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A near-capacity crowd flocked to Toyota Stadium earlier this month for LAFC’s visit to FC Dallas, many no doubt drawn to Frisco, Texas by the presence of veteran superstars Gareth Bale, Carlos Vela and Giorgio Chiellini.

If the big names were what got them through the gates, it was the local kid they were talking about on their way home.

Jesús Ferreira would seize center stage this evening, stunning the league leaders with two clever goals in four minutes late in the second half to turn a 1-0 deficit into a raucous 2-1 statement win that underlined FCD’s ambitions of challenging the MLS elite.

There was rich irony in the league’s first homegrown turned Designated Player – still just 21 years of age – stealing the SoCal luminaries’ thunder. Even more so when the striker hit a swaggy celebration pose after his game-winner, which drew him level with his club’s all-time single-season scoring record of 18 goals.

The secret to Ferreira’s 2022 leap

It was the kind of moment he had visualized before – first in dreams, as the child of a distinguished professional player, and more recently in his sessions with a sports psychologist, a decision he made amid perhaps the most consequential year in his career.

“Sitting down with my agent [Spencer Wadsworth], we talked, and we know that the mindset, it's a powerful tool for you,” Ferreira explained to MLSsoccer.com last week, earning the top spot on 2022's 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR list. “The next few months that are coming, we knew that they were going to be tough and there was going to be a lot of fighting, a lot of things that I needed to accomplish.

“Towards the middle of the season, we decided that that was something that we wanted to do, work on the mental health, because it was going to be important for me personally.”

In January Ferreira signed his Young DP deal, which keeps him in FCD’s red, white and blue until 2025 at least, a powerful expression of trust from ownership, with guaranteed compensation of $1.5 million per year according to MLS Players Association documents. The record-breaking transfer sale of Ricardo Pepi to FC Augsburg (reported $20 million last winter) had opened up the opportunity to make the No. 9 role his own, and he’d already become a US men’s national team regular at that point.

With the life-changing prospect of taking part in the 2022 World Cup beckoning at year’s end, he felt both the thrill and the heat of the spotlight in new ways. So he started talking to someone about it.

“Meeting a guy that I've never met before, and kind of just sitting there and listening to this guy saying, ‘work on this, work on that,’ at first it was a little bit weird, because it was my first time,” Ferreira recalled.

“But every time that we had meetings, there was something new that I was learning; it was something that was always helping me. So I really value his work and I know that he's doing what he knows best, that’s his job and he's helped me a lot so far. And so I'm just grateful that I have a guy like him in my corner that can help me in tough situations, and that also understands soccer.”

Jesus Ferreira USMNT
Jesús Ferreira has seven goals in 13 USMNT appearances. (Devin L'Amoreaux)

Burnishing the mental components of his already-substantial skill set has helped propel Ferreira to new levels in 2022. Always quick, cerebral and technical, a teenage prodigy who signed his first MLS contract at age 15, the Colombian-born attacker has steadily added new elements and angles to his game, many of them gained via painstaking work and hard-won experience.

After spending extended time on the flanks and as an attacking midfielder earlier in his career, he’s now a full-fledged frontrunner, just as dangerous breaking in behind or breaking out in transition as he is dropping deep to link play and shift defenders.

Second Spectrum data shows he’s quietly grown into the second-fastest player in the league behind San Jose’s Cade Cowell, with a top sustained speed of 10.119 meters per second and 99th-percentile rankings in sprints and distance sprinting this season, more than justifying one of his nicknames around Frisco: “Cheetah.”

“I'm not the typical 9, big six-foot-something, strong. I'm more of a fast guy,” said Ferreira, whose desire for self-improvement has impressed colleagues for years. “So obviously I'm learning things in that position every day, and I'm learning and I'm adding things to my toolbox. Obviously, sometimes I have to be the strong guy up top, which I try to be as strong as I can. Or sometimes I have to come in and help in the build-up. And so I'm learning new things every day.”

“He has carried the team”

The promising talent that sparked and faded intermittently is now a consistent match-winner, even under the close attention of opponents. A recognizable sense of personality shines through as well, matched with a style that also manifested itself off the pitch, as he starred in a fashion shoot on the ranch he owns outside Frisco.

“Chuy’s big for us. Not only what he does scoring goals, but the way he drops in, helps us in build, presses, his off-the-ball movement. He's a complete player and in our system is so effective,” said fellow homegrown Paxton Pomykal, using another of Ferreira’s nicknames.

“There were definitely glimpses of this in the past and I had 100% confidence in him to be able to have a season like this. He's so talented and so clinical, that the goals will come for sure. But just the way he's playing, not only the goals, but just the movement, the touches, the bounces, it just helps the team out so much.”

With 18g/5a, he’s already crushed his own 2022 target of 20 combined goal involvements before season’s end, and FCD’s litany of big wins over top Western Conference sides underlines their belief they can ride Ferreira all the way to an MLS Cup title.

“He’s found his spot in between the opponents’ back line and midfield, where it's difficult to mark him, and then either he can run in behind – and he’s really fast – or make a link-up play, come from behind and finish one touch from a cross,” said his head coach Nico Estevez after the LAFC win. “I think his improvement also goes to his teammates, because they're knowing him, his movements, better. I think they're knowing how and when he arrives to the box.

“He has carried the team. He has shown a lot of mentality with his effort. And I think he's a complete player,” Estevez added, noting the maturity with which his striker has worn the captain’s armband of late. “If we keep working hard with him, he will be a player that will leave here a lot of good memories for the club.”

A Colombian-American, bred in MLS

Ferreira in many ways epitomizes Dallas’ development-centered identity, and MLS’s evolving vision of its own future, with the receding reliance on seasoned imports that implicitly represents. He grew up in north Texas in the first place because of his father David, a playmaking Colombian international who starred for FCD from 2009-13, winning the 2010 MLS MVP award and leading the club to their only MLS Cup final to date.

Assessing the club’s best-in-class academy, the family decided it was FCD, not Colombia, that offered Jesús and his two younger brothers – keep an eye out for Santiago, a rising starlet in MLS NEXT Pro – the best opportunities for fulfilling their talent. They stuck to the plan, even when David returned to his homeland to finish out his own playing career, necessitating long months apart and heavy responsibilities on his wife Yudelmira.

Jesús joined the youth system at age 8 and subsequently worked at every tier in their infrastructure, averaging nearly a goal a game in the academy teams and winning a U.S. Soccer Development Academy national championship before starring with North Texas SC, their second team, and moving on to the MLS roster in 2016. He remains the youngest signing in club history, and his perennial placement on the 22 Under 22 list tells a story, too. Ferreira has featured in these rankings since 2019, though his spot ebbed and flowed with his form and FCD’s fortunes.

Now he’s a breakout superstar on a national level, MLS’s highest-scoring domestic player and a leading contender to start up top for the United States at this fall’s World Cup. It has only helped that Estevez worked under Gregg Berhalter with the Columbus Crew and the USMNT, and has implemented a similar philosophy and tactics with Dallas.

“We use [strikers] in a number of different ways. One of them is to drop in and help us, give us an extra man in midfield. One of the ways is to run behind the backline. And then arriving in the penalty box, making good runs inside the penalty box,” said Berhalter when unveiling his roster for this month’s camp in Europe, the USMNT’s last gathering before Qatar. “And then finally, starting our defensive pressure; we want to be a high-pressing team. We need forwards that understand the press, know how to use triggers to initiate the press and then actually execute the press well.

“When you look at a guy like Jesús, he checks all those boxes.”

What’s next?

Topping this year’s 22U22 will naturally draw attention to Ferreira’s next move. Seven of last year’s top 10 in these rankings have since been sold on to clubs abroad, and the list of past No. 1s comprises many of the biggest outbound transfers in MLS history: Pepi, Brenden Aaronson, Diego Rossi, Alphonso Davies, Miguel Almiron.

He welcomes being in that company, even though it draws out the doubters. And he’s in no great rush to move abroad: Ferreira would much prefer to win some hardware for his club before he leaves.

“I try not to focus too much on the negative comments and what goes around in social media. Obviously, we're human beings, we can't really help it, sometimes I do see it. And for me, it's just, I have to prove them wrong,” he said. “They always talk about the MLS league and ‘he can’t do it somewhere else.’

“I'm happy here. And I'm just doing what I'm supposed to do as a 9, which is to score goals. The time will come when hopefully I can make the jump to Europe. But as of right now, this is a club that I love, this is a club that I'm going to keep playing for and this is the club I’m at right now. And so for me personally, it’s just keep doing my work, let the haters talk – let them talk and just keep scoring goals.”