By Charles Boehm – FRISCO, TX (Dec 3, 2015) US Soccer Players - Results are results. FC Dallas fell one step short of this weekend's MLS Cup with a 5-3 aggregate loss to the Portland Timbers in the Western Conference finals. Yet, while taking nothing away from worthy cup finalists Portland and Columbus, a modest step back in search of long-range perspective suggests that the Texas club's youth movement may prove the most useful lesson from the current MLS season.
For years, FCD have been committed to grooming homegrown talent through a vibrant academy system. Add in head coach Oscar Pareja's appreciation for a Latino-inflected style of play, and his steadfast willingness to invest his trust in young players. Cap it with the excellent 2015 regular season and deep playoff run that resulted, and you have a potential paradigm shift in the way professional clubs in the country grow talent, how they interact with their communities, and even how they view the reasons for their existence.
“I am keeping my faith, and keeping these guys playing, the youngsters. It's a responsibility that I assume, it's something that I carry all the way,” said a resolute Pareja after his team's season-ending 2-2 draw on Sunday, making sure to translate both a journalist's question and his answer from Spanish to English to emphasize his conviction. “My responsibility to play the youngsters, for me it's an easy job too, and I will keep doing it.”
By and large, his players remain on board, even those who arrived via routes other than the fertile FCD academy. Even amid the devastation of a nail-biting, heartbreaking failure in front of a packed, rain-chilled crowd at Toyota Stadium, the home locker room was almost defiantly upbeat.
“You see our starting lineup, you see the kind of tenacity we put forward,” said left back and goal scorer Ryan Hollingshead, 24. “So even though we lost that [series], we were 15 minutes left with one goal with one goal and this would be a different story. You can't really say that the entire season's worth of work and tactics and ideas that Oscar has been trying to implement in this team, you can't say that's all gone off of 15 minutes of things not bouncing our ways.
“It would be a different conversation if we had gotten that goal instead of them. Then everybody would be praising Oscar and praising his bringing youth in from the academy and all that stuff. So no, we're not going to throw out our game plan just for one series.”
Thus far, it appears that Dallas could get even younger this offseason. 34-year-old striker Blas Perez effectively announced his departure via Twitter and 30-year-old defender Bakary Soumare had already decided to retire at the close of 2015.
“We're a pretty close-knit team. We're young, we're energized. We've got a lot to look forward to. It's not all gloomy here,” said center back Walker Zimmerman. “In the moment it feels that way, but we've got a lot to look forward to. We've got [CONCACAF] Champions League next year. The most points in club history, almost won the Supporters' Shield if it weren't for goal differential. We've got a lot of talent here and we're going to keep our heads up.”
There are lessons here for everyone, including – perhaps especially – those atop the US Soccer Federation's power structure.
A star Dallas midfielder in his playing career, Pareja oversaw FCD's academy early in his coaching career. When he returned to the club after two years in charge of the Colorado Rapids, he empowered a bevy of young talents while building links between the senior team and its top youth teams, the U-18 and U-16 Development Academy squads.
“The pros came and talked to us constantly, gave us advice. We'd see them on the field right next to us practicing, they provided us food, schooling – just the whole system,” recalled Kellyn Acosta, 20, an FCD Homegrown and US youth national teamer who has been one of this season's revelations. “I just felt like, 'one more step and I'll be right there.' I felt like a little professional – they treated us like that. They were hard on us, it was very competitive. I felt like they wanted us to take our game to the next level. I'm very grateful for that.”
Even with a substantial battery of MLS veterans at his disposal, Pareja soon had a trusted core of regulars age 25 or below, while retaining the buy-in from his vets. Academy players are brought up to take part in nearly every training session all season. In contrast to previous Dallas regimes, HGP signings are gauged by quality, not quantity, with an eye on ensuring that only those who are truly ready are called. And the talent pool is not limited to the enormous North Texas youth scene: FCD maintains six affiliate clubs in other regions and states, helping draw the likes of US youth international Coy Craft, a Southwest Virginia native.
According to Hollingshead, there's more of the same to come.
“That's the thing that Oscar has been so good at,” the Californian told USSoccerPlayers.com. “He's not playing guys because they're young, he's not playing guys because they're old. He's playing the guys that need to be on the field to put our best team forward. If you're young, great. If you're old, great. There's no bias.
“We have kids on this team that are young, that are biding their time, practicing hard, working their butts off every day in training, and they're not getting on the 18[-man gameday roster] right now. Those guys aren't being seen … We've got a lot of guys that are young that still haven't gotten their shot, and that's another testament to this team. We've got other guys who in a year or two are going to be good enough to play and they're going to be the next wave.”
I didn't truly grasp the full extent of Pareja's commitment, and its potential benefits, until their match at Columbus on Sept. 6. Handicapped by a long list of absences caused mainly by international call-ups, the Colombian coach fielded a league-record five Homegrown Players in his starting XI and the average age of his midfield was under 20 years old. While the defend-and-counter tactics they employed were far less assertive than FCD's swashbuckling norm, they worked to perfection with a 3-0 win over the team that is now hosting the league championship.
Dallas showed their age against the Timbers, suffering costly slips away in the away leg and allowing Sunday's decider to unfold at a recklessly open tempo that burned them in the end. But unlike certain other MLS teams, Pareja and his players remained refreshingly dedicated to their attack-minded identity both before and afterwards.
“It would be sad for me to think that people are measuring here just based on the result,” Pareja told me on Saturday. “For me, succeeding is to have a good journey. And we have had a great journey this year and there is a long way to go, still. If we're measuring the development of this game in America with a result, then I think we will miss big-time where we want to go.
“The message for this group this week is just, be yourself. I want my team to look the same. They have won here enough games in a similar manner. I don't see any other way.”
Pareja's faith in both his system and his players – regardless of their age – offers hope well beyond FCD's fan base. It should be a beacon for anyone who believes in American players, and American teams of any level. At a time when rough results in international play have unleashed a flood of criticism and self doubt, a Colombian émigré is staking his job and his reputation on the resources in our own backyard.
“I'm very proud of this group of players, they made us feel very good. They deserve more, for sure, but it seems like the game is telling us that it's not time yet. And we will keep working, because there's a lot of things ahead for this young group,” said Pareja after Sunday's setback.
“You will always hear from me that success is not a result. Even when I got trophies and championships before, when I played, I never considered a result the end of the journey. That is a mistake – I think it's a mistake. It's a hard moment to answer that, because at this moment we are all disappointed with not advancing and not winning a trophy. But for me what happened during the journey is the success.”
More from Charles Boehm: