Continued Focus on Player Development Leads FC Dallas to U-15/16 and U-17/18 Academy Championships

By Jeff Crandall

Success in player development can be defined in a number of different ways. Some of the most prominent attributes of a successful Academy setup include the number of professional players produced, individual development plans, facilities built and the creation of a comprehensive learning environment. FC Dallas checks all these boxes, and that has led to results on the field.

The club approaches this week's U.S. Soccer Development Academy Semifinals and Finals as the only one to have teams represented at both the U-15/16 and U-17/18 age groups, another sign that the MLS club's emphasis on building from the ground up is yielding more success.

For the genesis of that success, Academy Director Luchi Gonzalez says to look no further than club owners and long-time soccer backers, the Hunt family.

"From the very beginning [the Hunt family] had a vision for FC Dallas," the former San Jose Earthquakes and Colorado Rapids attacker said. "The fact that they built a facility with just under 20 fields, right around Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, they really had a vision and belief, even though it was away from the city, but they had a vision and followed through. They've always been supportive in executing that vision and making sure it played out."

The amenities Gonzalez speaks of includes 17 fields around showpiece Toyota Stadium, complete with locker rooms, offices, training rooms and a gymnasium, which has helped to create the base of the club's development pyramid.

Those facilities have helped the club sign 14 players out of its Academy beginning in 2007, six of which are currently under contract with the first team, a figure which includes U.S. international Kellyn Acosta.

Sending so many players into the first team setup in such a short amount of time hasn't happened by accident. Along with the backbone facilities the club is able to utilize, Gonzalez credits the club's current head coach Oscar Pareja for being the spark that helped build FC Dallas into a youth powerhouse.

The former midfielder served as the club's Director of Player Development in 2008 and was also at the helm when the U.S. Soccer Development Academy rated FC Dallas as the most comprehensive club in the nation during the 2010-11 season.

While Pareja would gain his first MLS head coaching job with Colorado in 2012, he returned to Dallas in 2014 and, in concert with Technical Director Fernando Clavijo, has continued to emphasize the club's youth setup. That emphasis includes heavy first team integration with the Academy, with multiple players training for weeks at a time with the MLS side.

This emphasis exists among the first team and Academy coaching staffs, who work very closely to make sure both are in alignment with the ultimate goal of sending more players to the first team.

"We have a staff that cares a lot and really dissects the details," says Gonzalez. "We have a once a week meeting with Oscar and the pro staff to remind ourselves what their needs are. Things like who is going to be integrated from our side with the pro team and the things the need us to emphasize."

FCD Academy | The Next One

Beyond integration, the club has adopted a holistic approach to its players' educational development, partnering with a local school district for a special program that allows players to train in the mornings while continuing to learn in the classroom.

"It's beneficial from a soccer and school stand point, and the players are able to take advantage of a counselor that is specific to them and understands their overall commitment."

The education piece is just one aspect to the holistic approach, as the club also has its own residency program that provides players with a home environment around their soccer pursuits. The program attracts players from affiliates all over the expansive state of Texas, as well as places like Alabama, Florida and Tennessee.

"I'd say 75 percent of our kids are from Dallas and the other 25 percent are players from our affiliate clubs which are located all over," continued Gonzalez. "This is a big commitment, it's a big sacrifice. We train five times a week, along with our integration with the pro team. Those that are called to do so, we get the schooling done after training. They're in school from about 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and they get the rest of the day to rest and be with their friends and family."

The strong setup off the field allows players the peace of mind to develop on it. While the team aspect is always an emphasis, the weekday training sessions allow the club to focus on individual development.

"Individual development is huge," he said. "It has to be done as a team dynamic, but you do need to address the areas of improvement for these players. We do a lot of position-specific work during the week and we have our training objectives for each day. There are always one or two days dedicated for our lines - for our backs to do functional work together with our mids or forwards. We'll even break it down to more specific sides where it's our right back with our right winger doing vertical lines."

According to Gonzalez, the focus is to "[give] them those repetitions, situations and references where they have to make decisions, applying that technique and mentality."

The overall style of play has also trickled down from the first team, as FC Dallas has clearly emphasized a high press system, designed to win the ball back as quickly as possible in order to allow more emphasis on the attack.

"The mentality and attitude we create in training is to go get the ball as soon as possible. If not, re-organize and go win it in the next zone. Win it where it's as far away from our goal as possible. We feel that high pressure is attacking and that attacking is defending. They go hand in and hand. We cannot expect to only develop our players' creativity and ownership of the ball. It has to be complimented with an eagerness to win the ball as quickly and highly as possible."

All the work in their everyday environment has ultimately led to two Development Academy National Championships at the U-17/18 level in 2011-12 and in the U-15/16 age group last year. As they return to Carson, Calif., for this year's Academy Finals, Gonzalez says about 90 percent of the group from last year's National Championship side are also back, looking to win a second title at the U-17/18 level.

"Their dynamic is quite different than our U-16s," he added. "They're coming in with the experience of taking part in this event last year. They're coming in with confidence and a very big challenge during the year because they played with a big target on their back as defending champions, so that's not easy. They're a group that has defended excellently and has been very effective in front of goal."

Together the club's two Academy sides were once again dominant this campaign, combining for a 41-6-3 regular season record in 2015-16. With a title under their belt, the older side has kept its focus on a repeat, while also serving as mentors for their young club mates.

"They've been a great role model for our U-16s, they've been there to support them and give the advice of what this experience is like," Gonzalez said. "You think some times that they might lack a bit of hunger or desire, but these boys are hungry, they're excited to be there. The U-16s also know that this is a business trip for our club and we go there to take advantage of this opportunity and we're not just happy to be there. You can see it in their demeanor and attitude. It's all about the end of the day and we know that the other teams are going to be at their best, we're going to be at our best."

The FC Dallas U-15/16s take on the Chicago Fire U-15/16s in Semifinal play on Thursday, June 14 at 1 p.m. PT. The club's U-17/18 side closes out the day with an 8:30 p.m. PT kickoff against Nomads SC.

All four Semifinals as well as Saturday's Finals can be seen on U.S. Soccer's YouTube Channel. Click here for a full schedule.