FRISCO, Texas – There’s going young, and then there’s what FC Dallas have done recently by inserting Alex Zendejas into the lineup.
Zendejas tied former FCD striker Eddie Johnson for the youngest player to make his starting debut with the team at just 17-years, 126-days old. He’s nearly half the age of Dallas’ oldest player, 34-year-old Blas Perez, and is one of a handful of players younger than MLS itself.
But, despite only recently being allowed to legally watch R-rated movies alone in a theater, Zendejas has cracked the FC Dallas rotation, logging 110 minutes and a start in the club's last two games, in addition to starting the team’s US Open Cup opener last week.
“We don’t give anything here for free to anyone,” head coach Oscar Pareja told MLSSoccer.com. “It’s not that we just like one [player] more than the other. It’s because they work during the week, and they deserve it.”
At such a young age, Zendejas is still obviously adjusting to the league, and he admitted there’s still plenty of work to do on his fundamentals. He’s still growing into his body -- Zendejas stands a svelte 5-foot-7, 145 pounds -- making the size and speed of opposing MLS players quite the contrast.
“We’ll be doing drills, and [assistant coach] Josema Bazan will tell me how to kick the ball. And it works,” Zendajas told MLSSoccer.com. “It’s weird because he’s like a magician.”
One factor in the teenager’s recent run of playing time was the team’s schedule, featuring three games in a six-day span last week. That, combined with other players away on international duty, and Pareja had to open up the entire roster to protect some of his oft-injured players.
And while Zendejas was one of many to take advantage of the unique opportunity for playing time, his play caught the eye of his coaching staff – something Pareja believes should happen more with young players in MLS.
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“It’s impressive, but that’s the only way this country is going to progress in soccer at the highest level – if we, as the ones who make decisions, take the risk and embrace the idea,” Pareja said. “I know we play for points and winning and silverware, but somebody needs to give the opportunity for these boys.”
Pareja added that many European and South American players at Zendejas’ age already have a handful of games under their belt, which in turn helps their individual development and the advancement of their respective national teams.
“We have the talent to do it,” Pareja said. “I think we have players here in America that just need the opportunity, and we should trust them and give them a chance.”
He has given Zendejas that chance, and he does not plan on shying away from using the youngster as the season continues, starting in Friday's MLS Heineken Rivalry Week match against Texas rivals Houston Dynamo (9 pm ET; UniMas).
“He’s special in the way he approaches the game,” Pareja said. “The way he’s developing and growing up is a great model for us to follow.”
Scott Sidway covers FC Dallas for MLSsoccer.com.