Major League Soccer
FC Dallas' Commitment to Youth Sets It Apart in MLS
November 24, 2015
WHEN FC DALLAS WALKED off the field earlier this month after a playoff match against the Seattle Sounders, the story being told was much more than just the seemingly straightforward narrative of a top seed getting past a No. 4.
After all, Seattle—one of the marquee teams in the league, with a veteran team averaging 30 years of age—was the four seed.
Dallas, trotting out a starting lineup with an average age of just over 24, was the upstart No. 1.
And so it is that the match told the story of two very different teams, of youth being served and age exposed. Such has been the unprecedented approach for Oscar Pareja and FC Dallas, which this year had among its ranks the youngest player in the league (Alex Zendejas, 17), the youngest captain in the league (Matt Hedges, 25), and the reigning MLS rookie of the year (Tesho Akindele, 23).
FC Dallas so far has signed 13 homegrown players and those players are beginning to take on important roles within the team, with several showcasing that importance against Seattle. Jesse Gonzalez was stellar in the shootout, making a pair of crucial saves; Kellyn Acosta and Victor Ulloa, both regular starters in the midfield, controlled the center of the park.
At the heart of this approach is Pareja, who built up a generation of players that have in turn built FC Dallas into one of the top teams in MLS. Pareja, a Colombian international, played for Dallas from 1998 to 2005 then took to the club’s sidelines as an assistant coach and an academy coach. And after coaching the Rapids from 2012 to 2013, Pareja returned to Dallas and began promoting the players he’d once guided.
MLS is both criticized and praised for its parity—there is often very little separating teams from the top and bottom. There is an important avenue, however, where teams can achieve sustained perennial success. That is through the improved use of academy where a pipeline of consistent talent is established.
After Sunday, FC Dallas trails the Portland Timbers 3-1 after the first leg of the Western Conference final. But with its foundation of youth development, win or lose, this year’s surprise top seed looks like it could be a contender for years to come.
“It’s not a secret that FC Dallas has created more with its academy,” Pareja said. “At this point we have to continue that process. As a manager you have to create that environment and atmosphere for them to grow and be consistent with the idea we have here. My philosophy is to create a place where they can grow daily and I can see their commitment to get better and better.”
Unifying a club, from top to bottom
When Pareja first made the decision to get involved with coaching, he went to Bradenton, Fla., to observe the environment in which many of the top American U-17 players live and train. He considered staying but instead wanted to work at the club level. FC Dallas, which had youth teams but lacked structure, offered him a role. At the time, without the homegrown-player rule, MLS teams lacked incentive to invest in player development.
Yet Pareja worked extensively with Chris Hayden, who now runs Dallas’ U-13 youth teams, to begin to create the academy that exists now. Gonzalez and Ulloa were among the first group of players Pareja began working with in 2006, and Pareja persuaded both to join the club.
That first group was special. In 2011, Pareja guided the academy team to a win over Barcelona at the Dallas Cup, an elite tournament that features top youth teams from around the world. Ulloa was the captain of that squad. Fellow first-teamer Danny Garcia scored a goal.
To look around the current academy, however, is to see a far different scene. With the homegrown rule going into effect in 2010, MLS teams have since been able to sign their own academy players—and the investment FC Dallas has made in that regard has been substantial. There are top-notch training fields and facilities. There’s an affiliation with local schools so that players can train in the morning and go to school afterward. There are living arrangements for players who live outside of driving distances that include 24-hour adult supervision and a college counselor to help with players who do not sign professionally.
“We consider ourselves the pioneers of the academy program here,” Ulloa said. “It’s come a long way. Now they have the school system. Some of the guys stay close by now. It’s set up for them to be successful. We have a lot of the academy guys train with us now regularly. It’s amazing. To train with the professional team, I wish I could have had that. You can just see they are investing in it and they believe in it.”
Part of that investment and belief is manifested in Dallas’s sizable travel budget for its U-13 to U-18 academy teams. Below that, there are youth teams that go down to the U-7 level. And there are affiliate teams, too, that allow the club to extend its influence out to neighboring areas in the South.
Between the U-13, U-14, U-15, U-16, and U-18 teams, there are usually between 95 to 100 players in the FC Dallas Academy. At the younger ages, there are 133 boys teams, with more than 2,200 players. Include the affiliates and the number reaches 3,700.
It’s a lot to keep track of—and to keep on the same page.
Accordingly, Dallas recently promoted former MLS forward Luchi Gonzalez, previously the U-16 coach, to Academy Director. In that role he’s tasked with maintaining the common vision within the organization—from the first team all the way down to the U-7 level.
“[Most of] the first-team staff had their roots in the academy,” Gonzalez said, “so they’re very open and wanting every day to have academy players with the first team in training—whether it is for spar work or defending 1v1 with Fabian Castillo or attacking Matt Hedges. They’re involved in small-sided games or possession games or even 11v.11. I’d say every day there is a range between two and 14 academy players training with the first team.
“That creates a great situation where the young players understand what it takes mentally, physically, speed of play, and the demands of training as a professional,” Gonzalez added. “Our curriculum literally comes from many different styles of play. We had countless hours of meetings with all the coaches. How do we want to defend? How do we want to attack in certain areas of the field? We really got into the specifics.
“It’s full integrations—not just the players but among the staff. We know what their expectations are and what is the profile of the player they’re looking for. It’s a daily conversation.”
Indeed, as the first-team head coach, Pareja remains actively involved with the academy. During FC Dallas home games, there is always at least one academy coach on the bench, and another five to six are with the team in training.
In addition to having top academy players train with his senior squad, Pareja is constantly walking around practices at FC Dallas and monitoring the progress of the young players, seeing who is ready for the next step. By his estimation, two to three could be signing in the near future.
But that’s not to say Pareja is only scouting for scouting’s sake.
“That has to be a real link for the players because if they don’t see a link or see themselves playing for the first team, they’re not going to give you everything—they’ll be happy where they’re at,” Pareja explained. “Every day I go and see the academy. I go around the fields and I want them to see me. I want them to know that the head coach of the first team is paying attention to what they are doing during the week.
"Then it’s real, and they see it.”
Kellyn Acosta is one of the academy’s prize products. A native of Dallas, he joined the club at the age of 13 but also spent time at Bradenton’s residency program for the U.S. U-17 team. This past summer he was a starter on the U.S. U-20 side that advanced to the quarterfinals of the World Cup.
Like Ulloa, Acosta has played for Pareja both at the academy level and now with the first team. Pareja has been there for many of the important moments in their young lives. After the death last week of Pareja’s mother—whom he had made regular trips throughout the year to visit—his protégés were there for him in the same way.
“I look at Oscar as a father figure,” Acosta said. “He’s been my coach since I was 14. He is one of the main reasons why I came to FC Dallas. Having [him as a coach] for so long, I know what he wants, what he demands, what kind of system he wants to play. If he doesn’t like something, he will tell you straight up. If you didn’t do something right, he’ll get on you. I just want to work hard for him.
“Oscar always tells us that no matter what happens, he’s going to back us up 100 percent as long we give all of our possible effort,” Acosta said. “He knows young players make mistakes, but he wants us to be like veterans out there and to be vocal leaders. Right now, I can’t think of myself as a young player. I’ve played over 30 games in the league already. Having that confidence minimizes our mistakes.”
Challenges—and big dreams—ahead
Still, the success of FC Dallas and the current state of its academy have not been without some serious growing pains. Significant challenges loom on the horizon as well.
One of the primary obstacles is the club’s lack of its own USL Pro team, a tool many MLS teams are now adopting as a final bridge to the first team. At the moment Dallas has an affiliation with Arizona United FC, but no true second team to call its own.
“We need to bridge the gap between the 18-year-old and the 23-year-old,” Gonzalez said. “For the guys we sign, they absolutely need USL Pro to gain confidence, rhythm, and pro experience. I think that is vital. For our older academy players to have a platform to compete against older guys and to deal with the physicality and speed of play—I do think it’s vital. I think ownership and the technical directors have been talking about it.”
Pareja echoed the sentiment.
“I would like to see an American player here at age 22, 23 with 100 professional games under his belt and not wait until he's 24,” he said. “In that part, we’re missing time. That’s why in international competition we’re still having some difficulties with our adjustments. They don’t have the experience and the competition early.”
Another pressing problem is that under the current structure MLS teams have no legal rights to most of the players in their own systems. For Dallas, that means a host of agents and Mexican clubs scavenging his academy in the hopes of finding quality young players who can be acquired for free.
Gonzalez expressed his hope that U.S. Soccer will adopt FIFA’s solidarity rules, which would allow FC Dallas to receive compensation should it lose a player to a foreign club. In the past, he noted, the club has lost Emerson Hyndman—since capped by the U.S. senior national team—to Fulham, while twin brothers Ramiro and Rogelio Funes Mori were poached by River Plate.
“It’s an open market where agents and scouts think they can pick off players,” Gonzalez said. “It’s already happened where some players haven’t signed to maybe look at other markets. It’s a reality we face head-on.
“We say, ‘We expect every player in our program to have the ultimate desire to put an FC Dallas jersey on,’ but you’re always going to have the challenge with agents and Mexican clubs because they know the FIFA rules are not exactly applied in our country yet.
"We are hoping that they will be.”
But solidarity, USL teams, and academy turnover are problems for the long term. In the short term, FC Dallas has that hole against Portland that it’ll have to dig itself out of in the second leg. For most of the young players on Dallas, the favorite entering the series, Sunday will be the biggest test of their careers.
Pareja is confident these days on many levels. He believes in his current team and the team he is building for the future—as well as the team the United States could one day build.
Along with the success of FC Dallas’ approach, he hopes, will come optimism among coaches, players, and fans about what this country can achieve in this sport.
“I’ve been around the world and I grew up in the soccer community in Medellin—one of the best in the area,” Pareja said. “I go see the talent to see how far we are here in America, and I have to tell you that I don’t see much of a difference. We have the structure, the facilities, the complexes, the fields, the support. We have much more than many other countries. In terms of talent, we have the talent, but Americans don’t believe in America. That’s very clear, but I can tell you sometimes I see the Americans looking all over the place thinking everybody’s better at soccer, and I don’t like that.
“I think we have the talent here. We have kids that want to do it, but if we keep looking out at the world and thinking the Germans are better, the Colombians are better, the Spanish are better, the English are better—then we’re not going to get there. We have to be convinced [about] ourselves and that our kids can do it.
"I know they can do it.”
The signs are clear that for now everything is working. In addition to the first team finishing with the best record in the Western Conference, the academy teams are thriving on the field too. The U-16s won the national championship and the U-15 team won the National Premier League Finals.
Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.