Striking the balance between development and trophy-chasing feels like the exact quandary facing clubs in the latest evolution of Major League Soccer.
MLS has embraced the notion of becoming a selling league, celebrating recent opulent transfers of academy products and budding young stars to some of the world's biggest clubs. In perusing the most lucrative outbound transfers of academy-produced talent, though, none of the top deals seem to include clubs who won MLS Cup.
FC Dallas aren't shy in their desire to break that mold.
"Look, I've yet to see an MLS Cup winner be a selling club that sells players from their academy," head coach Luchi Gonzalez told media on a virtual press conference. "There's been selling clubs but maybe not exactly from the academy. Being willing to lose your top right back or your top center mid, because it's a great opportunity for the player, the league and the club. And it's in the model to keep growing and developing, reinvesting what we want to do. So the confidence to develop and transfer these players. ...
"Why can't we be the first to do that?" Gonzalez asked. "And why can't we make that a model of success for the future?"
It's a desire that runs down from the very top of the club.
“I believe the club can achieve this goal," club president Dan Hunt said. "Look, 97% of the teams around the world develop players and transfer them. That’s just how it works.”
The premise is a bit of a nebulous one, to be fair. All recent MLS Cup winners can all lay claim to their developmental bonafides.
The 2020 MLS Cup champs Columbus Crew SC transferred Zack Steffen to Manchester City, while producing the likes of Wil Trapp and Aidan Morris through their academy. MLS Cup 2016 & 2019 winners Seattle Sounders developed Jordan Morris and DeAndre Yedlin among others, the latter moved to Tottenham as one of the first great successes of the development academy across the league. Atlanta United hold the league record for biggest outbound transfer, when Miguel Almiron made his move to Newcastle on the back of winning 2018 MLS Cup, though he was originally acquired from Lanus. Toronto FC, winning MLS Cup in 2017, can point to their long list of academy products signed to the first team.
While those accolades and achievements are strong in their own rights, few MLS clubs are doing it quite like Dallas and the Philadelphia Union. The Union won the Supporters' Shield last season while leaning on a number of academy graduates, including Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie. Both were named to the MLS Best XI, then both made hugely lucrative transfers to Europe this winter. Before Philly, the New York Red Bulls won Supporters' Shields with Matt Miazga (later sold to Chelsea) and Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig) playing integral roles.
The playoffs, as Bruce Arena likes to point out, is where you need your best players to be your best players. Depth isn't as key as it is in the regular season, where top-end talent typically rules the day. And those players are often in-prime Designated Players.
“It’s a system we continue to grow, I want to be at the forefront," Hunt said. "I want to be a leader. But I also believe we can compete too.”
For Dallas to realize their MLS Cup dream with this model, they recognize they have to make key additions with veteran players to complement the academy talents. They've had a mixed record on that front.
FCD won the Supporters' Shield-US Open Cup double in 2017 with Mauro Diaz as their leading DP, as well as Fabian Castillo, but haven't gotten the same kind of contributions from big-priced imports around them. Cristian Colman, Pablo Aranguiz and Santiago Mosquera are a few recent underwhelming DPs, while the jury remains out on current DPs Bryan Acosta and Franco Jara.
“Luchi has proven on both sides [development and winning] that he can do it, then we’ll continue to supplement the roster with international players with a winning pedigree," Hunt said. "We made a big push for Franco Jara and Thiago Santos, guys who won trophies in their countries. It’s about tying it all together.”
Even with Reggie Cannon excelling with Boavista, Bryan Reynolds acclimating to life in Italy after a club-record transfer to AS Roma, Brandon Servania on loan in Austria and Justin Che with Bayern Munich's second team, Dallas have plenty of homegrowns in the first team ready to play a big role.
Paxton Pomykal is back from injury, Jesus Ferreira is looking to bounceback after a disappointing 2020 while Tanner Tessmann is looking to build upon a breakout year, FCD will once again try to find that balance and compete for trophies.
"[We have to] find a way to win MLS Cup," Gonzalez said. "Whether you have the highest-paid DP or not. I think DP for us, we have to be a DP team."