For the better part of 40 years, Barcelona's fabled La Masia academy has operated at a level unmatched by any other.
The Barca youth system has developed players at a historic rate, producing the likes of Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Pep Guardiola, Lionel Messi, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets in recent decades. Legends of the game have started their careers on those Catalan fields, learning an ethos and a culture that would come to define several different eras and many title-winning teams.
Konrad de la Fuente is not the first American to call La Masia home. That title belongs to Ben Lederman, whose seven-year stay at Barca was derailed by the club's youth transfer ban in 2014. But De la Fuente could very well become the first American to reach the senior ranks at Camp Nou and represent a club that remains, arguably, the biggest in the world.
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That, however, will depend on if the club can keep hold of the talented teenager in the months to come.
Born in Miami to Haitian parents, De la Fuente moved to Barcelona at the age of 10 when his father took a job at the Haitian embassy in Spain. Shortly after, the forward was discovered while playing for local side CF Damm and offered a chance to join the Blaugrana.
It is a chance afforded to few players, but one coveted by virtually every youngster that has ever kicked a ball. At La Masia, De la Fuente has been given a footballing education unlike any in the world, all while growing up in close proximity to a rotating cast of legendary figures, including perhaps the greatest to ever play the game.
"It was a dream," De la Fuente told ESPN in May. "Every weekend I would be watching Ronaldinho, he was my idol. At the time he was playing at Barca. I was like, 'Man, I would wanna get there', you know? I have always dreamed and worked hard since I was a little kid to make it come true.
"Once we came here, I always knew that this was a great opportunity for me to get scouted. I knew they had scouts all over the place. It was just a matter of me playing well and them seeing me. I'm glad I got the chance."
While he has spent his formative years outside of the United States, the 18-year-old starlet has been fast-tracked within the U.S. youth teams. He was a member of the U.S. Under-18s squad as a 16-year-old before making a leap to U20 level in 2019, representing his country at the U20 World Cup last summer.
De la Fuente was the only 17-year-old on Tab Ramos' roster, and he started all five matches before a quarter-final loss to Ecuador.
“Konrad is special,” former U.S. U18s head coach Omid Namazi told American Soccer Now in the summer of 2019. “He is very dynamic with the ball at his feet where he can run at defenders and create goalscoring opportunities for himself. But he is also clever enough to be able to find that final pass to create for others.
"I used him mostly as a centre-forward and he was quite good there, but I think he is best utilised as a winger or off the forward in a 4-4-2."
Since joining Barcelona as a 12-year-old, the now-18-year-old winger has steadily progressed through the Barcelona youth teams while emerging as a dynamic young attacker. To date, he has primarily featured for Barcelona's U19s, but has earned a pair of appearances for Barcelona B in the third tier of Spanish football.
Along the way, a roadmap had been developed, with Patrick Kluivert, the legendary Dutch striker who is now head of Barcelona's academy, having taken a liking to the young American attacker. With his contract set to expire this summer, the plan has been to have De la Fuente re-sign before making the leap to Barcelona B permanently. After that, it would be up to the winger to then take the massive jump required to earn a first-team berth.
“I’ve spoken quite a few times with Konrad,” Kluivert told Sports Illustrated in November. “I think Konrad is a very bright player. He has a very good one-on-one action. He needs to score more, but as I say that in the last three games he has scored four goals, so that’s a good thing. I think when he continues like this next year, he will be for sure in the Barca B team.”
In recent months, though, it appears that gameplan has changed. The two sides began talks in October, with Kluivert leading the discussions, but negotiations reportedly broke down ahead of the winter transfer window. He has not played for the club since.
According to ESPN, De la Fuente's focus has turned towards the first-team level, and a familiar face to those who follow the American game.
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Hertha Berlin, managed by former U.S. men's national team boss Jurgen Klinsmann, have shown interest in the young winger and have reportedly offered a clearer path towards the senior ranks. A move to the Bundesliga would provide a faster track than staying at Barcelona while also offering a chance to follow in the path of American starlets such as Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent and Weston McKennie.
While earning a place in the German top flight is no easy task, it seems to be a more hopeful venture than battling it out at Barcelona, and De la Fuente would be far from the first player to depart La Masia in search of more minutes.
In past years, players such as Mikel Arteta, Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique have shown that there is life after leaving Catalunya, and perhaps even a way back at some point down the line if everything lines up.
More recently, talented midfielder Carles Alena became the latest highly-touted starlet to depart, moving on loan to join Real Betis after struggling to break into Barcelona's star-studded squad. It is easy to see the logic. While Alena was beaten out by the likes of Arthur and Frenkie de Jong in midfield, De la Fuente would be competing with Luis Suarez, Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele, Ansu Fati and, yes, even Messi for a future in the Barcelona attack.
Those players will not be at Camp Nou forever, but in an era of big signings and short leashes, there are few places harder to break through than Barcelona's forward line.
In the future, De la Fuente could reach that level if things go perfectly. Physically, the winger is an elite talent, blessed with pace, dribbling ability and a low centre of gravity. Those strengths have been on full display with both the Barca and U.S. youth teams, as the youngster has routinely competed with players an age group above him.
De la Fuente's areas of improvement are also easy to spot. While the winger has the ability to beat any defender one-on-one, he does lack the decision-making required to make the most of that skill. Developing that final ball will be vital for the American in these next few years, and whether he does so will likely be the deciding factor when it comes to determining if De la Fuente will play at merely a good level or among the elite.
“In the near future, I want to become a professional player as soon as possible,” the teenager told SI in November. “In the long term, I want to win a World Cup with the USA and be the best player in the world.”
Those goals are lofty, to say the least, but De la Fuente has had a first-hand look at what it will take to reach them. He grew up with a close look at the likes of Messi, Neymar and Suarez and has risen through a Barcelona academy system that continues to transcend.
De la Fuente's push towards those goals may come away from the shadows of La Masia and the Camp Nou, though. The teenager's future may not lie in Barcelona's star-studded line-up and he may not become the first American prodigy to represent one of the world's most historic clubs.
But, wherever he does end up, De la Fuente might just be the next Barcelona-bred starlet to emerge onto the global stage.