FRISCO, Texas – It goes beyond one night. International call-ups are earned over time, and FC Dallas youngster Alan Velasco has been on Argentina's radar for years, playing at the U-17 World Cup in 2019 and with their U-15s before that.
Yet, a flashy performance against the best player in the world, one who just happens to captain La Albiceleste, certainly boosted Velasco's case.
That breakout moment came on Aug. 6, a big night for Velasco, and a big night for everybody in Dallas. Lionel Messi was in town, traveling for an Inter Miami CF away match for the first time in his career. But the Leagues Cup knockout game had a special meaning for the Argentine attacker. A 21-year-old from Quilmes, Velasco has always taken inspiration from those who came before him, like Messi, who captained Argentina to the World Cup trophy in December 2022 before joining Inter Miami this summer.
A few years ago, the Young Designated Player got a massive Diego Maradona tattoo on his back, a tribute that became visible after that Leagues Cup match when he swapped shirts with Messi. While Maradona was his hero, Velasco could only watch him in YouTube clips and TV highlights. Messi is a hero too, and one he actually saw in action in live matches.
“He’s a symbol for us, for all Argentines. I grew up watching him play,” Velasco told MLSsoccer.com this week.
But Velasco didn’t just play against Messi last month. He played well against Messi. He scored against Messi (and Miami). In a game in which Messi dazzled – notching a sixth-minute opener and then an 85th-minute free kick to send the match to penalty kicks, which Miami won – Velasco stood out too.
The next step is to play well with Messi. Thursday, Velasco was called up by the senior Argentina national team for World Cup qualifiers against Ecuador (Sept. 7) and Bolivia (Sept. 12). A big night at the right time never hurts.
A new role
Asking the promising playmaker to become the next Argentine great in a line of legends is unfair, but FC Dallas are depending on Velasco to keep showing the skill he displayed against Miami as they push toward the postseason. FCD currently occupy the Western Conference's ninth-and-final Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs spot, with four teams sitting five or fewer points behind them.
He’s doing just that but in a different role now, moving from winger, where he’s largely played since arriving from Independiente ahead of the 2022 season for a club-record reported $7 million transfer fee, to a central position as an attack-minded No. 8.
“Honestly, I feel very comfortable in the position I’m playing. Nico had to bring me back a bit to see the field in front of me, to have more space. We’re doing well and want to keep on the same path.” Velasco said. “The team was looking for me all the time and always passed me the ball [in the game against Miami]. I was happy, and I hope we can keep playing like we did in that game.”
Dallas, when they signed Velasco, knew he could be a versatile addition to the attack. In Argentina, he played both on the wing and as a traditional No. 10. In 2022, as Dallas manager Nico Estévez worked on getting the team to the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs in his first season, he deployed Velasco as a winger and saw positive results with six goals and seven assists across 26 matches, plus another goal and assist in the playoffs.
This season, Velasco struggled to give FCD the same burst until Estévez asked him to tuck inside just before Leagues Cup.
“At the start, we put him outside more because he has the right characteristics to play there. In fact, we still can utilize him out there a lot,” Estévez said. “But as he’s become more accustomed to and confident in what we do here, we’ve put him inside more and seen his qualities and skills there. I think he’s been at a good level and helped a lot.”
It hasn’t just been Velasco’s on-field adaptation that's evolved over time. When he left Buenos Aires, he told ESPN Argentina about saying goodbye not just to teammates and staff but those like the man who operated the parking booth and security personnel. Having signed at Independiente before even becoming a teenager, it was never going to be easy leaving the only club he’d ever known.
A short while after settling in Dallas, he went on to tell The Striker: "It was tough at first because of stuff that maybe I had internally, like any 19-year-old guy has. It was tough. But now I’m good, I’m happy and we’re going to try to take on this next stage as well as possible.”
Velasco's comfort has only grown further since then, now noting that being right mentally has helped him play better on the field. But even as he continues to feel more at home in North Texas, he's preparing for future business trips home to Argentina.
Though he earned a senior team call-up for the September window, Velasco will also likely be on the radar of Argentina U-23 manager Javier Mascherano, who's preparing his side for a September friendly against Bolivia at the Argentine Football Association’s facility named after Lionel Messi. While competition will be stiff, Velasco hopes to earn a place in the former Argentina legend’s squad for the upcoming Olympic qualification tournament.
Another hope is his move from Argentina to MLS won’t be the last significant transfer in his club career. While Velasco insists he’s not thinking about anything beyond this year’s goals, “La Joya” had interest from European clubs before joining FCD. Making it to a top European league remains a goal, and Dallas are willing to support if the right bid comes. For now, earning a playoff spot remains priority No. 1.
"We’re doing things well in the club and I hope we can keep doing that. When it’s time, I’d love to go to a place where every player dreams and aspires to go to in Europe," said Velasco. "... The goals first of all are to achieve my objectives with Dallas and see after that. I’m still not thinking about the rest."
The fact MLS is garnering ever-more attention in the South American and European markets, evidenced by the league's lengthy international call-up list for the September window, doesn’t hurt: “It’s good. I hope it means all of us in the league get seen a bit more.”
Judging from the accolades, plenty of people saw exactly what Velasco could do earlier this year. Now it’s time for him to show he can follow in the footsteps of some of the country’s biggest heroes and seize more big-time opportunities.