FC Dallas is a model for youth development, but urgency for senior success grows
- Oscar Pareja and FC Dallas have built a youth academy juggernaut, but the club is also enduring a major trophy drought on the senior level that dates back two decades.
The foundation of FC Dallas is stenciled on a wall.
It’s just a couple layers of paint, but it may as well be keeping Toyota Stadium, the club offices and the 17 fields just outside upright and in working order.
It reads “busca la forma.” Spanish for “find the way," it’s both the philosophy and the beating heart of an organization with unique ambitions that is, simultaneously, among the biggest winners and losers in American soccer.
It began, like so much of what FC Dallas is today, with Oscar Pareja. The former Independiente Medellín, Deportivo Cali and Dallas midfielder has been with the club in some capacity since 1998, minus the two seasons he spent managing in Colorado. Pareja helped launch FCD’s vaunted youth academy, and in his two and a half years as head coach, his team has amassed more regular-season points than any MLS rival. He doesn’t often hit the headlines, but he’s almost universally respected. Some think he should coach the U.S. national team. No one doubts he knows the game.
And the game, he said, is conquered from within.
“This generation, and not just the players, but the coaches want to coach more and more and and then we are getting away from allowing the players to find their way,” Pareja told SI.com. “That’s what makes them strong and one thing to recognize about this [Dallas] team in particular is that the boys find ways to win games. They do it themselves.”
If they do it themselves, it’s because Pareja and his staff have provided the road map. It begins on those fields adjacent to the stadium. FCD’s youth system has produced an MLS-high 14 professionals (12 of whom are still playing) and a record four U.S. Soccer Development Academy titles, including both the U-18 and U-16 crowns this year. It’s the model for American player development, which frequently requires an attitude adjustment as much as additional skills or fitness.
“We started training the kids … and they always came in with questions. ‘Coach, how can I do this? And how can I do this?’ all over the field,” Pareja said. “And I tell them, ‘Just find a way. You find a way.’ And it became popular because I say it in Spanish: ‘Busca la forma.’ It became a saying within the team. Kids would ask something in the locker room or on the field and we challenge them to find a way to solve the problem. On the field it suited us well, because we started creating players who can be intelligent and solving things instead of just asking. It became a slogan that was popular in our academy. I was just saying it over and over, and then somebody painted it on the wall.”
It was a good idea. Better to look toward 'busca la forma' when considering the club’s identity than at its forlorn trophy case. For several years, and certainly since Pareja returned from Denver in January 2014, FC Dallas has been about development, energy and the promise of a brighter future. There is no glorious past. As of the summer of 2015, the trophy case was anchored by two conference championship trophies—one from 2010 and one lifted by the NASL’s Dallas Tornado 30 years earlier—and the crystal U.S. Open Cup won in 1997. That was the last and only time the club claimed a major honor.
Filling the glass-covered cabinets with bobbleheads, silver medals and a can of vintage, Dallas Burn-branded Nestle Milo drink mix didn’t distract from the emptiness. And winning championships at the youth level shouldn’t distract from the senior squad’s failure.
FC Dallas is in the midst of the most protracted title drought in American professional soccer. It’s by far the longest in MLS. The Chicago Fire, which won the Open Cup in 2006, are next in line, and FCD’s wait is almost twice as long. Since downing D.C. United on penalty kicks in the ’97 Open Cup final, Dallas has moved twice, changed its name and employed six head coaches.
It lost the 2010 MLS Cup final on an own goal in extra time. It missed out on last season’s Supporters' Shield on goal difference, and missed the postseason altogether six times. Among segments of the beleaguered fan base, the wait has dampened confidence in FCD owners Clark and Dan Hunt. Only those who lack ambition, resolve and the commitment to spend go so long without winning, right? Who’s satisfied displaying only youth trophies and bobbleheads?
“I’ve been asked by fans before. Winning championships is first and foremost why we do this, and so it’s not acceptable to me at all. We’re here to win championships,” said Dan Hunt, who’s been running the club day-to-day since 2013. “It burns me up to not win trophies.”
The Hunts do value silverware. In fact, when they sold Sporting Kansas City (then the Wizards) in 2006, the family, which also owns the NFL’s Chiefs, made sure the MLS championship trophy lifted six years earlier remained at Arrowhead Stadium. It stays on the Missouri side of the border, a reminder of how much titles are prized and how difficult they can be to come by.
“You’ve got to have a little bit of luck to win championships,” Hunt said, citing a pair of 13-3 Chiefs teams that lost two home playoff games by a combined seven points. “I think [at FC Dallas] we’ve just been a little but unlucky … It’s a thorn in my side and it’s one I want to overcome this year. I want to win the [MLS] Cup. I want to win the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. I want to win the Supporters' Shield and I want to advance in the CONCACAF Champions League.”
That’s asking a lot of a team that’s had nothing to celebrate since Bill Clinton was president. But for Hunt, it’s not unreasonable. He and Pareja can’t account for what happened before they took over, but once they did, they designed a plan around the club’s strengths—Pareja and the Metroplex talent pool. It’s not necessarily that the Hunts don’t spend. Dan insisted that FCD’s 2016 player payroll prior to midfielder Fabián Castillo’s recent departure was “right in the middle of the pack, including transfers and everything else.” What matters is where they spend and the timeline under which they operate.
“Everyone has their own model. If there’s a market and they need to have a couple DPs that have European heritage and that’s going to help them fill their stadium and be successful, then that’s the way they need to go,” Hunt said. “We have a plan that at the core of this team we’re looking for good, local, young players that we develop, and we’re going to supplement those players with talent like [Mauro] Díaz, Castillo and [Carlos] Gruezo.
“We’re in our teenage years of this plan. It was in its infancy when we started with the club,” he continued. “And now we’re in our teenage years of getting the players we’ve developed into the first team.”
Pareja, Hunt said, is “a blessing.” Papi, as just about everyone in Dallas calls the manager, has no problem trusting teenagers and is ready to win now. Youth will flourish if given instruction and opportunity, and the playoff seasoning acquired during last season’s conference final run, as well as tight semifinal loss in 2014, can only help. But Pareja won’t let those close calls lead him astray. He’s in this for the long term—for a haul of trophies, not just one. He's an intriguing amalgam of sweet and stubborn. Papi desires no quick fix and no band-aid DP. He’s found his way, and that’s how he wants and expects to win.
“I don’t want the club or our fans or even our players to get frustrated. They are working hard and I know the result of all the hard work is going to be trophies. We need it. But we cannot lose focus on just getting there. We have a very specific model here,” Pareja said. “Sometimes that’s risky. Sometimes you don’t get results immediately for sure … But we understand the importance of the end of the journey, for the fans especially. People sometimes remember the trophies more than the job well done, and we understand that. That’s the nature of the job as a player and as a coach. We have been waiting and working together. But indeed, it’s time to get some trophies. We understand that.”
His self belief isn’t shaken by the wait or by any frustration among the FC Dallas faithful. Nor was it undermined when Castillo, who Pareja brought to Dallas as an 18-year-old, was tempted by Turkish largesse. If the plan is working, it will produce players sought by other clubs. Two academy products, Richard Sánchez (Tigres UANL) and Alex Zendejas (Chivas Guadalajara) already have been sold, and USSDA player of the year Weston McKinnie reportedly is on the verge of joining Schalke 04.
But if the plan is working, new players will force their way in. Castillo left the team on July 22 and a day later, FCD earned a 1-1 draw at first-place rival Colorado. They followed up with wins over the Vancouver Whitecaps and LA Galaxy and a 2-1 CCL triumph over Real Estelí. Pareja’s players, no matter how young or inexperienced, aren’t overawed. They’ve been training alongside, and sometimes with, the senior team since they were teenagers. They’ve played at the biggest tournaments and with their youth national teams. They’re reminded constantly by their coaches that they’re good enough to forge their own way, and they know they’ll get their chance to prove it.
“It’s exactly these moments that remind me that our philosophy is correct. Just open the room and open the doors to find answers and make things happen,” Pareja said.
FC Dallas does appear to be on the verge. Castillo’s departure isn’t ideal, but he wasn’t having his best season and in Michael Barrios, Maxi Urruti and Tesho Akindele, there’s enough complementary attacking talent to get the job done. At 13-7-6, FCD leads the Supporters' Shield race and has the league’s second-best mark measured by points per game. Pareja’s commitment to trophies has been evident in his Open Cup lineup choices, which have paid off in a spot in the Sept. 13 final. Dallas will host the New England in a reprise of the ’07 title game won by the Revolution.
MLS Cup—that’s going to be a tough one. The West, especially, is loaded. But when it’s playoff time, FCD already might have two trophies in tow. Doubling a 20-year haul in just a couple months surely will stoke some confidence.
“For many years we’ve been working hard toward that objective. Winning trophies is something that represents your work. It’s a need for our club, for sure,” Pareja said. “It’s time to do it.”
Victor Ulloa was an FCD fan before he was a player. He’s from Wylie, northeast of Dallas, and said he clearly remembers the feeling of going to a game and “wanting them to win.” He signed a pro contract in 2010, was a spectator at that year’s MLS Cup final and then broke through once Pareja returned. He’s now a solid defensive midfielder, a regular in the FCD rotation and someone who feels the weight of the title drought as much as anyone. Ulloa is asked frequently about the academy, Pareja’s trust in younger players and his club's trajectory. But he’s now 24, and he wants to talk trophies.
“I’m glad we’re having this conversation and I want everyone to see it that way,” he told SI.com. “More pressure becomes more responsibility and we have to embrace it. We’ve got to prove it and we have to take it. We’re soccer players.”
Pareja and Hunt may see the way the short term bleeds into the long haul, but most players don’t have that luxury. Careers are short and winning can’t be taken for granted. Where simply contending was a thrill a couple of years ago, Ulloa said, now the tone is different.
“The mentality has changed,” he said. “We still have a young team. But we’ve been through experiences these past years in the playoffs that we’ve learned from and grown from and it’s time to put that and that experience and the maturity we got from those experiences to use and bring back a championship.
“The fans are due,” Ulloa added, still one of them. “We want to make it happen and prove that this is how you can bring a championship home to Dallas.”
That’s a part of it for these players—demonstrating that there are different paths to a title and that FCD’s is the one that’s right for them. Some of those who’ve been developed or discovered by Pareja may feel a small sense of ownership in the enterprise, as if they have a stake in his project and have a say in whether it’s successful. They can prove him right and prove themselves worthy. That motivation, the internal pursuit of excellence, is what ‘busca la forma’ is about. It’s designed to forge, and if necessary replace, creative and self-reliant players ready to win.
“I trust that the game rewards you somehow. I know the game is cruel, and we have said before that sometimes you deserve more and you don’t get it. But the guys have worked hard and it shows in the results they got and so far, and they deserve it. They haven’t won anything yet and it’s still a long journey, but we’ll makes sure we put in the effort,” Pareja said.
He told a quick story about Alex Frankenfeld, a former academy player who went through four months of chemotherapy and then surgery in June to treat a rare pelvic cancer. Naturally, his first text to Pareja following the operation was short and to the point: "busca la forma."
“He was the white kid who loved saying it in Spanish,” Pareja said with obvious delight. “He found too much meaning in the sentence. But after this battle that probably was the hardest of his life he came out with that text. For me, it just made the work mean everything, made me feel like that was one of those things that are going to be there forever.”
It’s about more than trophies. But it’s not necessarily about more than winning. The definition of victory may change—Frankenfeld is testament to that—but it’s still the end goal. And that episode, among others, leaves Pareja feeling that FCD’s time, finally, is now.
“We’re ready. We have been been battling the league for the last three years, first place a lot of the time and we made an excellent run last year and this year we’re still fighting or the top spot,” he said. “Everything tells us that we’re ready. We will keep working hard because that’s what we want, the trophies and the titles. The boys want it. We want it.”