Soccer  

Dallas is ground zero for the youth movement behind USMNT

High above the clouds somewhere, Fernando Clavijo must be smiling. Now that the final 26-man United States national team roster for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar has been confirmed, we can see the fingerprints of FC Dallas from back to front.

Five of the 26 players on head coach Gregg Berhalter’s team have a link to the Texan club. Weston McKennie, Kellyn Acosta and Jesus Ferreira all are former Dallas academy players. Right-back Shaq Moore spent part of his youth career at FCD, too. After leaving Furman University, Walker Zimmerman spent his first five professional seasons with the club. Reggie Cannon and Ricardo Pepi, two names in contention to go to Qatar though ultimately omitted from the final squad, also rose up through the FC Dallas academy.

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In a way, the players who featured in Wednesday’s roster announcement are a celebration of the emergence of MLS academies, and there was no bigger trailblazer of that than FC Dallas and Clavijo, the club’s late technical director who died in 2019 after a long bout with cancer.

Go back to 2012, when Clavijo took the Dallas academy, which at that time was already one of the best in MLS, and began to strengthen it. Two years later, coach Oscar Pareja arrived, and the project put into place and carried out by those two men was soon noticed within U.S. Soccer circles.

“I think Dallas, initially, because of their facility, were able to attract players who, in general, other clubs were not able to attract,” former U.S. under-20 coach Tab Ramos said. “On top of that you have a beautiful stadium and you have the right people running the club, which Fernando was doing at the time and Oscar as the head coach of the first team. It just seemed like Dallas was a well-oiled machine before everyone else came along in the league. I think they were just ahead of the game compared to everybody else.”

Development is one thing, but playing time is another, and that’s another aspect in which FC Dallas stood above their peers. Pareja did not shy away from playing players from the club’s academy, but it was done methodically, with players not forced or rushed into game situations prematurely. It was a practical approach that reaped rewards.

“It’s great to have player development, but in the end, it also needs to be a place that trusts the process and actually allows these players to play,” said U.S. Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart. “I think FC Dallas is one of the founders of identifying what development needs to look like, implementing it within their own region and then following through. If you believe in what you’re doing, you have to create a place for these players to actually step on the field and play at the highest level within MLS. I think they have proven to a lot of people that this model really works the way they do it.”

It provokes an obvious question: Why is this not standard for every other MLS team? Why have so few MLS teams followed the Dallas model and leaned into youth development? Some clubs have — the Philadelphia Union, New York Red Bulls, Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City also boast heralded programs — but for many, the obstacles are too difficult to handle.

“I think the major challenge that you are always going to have is that once you put those young players on the field, a lot of times young players make mistakes, and that costs you at certain moments,” Stewart said. “You have a balance of development, and then making sure that the product wins games on the field. Sometimes it always doesn’t go hand in hand, and that can be a challenge at moments when you do not win a couple games in a row, or what do fans expect at that moment, or ownership.”

Amid the failure to qualify for Russia 2018, it was hard for anyone on the outside looking in to believe that U.S. Soccer and MLS were having success at developing talent. There was a glaring gap between the teams on their way out, led by Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard, and the new generation that had only produced Christian Pulisic at the senior team level up until that point. The failure to qualify for the Olympic Games at London 2012, Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 further exposed the notion of a “lost generation” in U.S. Soccer.

Yet during this time at the youth national team level, there was a shift, and the quality brought forth by FC Dallas players in camps was apparent. The club had established an identity when it came to the way it wanted to play, and it stood out on the training field on international duty.

“I remember being the youth technical director at U.S. Soccer and we were all saying, ‘Wow, Dallas is where all of the players are coming from, or most of them,’” Ramos said. “No doubt you could tell who the FC Dallas kids were. There was something about the Dallas player that was different. The Dallas player had this intensity about them, they had this willingness to do whatever it took to win, on top of having the skill.”

On Wednesday night in New York, the FC Dallas impact on the national team was without question. It was the club, with the vision of Clavijo and the application from Pareja, that raised the game. Other franchises have developed a similar approach, but in their own style. Case in point, Philadelphia boasted four players who made up the U.S. U20 team that captured the 2022 CONCACAF Under-20 Championship in dominating fashion and qualified the U.S. for Paris 2024, its first Olympics since Beijing 2008.

At times, it has been a rocky road, but inside U.S. Soccer, there is a feeling of reward and a sense that youth development will continue to rise.

“From where MLS was 25 years ago to where it is today, with ownerships starting or already having invested in academies and seeing that as a pathway, it’s extremely important,” Stewart said. “It’s no coincidence that there’s a crop of talent that is coming through. It takes a long period of time; it’s not like you can start something today and you have it tomorrow.

“Sitting in this chair at U.S. Soccer, it is also very satisfactory for U.S. Soccer. At the same time, I would say that there is a whole other level we can go to, and with everything that we have here in this country, we have to take care of the next phase of that and create bigger and better talent.”

The improvement in youth development in the U.S. is the product of the work of thousands across the country and beyond, but the role of the FC Dallas academy and the vision of Clavijo and Pareja can never be understated. FC Dallas was arguably the birthplace of the play-your-kids movement, helping bring a new face to U.S. Soccer that will now be shown to the world in Qatar.