FC Dallas is separating themselves from other soccer teams in the US by doing something no other team in the MLS has tried to do: emulate the European style of professional club academies to develop youth players for the future of the club. Fernando Clavijo is the Technical Director for FCD and the brains behind this new shift for the club. Clavijo came to America 36 years ago from Uruguay when he was a teenager, and American soccer was almost non-existent. Coach Oscar Pareja and Owner Dan Hunt believe in this method that Clavijo has implemented, and it has led to a successful 2015 season: FC Dallas made it to the Western Conference championship round.
The European model of developing talented soccer players begins when coaches from the club’s academy start scouting kids at 4 or 5 years old. An example of this system is Netherland’s top club Ajax, and their academy named De Toekomst. At De Toekomst the environment is very competitive even from this young age; players can always be replaced if they are not improving and performing their best. The youth players at Ajax’s academy go to school at the club and can always be called up to play with an older age group if players are needed. De Toekomst is developing players in their own club and teaching them the Ajax style of playing soccer so the future will be even more successful.
Clavijo is tapping into this formula with FC Dallas’ academy. He is scouting players around the Dallas and Fort Worth area and implementing them into the FCD youth teams. One of the unique characteristics of the team is that all the academy players attend one of the two local public schools: Lone Star high school or Hunt middle school. The Dallas coaches and the school systems have made arrangements for the players to meet at the Dallas stadium at 7:30 each morning for two hours of meetings and practice, and then head to school at 10:30. This is significant because it gives the youth players a chance to watch, interact, and play with the pro FCD team. Francisco Molina (the academy’s U-18 coach) states: “The speed of the play is the most important thing for those kids. If you are playing against men you are going to raise your level. Your passes have to be sharper”.
Not only do these young players get more experience being around such intense competition, but also they learn the style of play that FCD likes to run at an early age. Dallas likes to play in an attacking, possession-style. The theory is that if players are taught that throughout their time at the academy, then by the time they have reached the pro club, all the players understand how to get things done together and in the FCD style. This is similar to European clubs like De Toekomst, where coaches teach players how to play the smart and methodical Dutch style of soccer from the very beginning of the program.
Although FC Dallas made it to the Western Conference championship round this year, they did end up losing to the Portland Timbers. That being said, Clavijo’s homegrown method of developing FCD still provided a successful season. Rainer Sabin, a columnist for sportsday.dallasnews.com summed up the season: “[FC Dallas] netted 18 victories during the regular season, finished atop the Western Conference table with 60 points and qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League next season. In March, July, and October, the club didn’t lose a match”. Head Coach Pareja still believes in his young team and the model of using Dallas and Fort Worth developed players on the pro team. This has been proven further with FCD’s recent roster moves after the end of their playoff run. Dallas recently signed Acosta, who is a 20-year-old midfielder from Plano, Texas to a five-year deal. Not only that, but the team didn’t renew the contracts of their two oldest players: Panamanian forward Blas Perez and Brazilian defender/midfielder Michel. This speaks directly to Clavijo’s youthful, homegrown philosophy. He stated: “It was done with a purpose to get this team better”.
FC Dallas and Clavijo’s vision of the academy method of developing players is extremely important for soccer in America. Other MLS clubs have academies, but those players don’t necessarily go on to play for that club. The pro teams’ academies will develop players and then sell them for a lot of money. But Clavijo’s team is different. It breeds a certain style of play and an emphasis on competition between teammates to make it to the end goal: play for the pro FC Dallas. The FCD club has been pouring more and more money into their academy and their youth programs so that the success of Dallas will be even bigger in future years. Clavijo and Pareja’s dream is to win a championship with 11 starters from their academy. If FC Dallas’ emphasis on developing their own youth players in their academy truly becomes successful, other MLS teams may follow, and eventually, maybe American soccer will be able to stand with some of the best European clubs in the world.