By Daniel Rubens
There’s a general consensus amongst the American soccer public that the way the United States will close the gap on the world’s footballing powers is by installing high-quality coaching that players can utilize from a young age. Nowhere is this strategy more evident than FC Dallas.
They haven’t always had a ton of success in the MLS, but FC Dallas have developed what is widely believed to be the best academy in America. From the top down, the club has invested heavily in its youth system in the hopes of churning out talented youngsters who can contribute to the senior team. It’s a tactic that is working, and while the Toros still have yet to lift the MLS Cup, if they continue on the same track that the club has been on, it’s only a matter of time before that changes.
The club was one of the founding members of the MLS in 1995 and began play as the Dallas Burn a year later. They won the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in 1997, but it took a while for Dallas to add to its collection of major silverware. After losing to the Colorado Rapids in their only MLS Cup appearance in 2010, Dallas finally got back into the winner’s circle in 2016, capturing a double of winning the Open Cup again and the Supporters’ Shield for best regular-season record, although they lost to the Seattle Sounders in the semifinals of the Western Conference playoffs.
In between those two achievements, a lot has happened for the club. The Hunt Sports Group, operated by Lamar Hunt’s sons, Clark and Dan, purchased the club and set out on their goal of turning it into a developmental machine. Clark, the nominal owner, was himself a standout collegiate soccer player at nearby Southern Methodist University, and his brother, Dan, serves as the team president. The duo has worked wonders.
The process began in 2008 when the Hunts started the development of the academy. Then-manager Schellas Hyndman played a major part, but the brains behind the operation belonged to Oscar Pareja. A former Colombian international player who spent the final seven seasons of his almost-20-year playing career with the Burn, Pareja was appointed as the Director of Player Development. Almost immediately, he began building the foundations that would establish the academy as the best in the country.
Upon his hiring in 2008, Pareja set out to create an academy that would give players a direct track into the first team. Coaches all were asked to play the same kind of soccer that the senior side used, while players were shown how they could progress into the first team. It’s a difficult model to execute, but Pareja and an ownership group willing to spend money quickly turned Dallas into the ideal of what MLS academies can be.
Since 2008, Dallas has signed an MLS-high 17 academy graduates to senior contracts. Some of those players
The keys for Dallas in the development of the academy came from Pareja. He wanted all of his coaches to be teaching the same general ideas of how to move with and without the ball, while also letting each trainer put his own flair onto his team. The result has been a group of players who come through the ranks together, learning the same things from the same coaches and putting those ideas into place on the pitch. It’s an academy in the mold of European ones; players are on the club’s premises in Frisco all day, training and attending school at the academy and even sitting in on and participating in first-team practices. The youth players train next to the senior side, they have access to all of the same facilities as the professionals, and by the time they’re ready to sign their first professional contracts, they’re familiar with the senior players and coaches.
Pareja himself left the club in 2011 for a head-coaching job with the Rapids, but he resigned after two seasons. When Schellas Hyndman stepped down as boss after the 2013 season, the second consecutive without a playoff appearance, there was a natural fit waiting. Pareja returned as the club’s manager and first-team head coach — for FC Dallas, those are two very different jobs — and resumed his passion project of developing the youth system.
As first-team boss, Pareja’s responsibilities have changed, but he still works closely with coaches and players from all levels of the academy. Each morning, he strolls around the various practice fields. Pareja speaks with the players (he knows almost all of their names, even down to the youngest teams) and coaches, finding out what is and isn’t working, but also about each individual. Twice a week, Pareja meets with his coaches to make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to training sessions and continue to discuss the best ways to get the most out of the academy while maintaining what he refers to as “The
At the first-team level, Pareja has led Dallas to playoff appearances in his first three seasons as manager, although each has ended in disappointing fashion. Nonetheless, the future is as bright for Dallas as it is for any MLS club. The under-18 and under-16 teams are coming off national-championship campaigns, while the under-14 side went undefeated in 2016 (there’s no national competition at that level). However, those in charge of the academy have said that the real joy comes not from those championships but from the days those young players sign their first professional contracts. And, with eight homegrown players in the senior squad, those days have come fairly regularly over the past few years.
The ultimate goal for FC Dallas is to eventually win a championship, as it is for every club. But Dallas has another dream, one that few MLS clubs will ever achieve. One day, Pareja hopes to field a lineup consisting of 11 academy graduates in an MLS game. They hold the current league record with five, so the day that all 11 starters are from the academy still may be far off. But Dallas is on the right track to eventually get there, and, as importantly, those in charge at the club have no doubt that someday FC Dallas will field an entirely homegrown team. With the right mindset and the right plan in place, there’s no reason to believe it won’t happen.