FRISCO, Texas – At this point, there can be no doubt: The FC Dallas model is working.
Consider the ages of the FC Dallas starting XI from their series-clinching win over the Seattle Sounders two weeks ago: 20, 20, 23, 23, 24, 24, 24, 24, 25, 28 and 32. Add to the fact that three of them were Homegrown Players, with four others at head coach Oscar Pareja’s disposal on the first-team roster, and it’s clear the team is committed to investing in its youth and not only overseas stars.
But the man behind the madness, technical director Fernando Clavijo, is often overlooked when accolades are passed around. And while he calls the organization’s commitment to youth “a different vision” from many clubs, he said it was initiated long before his arrival.
“It was the vision of Lamar [Hunt] Sr. and what he would like to see in the future – the FC Dallas way of doing things,” Clavijo told MLSsoccer.com. “‘Hopefully one day I have my players coming from an academy.’ I think we are just instruments of that plan.”
Clavijo takes a lot of pride in what the club has built. Some critics have questioned FCD's financial commitment when they watch other teams across the league acquire high-profile talent from other leagues and countries. But with the team having reached the Western Conference Championship, he’s thrilled that the club’s commitment to development from within is paying dividends at the highest level.
“I think the results have shown up on the field – something that probably didn’t happen before,” Clavijo said. “And not just the results on the first team, but looking back at the U-18 three years ago winning [the US Soccer Development Academy national championship], the U-16 winning the nationals the last two years – it’s work that is growing every year, and this year we have seen the pro benefit of it.”
Clavijo has been the guiding hand behind the hiring of academy coaches and the recent promotion of former U-16 head coach Luchi Gonzalez to academy director. Such moves may not be as sexy as signing big-name Designated Players, but without the right internal hierarchy, current starters like Kellyn Acosta – Clavijo’s first academy signee as technical director – might not have reached the level they’re at today.
“It’s rewarding because they are people who you put your finger on it, and it works,” Clavijo said. “This is not an exact science. You look at players, you get the right people to work with … and you have to come in with a good base to identify what is needed there so we can bring them to the pro level and win games.”
Possibly the most high-profile piece he’s added to the FC Dallas recipe? Pareja, who headed up the FCD academy before serving as Colorado's head coach for two years before eventually returning to Dallas ahead of the 2014 season. Clavijo said “it’d be a crime” if “El Profe” doesn’t take home MLS Coach of the Year honors this season.
When Schellas Hyndman resigned at the end of 2013, Clavijo did his research, noting how FCD made Pareja into who he is today as a player, academy coach and now head coach.
He didn’t have any doubt about Pareja fitting into his and the Hunts’ vision.
“What I saw in Oscar was somebody who really cared about playing younger players, understanding how to deal with those younger players and moving them to the pros, and somebody who had the same frame of mind that we all do here at FC Dallas,” Clavijo said. “Even when we looked at many candidates, he was always on the top of the list.”
Pareja hasn’t just bought into the organization’s vision – he's thrived in it. The club set an MLS record in September for most Homegrown players in the starting XI (five), and seemingly every week a different spry set of legs is propelling FCD to new heights.
It’s something Pareja takes pride in, and he believes the model is the future of American soccer.
“Seeing players that come from our system and have more repetitions with the first teams, all those things matter a lot,” Pareja told MLSsoccer.com. “And I hope we can keep helping soccer in this country. I think we’ll see Americans believing in Americans, and I know we have a lot of good things abroad. But we have to be convinced and proud of what we have within the country.
“This country is very large and diverse, and we have to give our players the opportunity. I’m positive, I’m very sure that the talent we have here in our backyards and parks and academies is good enough to compete.”
Clavijo, himself a US national team alum, echoes Pareja’s thoughts on American-bred players. And while both acknowledge every MLS club has their own way of doing things, Clavijo wishes the FC Dallas way would catch on, for the benefit of the United States.
“I want other teams to look at this and hopefully become a part of what US Soccer is all about,” Clavijo said. “It’d be great. We all want the United States to do well.”
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Midfielder Victor Ulloa, a poster child for the Dallas mantra, shares the vision of his bosses.
“From my perspective, if MLS wants to compete with the best teams in the world, they need to invest in their youth and build their own stars,” Ulloa told MLSsoccer.com. “FC Dallas is doing it the right way. I’m just happy and honored to be part of it.”
As for the club, the task in front of them now is to simply do something they have never done: Win an MLS Cup.
Given Clavijo’s lengthy career, his 2014 battle with cancer and the fact that nothing is guaranteed from year-to-year in any sport, he’s chomping at the bit to add a trophy to his collection.
“I want to win,” Clavijo said. “I don’t want to say more [than others], because everyone wants to win. But when you don’t know how long you have, I think that puts a little bit of an added ingredient to winning.”