By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Dec 5, 2018) US Soccer Players – On Thursday, FC Dallas will unveil the name, logo, and first signing of a new United Soccer League entry run by the Major League Soccer club. The lower division side will bring FC Dallas into line with a majority of MLS teams who operate a team at the USL level to serve as a stepping stone between their academies and the first team.
This is the vision of the MLS-USL partnership. It’s a reciprocal relationship that helped strengthen USL at a time of volatility in its ranks. It gives top division clubs a way to fill the gap between youth development and the senior team.
Despite its reputation for developing talent in-house, FC Dallas has lacked a place for young players not ready for MLS minutes to season at a professional level. Although it can only be speculation after the fact, it’s worth wondering if the club might not have held onto a few of the FC Dallas academy graduates who left for European clubs if a USL side had been in place.
When players did sign, it was not always the best outcome. The club often inked young players to MLS contracts simply to protect itself after investing in their development. The rising interest in American players from clubs abroad and the poaching of players out of MLS academies prompted FC Dallas to use the only tool at its disposal. Signing their academy players ensures that the club would either be the one to benefit from that investment or receive compensation in the event a club wanted to sign an FC Dallas product.
It’s worth noting that academy players yet to sign MLS contracts can play with USL reserve teams without jeopardizing their NCAA eligibility. That’s a big deal for kids who might want to go to college and play but are ready for a test at a higher level. Playing against professionals will help inform their best next steps as academy graduation looms.
The reason FC Dallas waited so long to put a USL team on the field was largely one of economics. MLS teams typically don’t make money with their senior teams, much less with clubs operating in the lower divisions. The budgets of top-level USL clubs, in the division recently rebranded as “USL Championship” made the prospect cost prohibitive for Dallas. Beyond player salaries, travel is a significant expense that cannot be realistically mitigated. US Soccer pro league standards require stadiums with capacities over 5,0000. That often forces clubs to play in MLS venues with high costs of game day operation.
USL League One is part of the answer to that problem. It brings down the operating cost. FC Dallas isn’t alone in putting their reserve team in League One. Both Toronto FC and Orlando City will move their second teams from the top USL division down to the new competition. With lower standards for stadiums and presumably lower salaries for players signed directly to the USL team, the red ink is no longer too much of a burden.
FC Dallas’s League One entry will play most of its games at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, but laxer requirements will also allow the side to play in other venues around the Dallas/Ft Worth area. Dallas’s USL club can act both as an incubator for talent and as a marketing tool. As the club tries to scoop up as much of the youth talent in North Texas that it can and convince Metroplex residents to make the trek to Frisco, a team that pops up in other local stadiums can only help the cause.
The move by FC Dallas to launch a USL club was a long time coming, but the timing of it is not ideal. Oscar Pareja, the man who helped establish the club as the vanguard of player development in MLS, left for Club Tijuana in Mexico last week. In the best case scenario, Dallas would have Pareja at the top of a club hierarchy he helped build, with the USL side feeding directly into his first-team lineup. Pareja’s reputation as a head coach willing to give young players a chance would naturally augment the work done at the USL level. It would serve as a standing promise of upward mobility for players in the reserve team.
FC Dallas’s ownership has every reason to make sure that the next head coach follows Pareja’s lead. If the club’s identity extends beyond the head coach, then finding a sideline boss with a similar philosophy is critical. That naturally complicates what should be a fairly simple search for a coach who can win games and bring an MLS Cup trophy to Texas. The path to fully formed, top-to-bottom, academy-to-first team soccer club is fraught with disruptions like the departure of a successful coach who help dictate the character of a club.
Luckily for Dallas, there are plenty of coaches, some of them already on the FC Dallas coaching staff, who believe in the commitment to young players that Pareja preached. Balancing out youth and experience to win games and championships is extremely difficult. It creates the biggest problem for whoever takes the job.
The MLS original is not among the league’s biggest spenders and doesn’t have the appeal of the newest of MLS’s expansion entries. What Atlanta and Toronto can do in short order by spending massive amounts of money on the first team and facilities, FC Dallas approaches more methodically. The academy play is a smart one that FC Dallas couldn’t help but fall into because of the excellence of the talent available on offer in Texas.
A USL League One team on its own won’t make FC Dallas a perennial MLS contender on its own. The club will still lose players to Europe out of its youth system. American teams are still not able to collect compensation for players who leave on their own. Without the right coach, the path from the youth academy to the first team might still be fraught and unclear.
What the new USL team does is bring FC Dallas into the modern era of MLS developmental structures. It extends the culture the club has created over the last decade in Texas. Utilizing the League One side creates a finishing school for the academy, putting a stamp on the future. This is FC Dallas walking the walk of player development to the fullest extent possible.
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- The battle of the underdogs in the Western Conference
Logo courtesy of FC Dallas