On Location: Developing the Game in Dallas

The primary goal of the United States Soccer Federation is to grow the game of soccer in the United States. To help accomplish that, we begin a new series today called On Location to share the stories of soccer all over our country leading up to U.S. MNT and WNT domestic competition matches. Today, we highlight the success of FC Dallas' impressive Development Academy initiative ahead of the MNT's match against Ecuador in Frisco tonight at 7 p.m. ET.

For the past nine years, FC Dallas has been at the forefront of U.S. Soccer's Development Academy initiative, which was established in 2007 with the ultimate goal of identifying and developing world-class players.

Launched in 2008, the FC Dallas Academy has become a model for other clubs to follow, not only because of its success in churning out pro players - which includes 14 signed to the FCD pro team - but also for the philosophy created to identify and groom young talent.

With a complex that features 17 fields just beyond the gates to the club's soccer-specific stadium, FCD Academy players have been afforded the same environment and facilities as the professionals. Under the guidance of first team head coach Oscar Pareja, who in 2008 helped launch the Academy as the club's Director of Player Development, the Academy is also fully integrated with the first team.

"At this point our academies need competition, and competition means facing players with different maturity, day-in and day-out," Pareja said. "So involving them with the first team is a priority."

The program is geared towards advancing the individual player, encouraging creativity and free play. Academy players are selected regularly to train with the pro team, providing the kids not only a measuring stick of where they are, but also an opportunity to learn from players and to be treated as a professional. The consistent training and learning has in turn resulted in successful Academy teams. The FCD U-18 & U-16 teams have made the Academy playoffs in every season, and have won the 2012 U-18 and 2015 U-16 National Championships.

Some 30 FC Dallas Academy players have also represented the youth national teams of the United States, Canada or Mexico. One of them is fourth-year FC Dallas midfielder Kellyn Acosta, who in January became the 17th player in Academy history to make his MNT debut when he played against Iceland.

"It was always a dream of mine to become a professional soccer player, so that was the closest step for me - being in the FC Dallas Academy," said Acosta, who is from Plano, Texas. "Seeing the pros next door, it showed me that I was one step closer to becoming like them. My teammates would get asked to go train with the pro team, and then I got the privilege to also go. It helped my development tremondously, and I wouldn't have it any other way."

Pareja, who before assuming the FCD Academy post was an assistant coach for the U-17 MNT, has great appreciation for the club's role in preparing youth players for the next steps in their careers.

"It's a huge responsibility," Pareja said. "We have a responsibility to the first team and the community that they belong to. The responsibility is tremendous because you are the link to the national teams, and to different leagues. Providing a good environment for the selected players is crucial."

And it's not just the players who benefit. Pareja also insists on Academy coaches attending both the pro team's training sessions and to be on the bench during pro matches. As well, Academy coaches interact with the rest of the FCD youth structure.

Complement the three U.S. Soccer Development Academy teams, the FC Dallas Youth Club, which features over 100 boys and girls teams ranging from U-11 to U-19 with over 1700 players, and the FC Dallas Juniors Program, which has over 700 boys and girls players from U-7 to U-10.

But for Pareja, the reason for the club's youth success can't be pinned on one aspect.

"FC Dallas has developed a family atmosphere," Pareja said. "Our ownership believes in the process, the front office works very hard to promote our club, we have coaches who have developed here, and we have players who have tremendous love for the club. All this creates a scenario that makes FC Dallas very special."

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We should note that this endeavor is not the first time Dallas has been a pioneer in the growth of soccer in the U.S.

In 1967, visionary Lamar Hunt co-founded the professional soccer team known as the Dallas Tornado in a league that was the precursor to the original North American Soccer League. From 1968 to 1984, the NASL was the top-division league in the country, and the Tornado were the longest-serving team.

The league folded following the 1984 season, and it took 12 years for top-flight soccer to return. And once again, Mr. Hunt and Dallas were involved. In 1996, the Dallas Burn became a charter member of Major League Soccer. The team changed its name prior to the 2005 season to FC Dallas in conjunction with the move to its own soccer specific home, known today as Toyota Stadium.