How FC Dallas and their homegrown model could revolutionize US soccer
Gazing across a windswept field, FC Dallas technical director Fernando Clavijo wonders if the rest of American soccer will notice what he sees running on the grass before him.
“This is it!” he shouts. “This is the future of soccer in the US!”
But does anybody hear?
His team is in the MLS’s Western Conference Finals against Portland by doing what the rest of the league and the US national team both seem reluctant to do: build around a core of local players developed themselves in their own youth academy. While other MLS teams still chase stars with big contracts and lure players from overseas, Dallas tied for the best record in the league with six players from their academy, five of them from Texas. And many of those players, including goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez, midfielder Kellyn Acosta and Victor Ulloa, have played so well that the question arises: why don’t others do this?
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Clavijo does not know. He came to America 36 years ago from Uruguay as a teenager and has heard the steady cry that the US cannot generate elite talent ever since. Back in the early 1990s he might have believed it. But that was when he was part of a US national team so behind the rest of the world that its training center locker room was an abandoned Pizza Hut.
Those days are gone. Soccer has taken hold in America. There is real talent now in our cities. He sees it. FC Dallas’s academy has found it in the youth leagues around Dallas and Fort Worth and some of those players are on the field right now in front of him, key pieces of a team that is two matches away from the MLS Cup. To him the future is obvious and the future is here.
He doesn’t need to keep going outside the US to find great players and neither does anyone else. They are ready to be made here.
If you are playing against men you are going to raise your level. Your passes have to be sharper
“Americans need to believe in Americans,” Dallas coach Oscar Pareja says as he stands in a hallway outside the team’s locker room one day this week. “And it has to be real. We have talent here, we have players who can do it and there are many on the staff who say we are better than many other countries. Is it the future? For sure, but we have to believe that.”
The team’s owner Dan Hunt believes. He is betting what everyone in the organization describes as a great deal of money on the idea that Dallas can build a roster from within, with players training in the attacking, possession-style the team likes to play. While no one seems to calculate – or is permitted to say – how much the team is spending on the academy they say the figure is rising, more resources are being poured into programs to develop Dallas and Fort Worth area players into prospective pros.
The hope, some in the organization, privately say is that one day Dallas will win a title with 11 starters from their academy. But listening to Clavijo and Pareja talk it almost feels as if this is about more than winning a title, that they need to prove a point, that they have to show a country that its soccer can come from within.
They seem an unlikely pair to be pushing the cause of American soccer: Clavijo the South American, and Pareja who played for the Colombian national team. But they are also resilient men who do not believe in obstacles. Pareja once played in a match against cartel leader Pablo Escobar that was held in Escobar’s private prison, while Clavijo battles multiple myeloma talking about “driving this monster out of me.”
Neither appears afraid to fail in the name of a bigger purpose. They are certain they are presenting a model to the rest of the MLS and the US national team. And they wonder if anyone else is watching.
“I hope to God that there is a way to help the US soccer team and the MLS grow,” Clavijo says. “To have a country this size with the number of athletes who can be fit and healthy, we have everything to be the best and we are not. But here at FC Dallas we want to change that.”
FC Dallas’s academy is not a true academy in that it has classrooms and dormitories. Rather, it is a locker room and a couple of offices across the hallway from the pro club’s locker room. The vast majority of the academy’s players live with their families in the Dallas area and arrive at the stadium on their own by 7.30am for two hours of meetings and practice. By 10.30 they are in school at one of two local public schools, Lone Star high school or Hunt middle school. After school they return for physical training.
To the Dallas coaches and staff, the schooling arrangement – made with Frisco school district – is a significant difference between Dallas’s academy and others in the MLS. By permitting the academy players to train in the morning when the top team works out, the younger players are integrated into Dallas’s system. They talk to the professionals, watch how they train, and find themselves emulating those players, learning early the amount of work it takes to become an elite player.
“The speed of the play is the most important thing for those kids,” says Francisco Molina, the academy’s U-18 coach. “If you are playing against men you are going to raise your level. Your passes have to be sharper.”
But in order to have 16- and 17-year-olds in a pro practice you have to have a head coach who is comfortable having them there. Most coaches wouldn’t want the distraction of kids running around their workouts, hitting weak passes and slowing the offensive flow. But Pareja used to run the Dallas academy, and many of the training methods they youth coaches teach he helped to develop. Not only does he want the younger players in his practice, he insists upon it.
“I need to make the best player on my first team understand that the pass from the kid who is 16 may not be perfect but it will help him tremendously,” Pareja says. “So I do like to have my coaching staff on the field, and I like to have the kids on the field growing into professionals, because that’s our job, and in the end that is something the first team players need to give back to the game.”
In many ways it is Pareja who makes the academy work. Without his commitment, the youth coaches say, the younger players wouldn’t be as far along as they are. In addition to bringing 16- and 17-year-olds to the pro team practice, he watches practices and attends many of their games against local elite teams on the weekend. He insists on learning the names of all 120 players in the academy, believing that if he doesn’t he isn’t committing enough to the program. In addition, Clavijo travels on many the youth teams’ trips, because he wants to know how each player is progressing.
“Say you are in the academy and you see the head coach out there, or Fernando, it gives you a sense that the opportunity that is there,” says midfielder/forward Danny Garcia. “It gives you a little more of a motivation that they are out there watching you.”
Often the players find the scrimmages they have against each other in the academy are more challenging than the games they have against the other top youth teams who are supposed to be their competition. Acosta describes vicious battles in which academy teammates will take each other out with slide tackles in practice games.
“Nobody is trying to hurt anyone,” he says. “But it’s a life and death for possession in small sides or on a passing drill. If you make a bad pass everyone tells you that you need to get better. No one wants to get that.”
Still, even with the time spent on development only a small percentage of players in the academy will make the Dallas team someday. Most will go to college on soccer scholarships facilitated by the academy’s college director Scott Dyamond, who hosts three showcases and two combines for college coaches during the year. Grades are emphasized and players must hit certain standards academically to be eligible to play.
“I like to think we are pioneers,” says Luchi Gonzalez, the academy’s director and U-16 coach, who explains the difference between Dallas’s and other team’s academies by comparing it to baking. Other teams might have facilities almost as nice as Dallas’s but they are missing the competitiveness and the openness that Clavijo and Pareja have brought. He calls that missing ingredient “the salt.”
“If you are missing the salt, it’s not going to taste delicious,” he says.
In 1990 the US qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years with a team made up almost entirely of American college players, led by a college coach. That World Cup, along with one the US hosted four years later, helped accelerate the MLS’s formation. The belief then was that the MLS would strengthen American soccer, building a base of players who would feed the national team the way many of the world’s other leagues boost their national teams.
But building a base of local talent from nothing takes time. Teams aren’t patient. Owners want to win fast, coaches get fired when they don’t win. Few want to take the chance on losing now to inspire greatness down the road
“Sometimes we feel someone else is better,” Pareja says. “And when you go see that it’s not better, then once we believe in what we have we can start building. You can’t change things every year because the Europeans are doing better or the South Americans are doing better or the Africans are doing better. We can do it better but we have to be convinced of it. We have to be prepared and be competitive. We better believe in what we have.”
Clavijo has a dream. He sees FC Dallas’s academy as being not only the best in the US, but the best in the world behind only Barcelona’s. He is sure that, in time, this can happen. He sees the talent, now it is a matter of shaping that talent, producing players who can star not only n the MLS but in World Cups and other international competitions for the US team.
He knows a lot of coaches in the MLS don’t believe a team can win championships with local, homegrown players. He says that even if Dallas is to win the MLS Cup people will still criticize the program, insisting it is not a model for winning consistency.
There are, however, some teams that are watching. A few have called, asking how the Dallas academy works, wondering if they could somehow emulate it.
“I think the right people who run soccer on the pro side (for some MLS teams) they know,” Molina says. “They understand what our owners, and Oscar and Fernando, are doing.”
And yet do they understand enough to fill their pro team’s future rosters? Can they find the salt for their recipe? Will the national team? US Soccer? Some involved with the Dallas program have seem a stronger effort from US Soccer. More meetings have ben called between US Soccer and MLS team academies. Maybe, even as the national team chases players all over the world with American connections, the lower level of the organization is finding a way to funnel young US stars to the team. Perhaps they will see what Fernando Clavijo sees.
“It’s easy to go buy the best player,” he says, still staring out across the field. “You can pay $10m. What’s it worth? But if you find a young player and develop him and six years later you win a championship with him that’s a great story.”
Then he pauses. He lets out a sigh.
“But some people don’t care,” he says.
They can’t see the future of US soccer.