MLS Now: FC Dallas on patience and balance, Timbers set for match without Ridgewell

FRISCO, Texas – With a thriving academy undergirding one of MLS' youngest lineups, FC Dallas have drawn praise for their forward-looking approach.

But it turns out that credit for one of the most important components in this year's run to the Western Conference Championship, midfielder Kellyn Acosta, can be traced back to the club's very first coach, the man who led the squad known as the Burn as it roamed the old Cotton Bowl in downtown Dallas.

“He was playing for one of my good friends in soccer, Dave Dir, on a team that was named at the time ASG,” FCD head coach Oscar Pareja explained on Saturday when asked about his first glimpse of Acosta, the Dallas Homegrown who has blossomed into one of the league's most promising two-way center mids.

“Coach Dir called me and said, 'you gotta see this kid.' I saw him on the training ground when I was [coaching] in the [FCD] academy, and that was all. I saw everything I wanted from that position. From there, he just kept growing.”

Acosta soon joined FCD's youth program, which Pareja oversaw before departing for a two-year stint in charge of the Colorado Rapids first team.

“One of my teammates from my childhood told me about the FC Dallas Academy, what they were doing and how they had a connection with their professional team,” Acosta recalled in a conversation with media ahead of Sunday's second leg showdown with Portland (5 pm ET; ESPN | TSN2 in Canada | MLS LIVE).

“That just sparked my interest right away. And then when I came here – just a great professional environment. They treated us like little pros and I just loved it ever since. The coaching staff, the practices and everything, I enjoyed it from the start. … The coaches were so vibrant, so lively and so passionate. I just wanted to be a part of that right away. I mean, other MLS academies, they have probably similar ways, similar views, but I think here what makes a difference is the coaches.”

Significant US youth national team opportunities followed, and the Plano, Texas native signed his Homegrown deal in July 2012. He earned a spot in US Soccer's Bradenton Residency Program, was the youngest player on the United States' U-20 World Cup roster two years ago – the first of his two U-20 tournament trips – and made his MLS debut later that summer.

“Kellyn has physical attributes that make him different despite his youth,” said Pareja. “He's rangy. I think he's not afraid to go into the duels and 1v1s. His talent, he can use his right and left very naturally. Those things for me are a great scenario to let the kid grow. And I think he was consistent in showing some growth – and that's, for a coach, enough, to see we're going in a good direction. I didn't see Kellyn, as it happens for some players, go backwards.”

He became a regular starter for FCD in 2014. But it wasn't until this season that everything came together at the level that Pareja foresaw back on that first impression, as Acosta overcame nagging injuries and elevated his mentality, buoyed by his coaching staff's confidence despite myriad options in central midfield.

“This year he made long strides in his physicality – last year he had a lot of trouble with his knee and as a consequence of it, sometimes weaknesses in his hamstrings,” noted Pareja. “This year we wanted him to get strong physically and start completing games with more frequency. I think we have achieved that with Kellyn.

“He looks more mature in that regard. Still a player who knows he has a long journey still, and many things to grow into. But Kellyn this year has progressed enormously in his personality and his physicality.”

Acosta's form and upside has turned heads around MLS, and beyond. But the hometown kid says he's “the most comfortable I've been in a while” and while he harbors European ambitions, he is in no great hurry to seek greener pastures as his club hunts for hardware.

“Right now I'm happy here. This club's given me everything and I'm grateful,” he said on Saturday. “I love the team, teammates, the fans, coaching staff. If the time is right, then maybe so, but right now I'm excited being here.

“Right now I'm just trying to continually grow and progress my game, and then we'll see what happens in the future.”