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McFarling: For ex-Northside and Hokies star, MLS is the best kind of 'crazy'

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Dani Pereira (copy)

Austin FC midfielder Daniel Pereira plays the ball during an MLS match Monday. Pereira starred at Northside High School and Virginia Tech.

After every Major League Soccer game he plays, Dani Pereira hears from folks in Roanoke and Blacksburg. They reach out via text or on social media with a few words of encouragement about his performance.

Support, though, is something he’s gotten used to.

His club, Austin FC, sold out every home game in its 2021 inaugural season, when Pereira was a rookie out of Virginia Tech. The team is a perfect 8-for-8 on filling the Q2 Stadium stands so far this year, too.

“It’s amazing,” Pereira said in a midweek interview with The Roanoke Times. “I went from Northside, where we have 100 people watching, to college, where we had maybe 1,000. And then I came here, and there’s like 20,000 every game.

“Especially the supporter section, they’re all crazy and they all love the club like they’re playing. It’s crazy.”

Pereira, the first overall pick of the 2021 MLS SuperDraft, has been pretty easy for them to love in his sophomore season. The former Timesland Player of the Year has started 15 matches for Austin FC, which entered Saturday’s match at Atlanta second in the Western Conference with a 10-4-4 record.

Like his club, Pereira has made massive improvements in a year’s time. He’s scored his first two goals this season, including an incredible match-winning strike against Charlotte FC on June 30 that was voted the MLS Goal of the Week by fans.

More than 50 friends and family members had driven from Roanoke and Blacksburg to Charlotte to witness that goal. Pereira caromed his long-distance shot off the crossbar and in just two minutes after subbing onto the pitch in the second half, giving Austin FC a 1-0 victory.

“It was a good feeling, obviously, scoring,” said Pereira, whose club had lost just one of its past seven matches entering Saturday. “But especially with the momentum that was going through the club and having my family there and friends from college and high school, high school coaches, it just meant a lot.”

One of the local well-wishers on hand at Bank of America Stadium was Hokies senior director of strength and conditioning Ron Dickson, who told Pereira how much more solid he looked physically than his college years.

The defensive midfielder still won’t intimidate anyone at 5-foot-9, 155 pounds, but that’s 10 pounds heavier than he was at Tech.

“Before I came to MLS, I didn’t really care about what I was eating,” Pereira said. “I was just playing and enjoying it. But here, it’s different. Your body is your job, so you’ve got to take care of it. I’ve started eating more healthy and started lifting more.

“I think when I was in college and high school, I was just playing for fun. Just give me the ball, and I’ll try to do something.”

As a pro playing under coach Josh Wolff, Pereira plays a more position-oriented game. He aids possession by winning the ball in the defensive third and helps launch the Austin FC counterattack with his pace and creativity.

When the club needs him to push forward, he’s happy to do it. One such instance came April 30, when he bagged the equalizer in an eventual 2-1 win over Houston for his first MLS goal.

“It was a relief, for sure,” said Pereira, who volleyed home a cross after streaking down the left side of the box. “It was one of my goals for this year, to get my first goal, and it finally happened. It calmed me down more. I was able to play a little bit more like myself, and it’s not something I have in the back of my mind all the time.”

Thanks to all the texts and tweets, home never strays too far from his mind. He plans to return to Roanoke for Thanksgiving — the MLS regular season ends in mid-October this year because of the World Cup — but enjoys the vibe of his new Texas home, where he’s become popular among teammates and fans alike.

“I think it starts with getting drafted to Austin, a brand new team where no one has connections at first,” he said. “Everybody’s new. That helped a lot with my friendships in the club. Obviously, that’s up to you to make those friendships, too. I try to be close to everybody.

“We have a lot of Latinos who don’t speak English, and I speak Spanish and English, so I kind of connect everyone sometimes if I have to translate. But I’m also one of the youngest guys. I get a lot of love from the old guys. They like me a lot, and I feel it. And I like them a lot, too.”

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