thought, ‘Oh, you’ve got cancer? It's probably going to be the whole season.’ But I got back to Akron about 20 days after the surgery.”
Though his body had not yet fully recovered, Diogo’s spirit appeared completely undamaged. He returned to training straight away, sporting a sore neck and a hoarse voice. Not only did he get back into the team, he excelled, netting a hat trick in Akron’s 4-3 win against VCU in their third game of the season.
“I was just so happy to be back,” he remembered. “Those are the types of things that can bring someone down. But growing up, I just learned not to feed myself with those adversities. Because you can always make the decision to give up when something bad is happening to you. But why? You can say, alright, I'm gonna turn this around and I'm gonna use it as motivation to become better. And that's always what I tried to do—just focus on what I could control. I feel like for me, adversity and pressure are the two things that really drive me to be better.”
Pacheco’s time at Akron was anything but easy, but it was rewarding and formative. After four seasons as a Zip, it was time to move on with valuable experience and perspective.
In 2022, he made his way to MNUFC2, moving even further from the Portuguese beaches he loves to pursue his professional soccer dream. He was part of the team and league’s inaugural season, growing as both a man and a leader all the while.
“If you asked me two years ago if I would consider myself a leader, I would tell you no, never,” Diogo said. “I would never have thought I would wear the armband. But you know, last year, that was one of my goals. I said I was going to commit to myself; I'm going to be a leader for this team. I'm going to help the coaches reach the players. I'm going to help the players raise their game. Because I want the team to be better. And I know when they get better, I'm getting better. I’m just trying to be a positive guy, helping everyone. That's really what I'm trying to do here.”
A standout performer for the Twos, Pacheco’s strength and resilience are on full display when he pulls on the Black and Blue. On and off the field, he is an integral part of his squad’s success.
Being captain is about more than wearing the armband; it’s about understanding what it means to struggle and helping others find the courage to come out of those struggles even stronger. It certainly seems like MNUFC2 have found the perfect man for that job.
No matter what blocks his path, you can bet that Diogo Pacheco is going to continue to find success. His story is already packed with triumphs: over naysayers, physical maladies, and mental battles. The strength to recover from such things is commendable on its own, but the ability to rise up and lead selflessly after such challenges is what separates good from great.