A Soccer Factory in Football's Heartland: 'It's Like It's Europe or Something'

Noah Davis@noahedavisContributing Soccer WriterJune 26, 2017

FC Dallas forward Jesus Ferreira (27) celebrates scoring a goal with teammate Cristian Colman (9) during the second half of an MLS soccer match against Real Salt Lake in Frisco, Texas, Saturday, June 3, 2017. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
LM Otero/Associated Press

It took Jesus Ferreira just 18 minutes to become Major League Soccer's youngest goal scorer since Freddy Adu.    

The 16-year-old phenom, the son of former league MVP David Ferreira, made his debut for FC Dallas' first team June 3, entering a match against Real Salt Lake in the 71st minute. A little more than a quarter-hour later, he demonstrated why there's so much excitement about an attacker who's too young to vote, deftly taking down a cross and calmly finishing past onrushing RSL keeper Matt Van Oekel.

He had his first tally at 16 years and 161 days old. At his club, Ferreira is young, but he's far from alone.

Since starting their academy in 2008, the club has made a commitment to developing its youth movement, which is unlike any other in American professional soccer. When Ferreira took the field, he was the 16th homegrown player to move from the academy to the first team—a group that includes 21-year-old United States men's national team midfielder Kellyn Acosta and Jesse Gonzalez, FCD's 22-year-old starting goalkeeper, who could one day find himself between the pipes for the Americans.

The pipeline shows no signs of slowing down: FCD's under-16 and under-18 teams won national championships in 2016. Its under-14 squad finished the season 25-0-2. In April, the U19 team, led by Ferreira and promising prospect Paxton Pomykal, won the prestigious Dallas Cup Super Group, giving the age group a claim as the best youth side in U.S. soccer history.

While FC Dallas' success has been unprecedented, the more important thing is that it's not unrepeatable. The club has established a model that other MLS clubs could follow if they wanted.

FCD's exciting present sheds light on the potentially bright future of American soccer.

The story of FC Dallas' academy starts at the top.

Dan Hunt, the team's president and the son of legendary U.S. soccer pioneer Lamar Hunt, helped build the youth program and ensured the directors had the resources they needed.

"The ownership has really bought into it and given [the coaches and academy director] space and a mandate to do that," Will Parchman, who covers U.S. youth soccer at TopDrawerSoccer.com, says.

"FC Dallas really built their whole organizational structure around promoting these kids. [FC Dallas head coach Oscar Pareja] knew he had the space to do that, which gave him a little bit more license to give Jesus Ferreira a chance—and then he scores. That doesn't happen in a whole lot of other places."

Nor do a lot of other franchises have the type of sprawling facilities on which FC Dallas spent millions.

The Toyota Soccer Center opened in 2005, three years before the academy, and the 145-acre complex now consists of 17 professional-grade soccer fields in addition to Toyota Park, where the first team hosts MLS opposition.

FC Dallas' soccer complex
FC Dallas' soccer complexCourtesy of FC Dallas

There's plenty of space for the U12, U13, U14, U15, U16 and U18 boys teams, as well as U13, U14, U15, U16, U17 and U19 girls squads, along with other initiatives. Every day, hundreds of children train at the same time as the pros. Red and white FC Dallas uniforms of all sizes are scattered across the green grass in Frisco, Texas, 30 miles due north of downtown Dallas.

For the kids with bigger aspirations, training next to the pros is inspiring.

"Seeing the first team training every day was motivation to try to get there," Victor Ulloa, a 25-year-old midfielder and one of the first academy products to reach the first team, says. "If we fell down and felt like we didn't want to train, we could easily think about how fun it would be to become a professional soccer player."

The close integration between the youth ranks and the professional team is a key. Academy players mix in with every first-team training, getting used to the speed of the professional game and the pace of play. The academy coaches help out as well; three of the five assistant coaches at FC Dallas came through the academy ranks.

Head coach Pareja, who captained FCD between 1998 and 2005 before helping to launch the academy as director of player development in 2008, is perhaps more committed than anyone to maintaining the connection between the academy and the senior team.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

"The path has to be very genuine," he says. "It has to be real. It has to be written in a book, organized in a structure. It has to be visible and reachable for players. How you do it is that you show them on a daily basis that it's real. We base it in the training. We have them in front of us in the morning. We invite the players to first-team training. Those steps create belief for the players. They see it."

The obvious path to the pros is something that had been lacking in American soccer. For decades, there was no affiliation between youth teams and professional ones. Even today, many of the development academies don't have an MLS counterpart. This is changing slowly, with FC Dallas leading the way.

For Ulloa, a product of the system who still remembers the nerve-wracking awe he experienced on the first day he trained with the professionals as a 17-year-old, the difference between FCD and other clubs is the management's faith in its youth movement. In MLS, a league where playing youngsters is sometimes frowned upon and #playyourkids is a popular hashtag for frustrated fans, Dallas' approach stands out.

"The most important thing is that the coach believes in us and backs us up," Ulloa says of the gaffer. "Being 16, 17 years old, him throwing you on the field and telling you to go at it and that he'll take full responsibility is just something you can't take for granted. It's awesome that he's the way he is and gives us the confidence to just go out there and play.

"At a young age, what you need is experience, and the only way to get that is by playing games. He takes a risk and gives that to you. It's something that helps you develop as a professional soccer player. It's a risk for sure, but it's a risk that has paid off for this club and this franchise."

FC Dallas' recent first-team success shows that results can follow faith. The club finished first in the Western Conference in 2015 and 2016 and is in contention midway through the 2017 campaign.

Last season, the club lost electric Colombian winger Fabian Castillo, who left on a big-money transfer to Turkish powerhouse Trabzonspor midway through the year. In a league where entire squad payrolls are less than one EPL star's, losing arguably a team's best player could have tanked another club's season. But Pareja's group didn't miss a beat, finishing with the league's best record and claiming the Supporters' Shield. For good measure, they also took home the U.S. Open Cup, the American equivalent to the FA Cup.

FCD demonstrated their impressive and ever-present depth, primarily the product of the academy.

Of course, success can't come without talent, and the North Texas region is one of the most talent-rich areas in the United States. Before FCD launched an academy, the area, which is around 42 percent Hispanic, had strong youth clubs like the Dallas Texans and Solar Chelsea that boasted a tradition of churning out U.S. national team stars, including Jeff Agoos, Clint Dempsey and Omar Gonzalez.

The region's youth organization implemented an intense promotion/relegation system—unusual for the U.S.—which produces a dog-eat-dog mentality. The best players lead their teams to the top of the heap, making it easier for FC Dallas academy coaches to identify talent.

"Here in Dallas, families have no mercy," FCD academy director and U16 coach Luchi Gonzalez says. "Kids grow up with that fighting spirit. Whether they are Latino, African-American, come from an affluent family or a poor family, it doesn't matter. Theses kids in Dallas are really competitive."

Gonzalez spent his youth in Florida before attending Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where he would win the Hermann Trophy as college soccer's best player in 2001. He grew up watching Argentine soccer and speaks highly of the flexibility and adaptability players from that country developed.

He wants to produce young soccer players who mimic that style, but he also understands the American need to balance competitiveness and creativity with constructive instruction. The academy mixes periods of training with less formal open play, which presents opportunities for the players to experiment.

What he doesn't want is for his charges to lose that fighting spirit.

"My daughter is U8 in FC Dallas," Gonzalez says. "She was in a rec league here, and she played for a team called the Fighting Cupcakes. If they scored their seventh goal and the other team had not scored one, they were celebrating that goal like it was the first goal."

"Why do you play? You play to win," he adds, an obvious statement that's so often overlooked in American youth soccer, wherein concerns about player psyche can become overly paternalistic.

Still, it's essential to recognize that youth sports in the U.S., especially soccer, are different than they are around the rest of the world. Refusing to recognize that fact or ignoring it dooms a club to fail at development over and over again. Taking a model that has worked elsewhere and applying it to America isn't the right answer.

"I'm tired of seeing people try to emulate others," Pareja says. "I think we have a very distinct community. I've gone and visited some different models, but we have to understand that American kids have their own challenges and their own characteristics. We have to be able to create it according to what we see here."

Pareja, a former Colombian national team midfielder who spent the first half of his career in his home country before moving to MLS in 1998, is the ideal person to create this new system. He understands how to develop talent; he saw it firsthand when he was growing up.

He also knows how unique aspects of the U.S., like the size of the country, mean teams need to be creative when finding competition. They can't easily travel internationally or even to another city without serious planning and financial wherewithal.

He also gets the importance of education in youth culture and development. That's why FCD partnered with the local school system to arrange a situation where academy players train in the morning and go to school afterward.

"Here, we are educating people and at the same time giving them the opportunity to be professionals," he says. "That's a big difference."

FRISCO, TX - SEPTEMBER 14:  Head coach Oscar Pareja of FC Dallas talks to Blas Perez #7 during a game against Vancouver FC at Toyota Stadium in Frisco on September 14, 2014 in Frisco Texas.  (Photo by Rick Yeatts/Getty Images)
R. Yeatts/Getty Images

The good news for American soccer is that while FCD is succeeding in developing talent and a system, the club isn't doing anything that can't be copied. Yes, the level of raw ability in the Dallas area is high and the competition is intense, but there's plenty of ability in California, New York, Chicago, Houston and South Florida, among other areas. (And FCD lost out on Emerson Hyndman and Weston McKennie, two promising prospects who decamped to Europe.)

What's really lacking from MLS clubs is not the ability but the commitment. "Any club can do it, but it takes some impetus," Parchman says.

This starts with the ownership, which sets the mandate to play the kids. MLS is not a deep league, and finances are thin. The majority of starting XIs have a couple of journeymen on $80,000 a year, toiling through the final seasons of their careers.

What if a coach felt confident enough, empowered by the ownership, to throw a promising prospect into the mix a bit earlier than he might normally? Sure, maybe that teenager struggles for six months and the team gets a bad result or two. But soon, that playing time and experience will help the prospect surpass the journeyman.

All it takes is a little faith.

For FC Dallas, the next player to get a shot from the academy is Reggie Cannon, a 19-year-old marauding, overlapping right back who models his game after his favorite player, Dani Alves.

Cannon is the prototypical American soccer player in 2017: a hyper-athletic young man who competed in track, American football, baseball and basketball before settling on soccer. He chose soccer "because of the freedom the game offered" and played center back before transitioning to right back at the behest of the academy instructors.

Reggie Cannon @ReggieCannon15

Happy to make my debut for this amazing club. Glad I could help with the 3 points and move on to the next round. All glory to God!#DTID https://t.co/uGaLb9Ov3D

After matriculating from the academy, Cannon spent a year at UCLA, where he was one of only three players to appear in all 20 matches for the Bruins. He decided to return to FCD, signing a homegrown player contract Dec. 22, 2016.

While he hasn't seen the field in the first 16 games of FCD's season, Cannon has been on the bench for every one, gaining valuable experience and preparing to make his debut. When he does, he'll be the 17th homegrown player to appear for the club in MLS action in less than a decade, a lengthy list growing longer. 

"He embodies FC Dallas' development system," American youth soccer expert Parchman says. "They develop for the first team, for the way that they play. They love to bomb their full backs in MLS, and Reggie Cannon fits that mold. You see a lot of guys coming through the academy, and you can see how they fit it.

"It's like it's Europe or something."


Noah Davis is a contributing football writer for Bleacher Report, covering the game from his base in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him on Twitter, @noahedavis


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