KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Oscar Pareja had some difficult lineup decisions to make, with FC Dallas just four days from the first leg of a CONCACAF Champions League semifinals against Liga MX side Pachuca at Toyota Stadium.
His solution was to rest young playmaker Kellyn Acosta for the first 45 minutes, look to hold defensive shape, and hope a bunch of youngsters - including MLS debutants Paxton Pomykal, Jacori Hayes, and Carlos Cermeno - could come away from Children's Mercy Park with a result.
“The first thing for them was to have personality in the game,” Pareja said, after Saturday night's scoreless draw with Sporting Kansas City. “This is one of the harder atmospheres in Major League Soccer, and against a team with a lot of intensity they needed to come out today and play big. I asked them for a lot of personality and belief in what they are, and we're really proud of their job.”
Pareja's young side withstood Sporting's furious high press for the full 90 minutes – and made some team history in the process. Pomykal, at 17 years and 84 days, became Dallas' youngest starter and turned in 79 solid minutes on the right wing.
“For sure, it gives us loads of confidence,” Pomykal said. “There's guys back home that are Homegrowns like me, my age, and for them to see us go out there, us young guys, and do well, that gives them confidence as well. So the guys are just happy with the result, and now we're looking forward to Wednesday.”
Hayes, who came off for Acosta at halftime, said debuting on a cold night in one of the league's most raucous environments made for some nerves early on.
“I tried to settle myself down, but I also tried to take it all in while playing as natural as possible,” he told reporters. “But, it is tough.”
But while there were nerves to be overcome, Hayes added, there wasn't any fear.
“I felt good the whole time, to be honest,” he said. “I thought we had one or two chances that we could have scored and they had the same. But, all in all, I thought it was a good performance by us.”
Pomykal echoed those sentiments, noting the challenge of playing the first half attacking the goal behind which the Cauldron – Sporting's loud and passionate supporters' group – was waiting to give him a rough welcome.
“The toughest part was the fans, for sure, because it was my first time in a big stadium like that,” “Taking corner kicks, they're in your ear. But you get you first couple of passes in, zone them out and just play your game.”
That's exactly what Pareja expected of his youngsters, especially as he was already planning to start them even if Pachuca hadn't been gifted a weekend of rest by the referees' strike in Liga MX.
“We had a strategy to rest a majority of the players, not because of lack of respect for [Sporting Kansas City],” he said. “We wanted to play all the regular team, but obviously for us there's a big game coming up on Wednesday. What happened in Mexico is something that we can't control.
“It's great for the whole club, for the Homegrowns, for the youngsters. For the people who come to this club and believe that they can come and develop well. So coaches and the whole club, we're proud. They sent a big message today.