Interviews

EXCLUSIVE: Pareja lauds MLS' parity – and even those tricky international call-ups

Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The FC Dallas coach talks to FFT's Charles Boehm about how parity sets MLS apart from most leagues, and why he is excited for international call-ups even if they take away his players for [poorly scheduled] matches.

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Oscar Pareja had every reason to feel aggrieved as he took his FC Dallas squad to Washington, D.C., last weekend for a league match against D.C. United.

At the start of the week a whopping seven players from his roster were called to international duty, and last Saturday, FCD had to visit United to play one of only three MLS matches scheduled during the current FIFA window. MLS has earned increasing scorn for its longstanding habit of playing league games during international breaks, and in this case Pareja and Dallas had drawn the shortest stick.

Yet the Colombian was all smiles and positivity as his team quietly trained one day before demolishing the home side, 3-0 at RFK Stadium, fueled by a first-half brace from Michael Barrios.

In one sense, the seven national teamers were hardly even missed as a collection of homegrowns and reasonably-priced Latin American players showcased the Texas club's admirable depth. In another, huge swathes of their own soccer-crazed metroplex are missing out on FC Dallas, a fluid, well-crafted team which nonetheless sits last in the league in average home attendance in this young MLS campaign with 28,750 total spectators over two games.

FourFourTwo spoke exclusively to Pareja – the architect of arguably the most efficient academy-to-pro player development pipeline in the United States – about his team's solid 3-1 start, his locker-room culture and a few of the challenges facing both him and the league at large.

***

FourFourTwo: Welcome back to DC. Is your project back on track after the problems in Houston [FCD lost 5-0 to the Dynamo on March 12]?

Oscar Pareja: We are, yes we are. We have said this many times: In Major League Soccer, a league that is very long, those moments sometimes happen. As you know, we measure our success here with a journey that is long, and so we happy, we have six points out of three games [after the weekend, now nine from four] and it's not bad.

FFT: Does the MLS system, with its large playoff format, maybe fail to punish a bad performance like that?

OP: What happened is that we lost the game – you're losing three points, regardless of the result. I think it's just made us think that we still need a lot of ways to get better. Our project, like any other project, is always building, and is ongoing. I would like to think that when you win 3-0 or 4-0 as well [that] they can give you more points, but it's the same [laughs]. So it does not affect much more or it does not give you any other favor if you do it on the other side.

FFT: That said, you only missed out on the Supporters' Shield last year by goal differential [via tiebreaker with the New York Red Bulls].

OP: Right! Always, always, always, it's one game, one point, one inch, one corner, one goal, one yellow card, one more player – it's just like that. But at the same time, I'm happy to lead the team every day. That's the way I have to do it.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Seven players missing? No problem for arguable MLS' deepest young team. (Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports)

FFT: Some critics of this league think it's too forgiving, that regular-season games don't matter as much when your form at the end of the season is so much more important than the beginning or the middle. Do you think there's any truth to that?

OP: Major League Soccer is a pretty level league, you know? And that's one of the beautiful things in our league. What, you would like to have a league where two or three teams separate from the other ones in a year, and in a young league like ours, then they lose interest about the competition? I think the beauty of our league is to know that everybody has opportunity until the end. We were one of the best teams last year, and we couldn't make it into the final. And a team that didn't have, probably, as good as a performance as we did, they went to the final and won it.

I think the beauty of our league is to know that everybody has opportunity until the end."

- Oscar Pareja

But that's the league, and that just keeps everybody pushing until the end. I have seen many leagues in the world where two or three teams just go and take off, and people are just fighting for relegation or for international cup spots, but not really for the league. In Major League Soccer, we fight for the league. So instead of me thinking that it's a disadvantage or is not good, I just take it as a good part of our competition here in the States, just to keep everybody in the competition.

FFT: The big story this weekend is that you have so many players away on international duty. Do you feel you're being punished for success a bit with this situation?

OP: Well, we're used to it. Last year it happened a lot, too. But instead I see it as a good opportunity for some other players that are waiting for minutes, and just create that culture within our team – you know, we have created that culture, that everybody feels included in the program. And we are really 28 or 27 players, not just 11. And these moments just prove us, and test us, and we'll look forward to responding well.

For me, always, the national team call-ups are great – for the player individually, for the nation and for the clubs. I think that everything is positive. I will certainly miss them in the competition, I would like to have them available, all. But it's what it is and for me, it's made me proud to see a young program and a young team that is placing seven, eight, nine players in the national teams when the FIFA date comes.

FFT: It seems to force MLS teams to acquire players a little differently – for example a player like new FCD signing Carlos Gruezo, a strong player who is not presently in the national-team picture because of Ecuador's depth. Do you have to find those guys who are in the middle, maybe, between international quality and the MLS mean?

OP: Right, yeah. I think all of those guys are important – sometimes it's those guys that you don't have missing that often that help us more.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Gruezo: A heck of a value for FCD. (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

FFT: We understand that clubs are now being given the choice as to whether they would prefer to play during the international window or have those dates off. What would you prefer?

OP: I'd like not to play during the FIFA dates.

FFT: Are we coming to a point where the league has to make a decision for everyone and shut down during international windows?

I think the game is going to be pushing the league, and us, just to be more global with the schedule."

- Oscar Pareja

OP: I think so, potentially. But at least for us, in this moment, many more players are going to their national teams. In our case, we need it. But as I say, we'll readjust to it in the best way possible, and we see it as a part of the game here, still, in the structure that we have in the States. But I think the game is going to be pushing the league, and us, just to be more global with the schedule. And I know Don [Garber] and the people in charge are looking forward to it, and we're doing it slowly.

FFT: You may not want to call attention to individual players, but who on your squad did not get the international call that you think should have?

OP: A couple, yeah. Maybe Matt [Hedges]. He has done a great job already for a couple years, with consistency. Fabian [Castillo], I think he's doing a great job, also. And the same with Mauro [Diaz] – with a[n Argentina] national team that is full of stars and everything, but you know what, I know Mauro, in any other scenario, would be a national-team player for sure. And some others, too, but probably that would be my heart talking.

FFT: I know you don't work in the sales department, and there are special circumstances this year in terms of the construction of the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame blocking off some seats. But it seems surprising that more fans aren't packing the house in Frisco to watch the product that you are putting on the field. Do you and your players see that? Is is a concern, and how can FCD change it?

OP: You say it well – the problem in Dallas right now is you can see the seats empty because of the construction. But the attendance last week was almost full, and the first game was also good – we don't have 60,000 seats there available, we have right now 14-15,000 and the people are coming. Now I would like them to be more massive, and obviously we all look forward to seeing it sold [out] every week. So we're demanding [it of] ourselves. But there's a lot of things going on with it, and the team at some point will probably just spark that with the people.

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