FRISCO, Texas — How do you improve FC Dallas?
That's the question coach Oscar Pareja and technical director Fernando Clavijo were faced with in the offseason. Their team finished first place in the Western Conference before being eliminated in the conference final. It was one of the youngest teams in the league — by design.
Did the club need a player with international experience or another fresh-faced player to add to the youthful group? They settled on both and brought in Carlos Gruezo.
"He brings energy, intensity, hard work, [he's like a] coach within the field," Pareja said. "Off the field also, because he has been in international competition despite his age, as a player that already has been in the highest level, part of the World Cup and part of the Bundesliga. All those things just add to a group that is still young, as [he is], and make everybody know that we belong to a high level."
Gruezo was just 18 but already had three seasons of professional experience when he signed for Stuttgart in January 2014. He played with the German side and parlayed that into a spot on Ecuador's World Cup team. Aside from Julian Green, Gruezo was the youngest player to get minutes in Brazil.
But after the World Cup, he saw his minutes decline at Stuttgart, and his national team opportunities grew more infrequent. After eight caps in 2014, he won just a pair last year. The time was right for a change.
"The truth is I’m very happy to be here," the midfielder told Goal USA. "It’s a very good club, a very good team, so I’m happy working with the team trying to win a place and do things well, and hopefully we’ll be able to win a championship."
Gruezo has been in the United States for only a few weeks and already is looking to adapt. He found a place for his family — he has a son and a daughter — to settle and says the adaptation is going well even if there are some things to adjust to.
"It’s a very different culture from Ecuador, it’s very different Germany. But the work is the same," he said. "The only thing that I’ve found is speaking a different language, but I’m happy to be here. I’m ready to get learn and get better every day."
Helping him along on that road are his teammates, especially those in the midfield. All of FC Dallas' likely starters in midfield speak Spanish, and four of five are South American.
The on-field communication should be relatively seamless, though even if Gruezo spoke an entirely different language it seems easy enough to link up with FC Dallas' attacking trio of Fabian Castillo, Mauro Diaz and Michael Barrios. Dallas didn't have trouble finding them last year, but the speed of Gruezo's decision-making already has been a noticeable upgrade in the preseason.
Castillo has leveraged star showings in MLS into national team call-ups with Colombia, and Gruezo would love to line up against his teammates in international competition.
The Ecuadorian said his goals are "to fight for a place and play the most matches possible, to be able to get to the final and bring a championship to the club. I also hope to return to my country’s national team."
But the international rivalries are unlikely to spill over into the league side. Pareja has made a unified and close locker room a hallmark of his teams, and there's no doubt that Gruezo's personality played into the calculus of bringing him aboard. Also South American and Spanish-speaking, the manager has made a big impression on his new recruit.
"As a man, he’s a wonderful person, as a coach he’s very professional," Gruezo said. "The truth is he’s a very good manager. There’s a very good coaching staff here. They work really hard to always give the players confidence, try to make sure the group is happy and united. That’s really important."
Nothing brings smiles to a soccer team quite like winning, and Dallas did plenty of that last season. The hope is that Gruezo adds at least three more wins — the ones the stood between the club and its first-ever MLS Cup last season.
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