Federico Pena finds it difficult to imagine it any other way. He’s home, he’s surrounded by friends and family and growing on the job while playing for his hometown team, Valour FC. The Canadian Premier League club announced this week the versatile defender/wingback will be back with the club in 2021 – a move that is now official, but which the 21-year-old Trinidadian born/Winnipeg raised product knew was coming as far back as during the conclusion of The Island Games in PEI. "They actually told me they were going to pick up my option before the Forge game (their final match of The Island Games)," Pena told CanPL.ca. "It was just after I had been red-carded – which was later rescinded – but I guess they wanted to give me some good news at a low-point in my career." Pena chuckled here, and in that there’s a sense he has found a comfort zone with his squad and his role on it. Every player wants to play every minute of every match, but Pena has managed to use his time – both in game and in training sessions – to make massive improvements in his game. That doesn’t come easily to everyone, especially in the early stages as a professional. "I was watching a coaches panel recently and they said it was until 23 or 24 that these guys really settle in to becoming professional sportsmen and athletes, and that’s at the highest level of the game," explained Valour FC GM and coach Rob Gale. "You have to be patient. They have to be patient. Some players just want everything immediately… that’s normal society now where everybody wants instantaneous gratification. It doesn’t always work that way.
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"Feds has been patient. He stayed focused throughout the season and has got his reward now for knuckling down, maturing, working hard. And I still think there’s a huge, huge growth curve there for him and he’s going to become better and better as he develops." Pena racked up 327 minutes of playing time over six matches at The Island Games, especially following the injury to Arnold Bouka-Moutou. Interestingly, it’s the veteran Frenchman – along with Andrew Jean-Baptiste – who helped influence him the most. "I’ve been through a lot of experiences," Pena said. "I’ve been through the downs with play time and feeling I wasn’t getting what I deserved. But when I did get them I think I was able to do well because of the support I had behind me, the belief the coaches had in me and players like Drew and Arnold giving me lots of confidence. "I’m still learning every day from all these guys. I’m just looking forward to working with them again and hopefully we can build that trust with each other." The biggest areas of growth in Pena’s game – both he and Gale concur – came in his physical conditioning, his composure with and without the ball and his situational awareness. "There’s a time and place for everything," he said. "That was the aspect of my game I wanted to work on more, but that comes with more experience and more games. Fortunately I got that at the Island Games. I feel fortunate I got the chance to showcase a bit of my abilities, because I think I could still give a lot more." Gale said Pena’s ability to play both sides of the back line, coupled with his attacking qualities, makes him the perfect candidate as a modern-day wingback.
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"I saw him maturing and growing as a person and as a player this past season," Gale said. "We always knew he has the technical ability – he’s like Raph Ohin in that he can juggle and do all kinds of tricks – and it’s amazing to see now that he’s slowed himself down how he is growing tactically. "He has all of the qualities." Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Pena moved to Winnipeg when he was 10. He grew up playing with South End United and Bonivital and spent 2017 and 2018 with Gent and Standard Liége in Belgium. And the last two seasons with Valour have represented an important step in his career. Important, too, for a club always looking to have a Winnipeg presence in its lineup. "I remember a little bit about Trinidad, but I consider myself a real Winnipegger," Pena said. "I really grew up here. I was formed here, I guess, through all my adolescent years. I’m very attached to the city. My whole family is here, all my friends are year, I went to school here at Glenlawn. "This is my city and I’m very proud to play for Valour and represent the city I’m from."