Upstarts no more: Pareja, Clavijo ready for FC Dallas to win now
FC Dallas is off to another terrific start, as they always seem to be, with a six-game unbeaten streak, successive road victories at D.C. United and Portland and 17 points after eight games. It might be a tad early to talk MLS Cup and trophies and such, but those are part of head coach Oscar Pareja's plan, and they sure look within reach.
The Hoops, 5-1-2 heading into Saturday night's visit to Vancouver, raced to the Western Conference title last year, piling up 18 wins -- most for the club since MLS's shootout era -- and finishing seven points above the field. But they couldn't get through Portland in the playoffs and fell one step short of their second championship-game appearance.
I want to get trophies because it is a need for a franchise. But how good will it be if we can do it with our own product?
That's providing motivation, of course, but Pareja, in his third season as head coach, and technical director Fernando Clavijo have been toiling toward this all along, methodically building a young, fast and highly technical roster. Dallas is explosive, the team defends well, and now it has got uncommon depth everywhere on the field. If there's a team to fear in MLS this year, this may be it.
“Right now, everything is going well, but we have prepared for this,” Clavijo told FourFourTwo. “[You can] call that the ball is bouncing your way, too, because you always have to be a little bit lucky, but I think that we have prepared. …
“Last year we started also well, we had to manage to keep it that way throughout the season -- June and July, it's always been a little bit of an issue for us -- but right now everything is working, everything is right. We have to make sure we keep it that way.”
Putting the team in place
Pareja has in two years transformed FC Dallas into one of the most delightful sides in MLS annals. The former Colombian international had been with club in one facet or another almost continuously from 1998 until 2012, when he took charge of the Colorado Rapids. He returned to North Texas for the 2014 campaign, succeeding Schellas Hyndman after successive failures to reach the postseason, and began tinkering.
He's emphasized Latin American talent and the club's excellent Academy system, bolstering some young stars, providing greater responsibility to Homegrown products, and adding an impressive group of mostly young, mostly Latin players to the club.
Pareja has prodded Fabian Castillo and Mauro Diaz, among the league's most talented attackers, to their best soccer. He's made homegrown midfielder Victor Ulloa and goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez pivotal figures in the team and given defender Moises Hernandez a greater role in reserve. His acquisitions -- last year Colombian attacker Michael Barrios, this year Ecuadorian midfielder Carlos Gruezo (from VfB Stuttgart), Argentine forward Maximiliano Urruti (from Portland, via re-entry draft) and midfielder Mauro Rosales (trade with Vancouver), Honduran defender Maynor Figueroa (trade with Colorado), and Colombian midfielders Juan Esteban Ortiz (from Atletico Huila) and Carlos Lizarazo (loan from Cruz Azul) -- have mostly made immediate impacts.
“I think that we always look for quality players,” said Clavijo, a Uruguayan-born former defender who played for the U.S. in the 1994 World Cup. “South America, probably for many reasons, because of our contacts … it's a little easier to bring [young Latin American] players] to the United States. There was a vision that we wanted to do that, little by little.
“It's very difficult to put a team together in one season, so little by little, piece by piece we've been able to pull those guys together.”
Pareja also has aided in advancing homegrown midfielder Kellyn Acosta's game and in draft picks Tesho Akindele and Ryan Hollingshead becoming regular contributors.
You can say we had a very positive season in 2015, we just dropped the ball at the last minute
“He's really created competition at every position,” said Chris Seitz, who stepped into the nets in Gonzalez's absence at the end of April and has been splendid in the five games since. “Knowing that if one guy goes down, there's two guys ready to fill in for him. We understand that everyday in training is going to be just as hard as it is on Saturday, because we've got guys that are hungry to be out there. Sometimes you can do that in this league, and we definitely have it every single day.”
There's a veteran spine to the group, with Figueroa at 32, Rosales at 35, and Ortiz, Seitz veteran defender Zach Loyd closing in on 30. Everyone else? It's a U-25 team.
Castillo and Barrios are 23, Diaz, Urruti and Hollingshead are 25, and Gruezo, Lizarazo and Acosta are 20. Ulloa, Akindele and Hernandez are 24. Defender Walker Zimmerman is 22. Captain Matt Hedges just turned 26.
It's not by chance. Pareja can see the day, not all that far off, when FC Dallas' roster is primarily young players fresh out of the team's academy.
“My dream, my goal when I came here, and one of the biggest reasons that I returned from Colorado to Dallas, was to grow the academy with the first team,” said Pareja, who has seven homegrown players on his roster. “The academy has been a project that took a lot of time and a lot of effort to build, and I see a lot of talent here, and these kids need to play. …
“We need to play the homegrowns, we need to just do it, and somebody needed to take the risk, and I was willing to do it. …
“I want to get trophies, also, because it is a need for a franchise. But how good will it be if we can do it with our own product? That would be so phenomenal.”
When the future is now
If Dallas can claim a trophy or two this year, they'll be doing so largely with acquired talent, much of it groomed in Frisco. Things are tight at the back, even with Hedges out for six weeks or so following meniscus surgery, and the Hoops are getting fine play from Seitz in goal and Zimmerman in central defense.
What's special about Dallas is what's in front of the backline. The Ulloa-Gruezo pairing in midfield has already been fruitful. Ulloa, who has started 71 regular-season games since Pareja took charge, has emerged as a fulcrum for the Hoops. He's “the one who knows most the tactics that I use and implement in the team,” Pareja notes.
Gruezo, a pure defensive midfielder, “has stepped into a position that we have always searched for,” Clavijo said, “and he's given us another dimension in midfield that's helping us to win balls and start counterattacks a little higher than we did before.” Still is adjusting to how the game is officiated in MLS, Gruezo has picked up five yellow cards and the resulting suspension in his first seven matches.
Urruti, usually the lone striker when Pareja deploys his 4-2-3-1 system, has scored or assisted five goals, but it's his defense that's earning raves. Says Clavijo: “Probably three goals are because of his effort. He's been stealing balls away from defenders and passing them to other players to score.”
Pareja has worked with Diaz, a fragile playmaker who could return from a four-game absence Saturday, to become stronger and deal better with the physical realities of MLS. He got 24 starts from Diaz last year, with eight goals and 10 assists, and wants to see more.
“We're a different team when he's on the field, there's no question about it,” Seitz said. “We know that we need to protect him. He's that special.”
The centerpiece is Castillo, a Colombian attacker who joined the club in 2011, when he was 18. He's contributed all along but has blossomed under Pareja, scoring 22 goals with 15 assists with great panache since the 2014 season began. He, along with Hedges, was an MLS Best XI selection last year.
With Castillo, it's the how more than the what. He might be the most electric, the most dangerous player in the league; his pace is insane, he destroys defenders on the dribble, and his linking play is improving rapidly. It's fun to ponder what he'll be in another year or two.
That can be said, too, of FC Dallas. They're built for the future, but they could win now. That's how it's all drawn up.
“You can say we had a very positive season in 2015, we just dropped the ball at the last minute,” said Clavijo, who joined FC Dallas in 2012. “But the goal is always the same. I think at the beginning [of our tenures], we were just happy to get to the playoffs. Now we're not happy to get to the playoffs -- we should get into the playoffs. We want to win.”
Scott French is a Los Angeles-based reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.