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Oscar Pareja's trust in youth paying off in FC Dallas' MLS resurgence

FC Dallas had survived, but the emotions that filled the club’s Toyota Stadium locker room – joy, excitement and certainly a sense of relief – were somewhat lost on Victor Ulloa.

The 22-year-old midfielder was in distress. A deep contusion on his left leg suffered during last week’s playoff against the Vancouver Whitecaps left him stiff and in pain. And his second-half failure to clear a ball from FCD’s penalty area, which allowed Vancouver’s Erik Hurtado to score the equalizer, weighed heavily.

“I felt bad,” Ulloa said. “We went into the locker room, and I was the first one into the shower.”

The Western Conference semifinal opener against the top-seed Seattle Sounders was four days away. Ulloa told Dallas coach Oscar Pareja that he wasn’t sure he’d be ready. But Pareja knew there was plenty of time.

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“I said, ‘Victor, I know it hurts.’ And I also saw a little bit that he was tentative to fail again. And I said, ‘Why don’t you just wait a couple days and just keep training and we’ll see what happens,'” Pareja told “I remember those times, and I think it’s the same for him. I remember when I had pain, and sometimes I was brave and sometimes I was a little bit afraid to fail again. I used that. All those moments with younger players, you have to remember those, remember what worked for you and what didn’t work for you, and then help them that way.”

Ulloa wasn’t moving much during the ensuing three days but by Sunday morning, his leg had improved. And he knew the adrenaline would carry him the rest of the way. Pareja started him in a midfield featuring four players under the age of 24. They gave the Supporters' Shield winner all it could handle in a 1-1 draw that leaves open the possibility of an FCD upset when the clubs reconvene in Seattle on Nov. 10. Ulloa drew rave reviews for his role in limiting the Sounders attack. Passing lanes were clogged, Clint Dempsey was a neutralized and only a set-piece goal by Osvaldo Alonso prevented FCD from taking an aggregate advantage.

“The beautiful thing about soccer is that it gives you another opportunity. It was a quick turnaround and I had to recover physically and mentally and that’s something the coach, the confidence he gives me, I knew I’d be OK,” Ulloa said. “The freedom that he gives you, the environment that he’s created since he’s been here, he doesn’t hold things against you … That’s very important for soccer players to keep growing.”

FC Dallas is growing. Its season may end next Monday, but a foundation unlike any other in MLS has been established in Frisco, Texas. The 17-12-7 record and the club’s first conference semifinal berth in four years are just the start. The FCD youth system, which Pareja ran before becoming the Colorado Rapids head coach in 2012, has produced an MLS-high 13 professionals. Eight are on the current roster. FCD’s homegrown players logged 4,607 regular-season minutes this year, the most in the league by more than 16 percent.

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Among the 10 MLS Cup playoff qualifiers, Dallas’ postseason participants are the youngest by more than eight months. On average, the players who drew Seattle were nearly four years younger than their opponents. Captain Matt Hedges, a candidate for the league’s Defender of the Year award, is 24. And the conveyor belt continues to churn. Midfielder Alejandro Zendejas, a U.S. U-17 international, signed a pro contract last month and Top Drawer Soccer, which covers U.S. player development, has ranked FCD’s U-18 team the second best in the nation. Its U-16 team is rated eighth.

Pareja, 46, won a championship with Deportivo Cali and scored three goals for the Colombian national team, for which he played at the 1991 Copa América. He moved to MLS in 1998 and spent more than seven seasons at FCD, earning Best XI honors in 2002. His coaching style, however, is shaped by much older memories.

“When I started my own process in Colombia, I found coaches who believed a lot in the younger players. I was given the opportunity very early. I was a captain [at Independiente Medellín] at 20,” Pareja said. “I want to be the one who provides opportunities and believes in the young ones. Somebody needs to take the risk and I don’t mind to be the one.”

Dallas does have its share of veterans. Forward Blas Pérez and midfielder Michel, who has scored two of FCD’s three playoff goals, are each 33. Revitalized right back Je-Vaughn Watson is 31. But a glance at the other MLS Cup quarterfinalists reveals a significant difference. FCD’s go-to players – the ones who do so much to define the team’s style of play and the ones who must lead and perform – are in their early 20s.

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“I do like to play with veterans too, people who are super-talented and proven. I feel very comfortable working with them. But they understand me as well that I’m not a coach who just rates experience as a big factor. I see all of them with the same opportunity to play,” Pareja said. “It comes down to confidence and trust. Those guys know that I love them all, even when they lose or when they’re done. I feel closer. That’s a time when they need me the most. It’s very easy to praise, or reward players who had a good performance. The difficult part of coaching is to provide an opportunity to somebody who is not in a good moment, and you still trust him and you still develop him.”

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​Ulloa is from Wylie, a Dallas suburb. He worked with Pareja as a youth, signed a pro contract in 2010 and played nine minutes for first-team coach Schellas Hyndman toward the end of 2011. Then, nothing. By the time Ulloa’s contract finally expired last winter, he was looking for tryouts and even considered moving to Mexico. That is until Pareja left the Rapids and returned to Dallas in January. Two months later, Ulloa had a new deal. He’s started 28 MLS games this season and is regarded as one of the league’s top young defensive midfielders.

Pareja’s fingerprints are all over the FCD roster. In addition to developing the homegrown players, Pareja drafted Tesho Akindele out of the Colorado School of Mines with the sixth overall pick – much earlier than he was expected to go. The forward has eight goals and three assists and is a Rookie of the Year candidate. Pareja spotted Fabián Castillo several years ago in Colombia and invited the player to live with him after bringing him to Dallas in early 2011.

Castillo, 22, has 10 goals this season, as many as he had in his first three MLS campaigns combined. Andrés Escobar, 23, has two goals and four assists and was Castillo’s teammate at Deportivo Cali. Defender Moises Hernandez, a Dallas native, signed a pro contract a few days after Ulloa but didn’t see a minute of MLS action until this year. He was shipped to Central American teams on loan in 2012-13. The 22-year-old now has started 14 MLS matches.

“That a 24-year-old [Hedges] is captain of the team, it’s a motivation for us that young guys can speak up and be leaders,” Ulloa said. “When we have meetings or we’re watching video or anything, young guys speak up. We have a 17-year-old [homegrown attacker Coy Craft], and he’ll say some words and everybody takes him seriously. There’s no veterans that say, ‘Hey, don’t talk.’ We’re a family. Everybody can speak up and help the team.”

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​Pareja focuses keenly on creating that family atmosphere. Although he switches seamlessly between English and Spanish, he rotates roommates on the road so players get comfortable with teammates from different cultures. They also eat together as a group when traveling. Back home, academy players and coaches not only are permitted to watch first-team practices, they often participate. Rather than make the senior squad’s dining area off limits, thereby establishing it as an incentive, Pareja invites younger players to eat with their idols. The locker room is frequently open as well.

“These young players [on the MLS team] know how it feels and what was important, so why not do it now for others,” Pareja asked. “When I came here, it was an urgency to change the level of inclusion here with the programs, just make everyone feel a part of this. I don’t want the first team to be perceived as an island. It’s not just dressing in the same colors. It’s really sharing moments.”

FCD’s three academy teams (U-18, U-16 and U-14) are free and sit atop a development pyramid that includes pre-academy teams for players U-12 through U-15 and, below that, more than 4,000 boys and girls playing at various competitive levels. The Toyota Soccer Center is anchored by the MLS stadium and includes 17 additional full-size fields. FCD employs some 100 coaches and technical staffers. It is as close to the sort of traditional, comprehensive club so common in Europe and Latin America as there is in the U.S. And the community has responded – FCD’s average home attendance this year was a club-record 16,816.

“We’re pioneering this. We’re going to create our own stars,” Ulloa said. “It’s crazy that I’m blessed to have this opportunity. I’m playing for my city, wearing a Dallas jersey. I’ve been here all my life. It’s changed even in the academy since I started. We were the first graduates from that program and now you look at it, they go to school together. They can train twice a day. They’re training with professionals. It’s just crazy to think about.”

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For those outside Frisco, it may be equally crazy to ponder an FC Dallas victory in Seattle. If Pareja’s squad is a team on the rise, Sigi Schmid’s is the finished product – a U.S. Open Cup and Supporters' Shield winner filled with established internationals. FCD may not have a player who could crack a Sounders front six that includes Dempsey, Alonso, MVP candidate Obafemi Martins, Brad Evans and Marco Pappa. Toss in the likes of Chad Marshall and DeAndre Yedlin, and the Sounders become a prohibitive favorite to advance.

Pareja said he understands that his team is at a different point in its journey. He knows Seattle is under a different sort of pressure. But he’s also not one to fixate on timelines or schedules. Now is as good a time as any.

“They’ll be ready to go and try their best. They don’t want to wait. I know they can do it and I know the other teams are favorites for different reasons, and they have the right to feel it. But this core of players, they know they can compete,” Pareja said. “The  future looks bright because of the youth and it’s a great experience this year and we have developed a culture of belonging, a feeling that this is our team and we want to make it happen here. We’re not a transition team. We’re a team that believes in the people who have been here with the club. We’ll see what happens.”