The FC Dallas Academy needs a refresh

The FC Dallas Academy has been outstanding for a long time, the club was ahead of the game really, beating everyone to the development punch. But everyone else is better and the field has caught up.

While winning games in the Academy is good, the most important thing is to produce talent for the professional team.

Unfortunately, FCD is in a bit of a downturn in top-tier, USMNT-level talent production. It may be that in the years to come we will look back at 1998 to 2003 as a golden era of talent. (Seriously, go look. It’s amazing.)

And yet the pipeline is still churning. Not to mention the talented Homegrowns with the first team or on hybrid deals at North Texas.

One of the knocks on the Academy at the minute is that none of its teams advanced deep into the MLS Next Cup Playoffs. That’s true. But I’ve heard FCD was the only MLS team that had all their age groups make the playoffs – U19, U17, U16, U15 – and one of just three clubs overall with that achievement.

Still, at a macro level, I do think we can be critical of the FCD Academy… a little bit.

Academy U16 Championship 2015 Fcd Trophy
The FC Dallas U16 team wins the 2015-16 USSDA National Championship. (FC Dallas Communications)

What’s “Wrong” with the FC Dallas Academy

Let’s be clear, this post isn’t meant as a massive indictment of the Academy. It’s still excellent by most measures and compared to much of the rest. It still produces players every year for FC Dallas and North Texas SC.

But it has grown a bit stagnant in a couple of ways.

  1. Fewer USYNT call-ups, although other countries are more represented.
  2. Where is the “next Pepi?”
  3. Not advancing deep in tournament play.
  4. Clogging of the pathway, players aren’t playing “up” as much. Specifically, no Academy kids getting PT for North Texas SC.
  5. Where are the 18-year-old homegrown center backs and why so many 8s?
  6. Scorched earth and local recruiting.
  7. No ex-MLS players on the staff (aka famous names).
  8. An underachieving team or two and a couple of classes.

An Academy Refresh

So when I say the Academy needs a refresh, I don’t mean a massive overhaul. I just have a few tweaks in mind.

Just give it some zhuzh. A little “Jenna says what.”

So here’s my plan.

Step 1 – Split Up Academy Director and VP of Youth

When FC Dallas hired Luchi Gonzalez to be the head coach and away from his Academy Director position, they gave his former title to VP of Youth Chris Hayden. Hayden’s been doing both gigs ever since. That’s a massive workload in my mind.

Now, I don’t see Hayden in the office or anything, but every time I run into him he’s being pulled in 20 different directions. FC Dallas Youth is a massive job. Academy Director is a massive job. They should be separate gigs.

Which gig Hayden should have isn’t up for me to say, but in my opinion, it shouldn’t be both.

Step 2 – Refresh the Coaching Staff

Again, don’t get me wrong, the staff doesn’t need a complete clean-out but a pragmatic performance review might be in order. There is an age bracket or two, and a couple of years, underperforming.

What the coaching staff does need is a little “sexiness.” It needs some former MLS pros that kids and parents will recognize. Some “name brand” power.

I’m not a guy that thinks all coaches have to be ex-pros. There are plenty of great coaches who weren’t. But the staff should have variety in background just as it should in style.

Over the years the Academy has lost some amazing recruiters, coaches, and recognizable names. Oscar Pareja, Josema Bazan, Javier Morales, Luchi Gonzalez, and Peter Luccin to name a few.

U15 Coach Alex Aldaz just moved from the Academy to North Texas SC to be an assistant coach full-time. That’s an Academy loss. For me, he was one of the best in the Academy and was working with the US U17 team as an assistant too. There’s a reason he got the NTX gig. He will need replacing.

I also hear rumors of an FC Dallas Academy coach or two leaving and of a possible staff restructuring of some kind.

So use this opportunity to bring a little pro-hype into the staff. Sure, look at your best non-Academy guys from ECNL or whatever, but also think about some recent ex-players even if it’s just to get them as assistants in the Academy as something.

I’ve talked to Matt Hedges about his interest in coaching the Academy. Victor Ulloa would be great too I think.

Matt Hedges
Matt Hedges. (Courtesy FC Dallas)

Side Note: Luchi-Ball

Better yet, call the recently fired Luchi Gonzalez and offer him back his Academy director job. Let him bring in a couple of guys, not the whole staff, just a couple. Kill two birds with one stone.

Gonzalez, at his core, is a teacher. He’s a great youth coach and his stint here as Academy Director was quite good. They say you can’t go home again, I think he could.

Step 3 – Repair the DFW Local Scorched Earth

The way FC Dallas came into the DFW local soccer scene created hard feelings in town. The way FC Dallas continues to operate creates ill feelings in this town.

Frankly, the dislike is understandable. FC Dallas, over time, will take the best players (not all, obviously) away from other clubs. They take away coaches from other clubs. They might even take whole teams. Some of the dislike is inevitable.

But FCD could go a long way to mitigate it. Start by giving credit when a player is signed to where he came from. Mention his former club by name. Celebrate together.

Maybe trickle down some financial assistance to the other clubs. Help with funding/sourcing fields and complexes. Help pay/set up referee and coach clinics. As the “big dog” in town, try to benefit everyone.

Perhaps set up solidarity or training compensation payments, FCD isn’t known for throwing money around but if FCD thinks they deserve comp when they lose someone, then so do the other clubs in town.

I know, easy for me to say, it’s not my money.

But the club will want the best players in town to come to FC Dallas. Not stay away and fight against ever playing for the “bullies.”

Bailey Sparks (Solar, white) and Tanner Tessmann (red) go head to hear in a 2019 U19 DA game. (Courtesy Solar SC U19s)
Bailey Sparks (Solar, white) and Tanner Tessmann (red) go head-to-head in a 2019 U19 DA game. (Courtesy Solar SC U19s)

Step 4 – Unclog the Pipe

The first step in unclogging the path was moving on from Nico Estevez. The club spoke openly, again, about the pathway, the club DNA, and playing kids. Estevez was in the way of that, which was his right as head coach, to be fair.

We saw Interim Coach Peter Luccin just this week use some of the kids, even if it was out of injury desperation.

Some roster adjustment on the first team will help, it will trickle down through North Texas SC to the Academy. It may make it harder to win MLS Next Pro, but so be it. Winning MLSNP isn’t the point, is it?

The point is to begin, again, the playing of kids up the pathway. It’s been almost a year since non-U19 Academy kids got PT with North Texas (some U17s made it up early in 2023). A handful of 2005s and 2006s got Next Pro PT at the time.

But this year? Not a single U17 (2007s) got a look – and that’s a deep group – and so far just a couple of U19s got any PT at all, barely a few minutes.

(2007/U17 Leo Orejarena‘s 1 minute played does not count for this point, he was signed to a pro contract before he came to NTX and the Academy. Plus, it’s 1 minute.)

Opening up North Texas SC to U19s and U17s will open space for U15s and U16s to move up an age group or two as well… it’s a trickle-down effect.

A flowing pipe, one might say.

Step 5 – Move Kids Around Even More

In broad strokes, the FCD Academy produces way too many 8s and not enough center backs. Maybe wingers are also a little light (FCD loves to turn wings into outside backs).

Generally speaking, coaches often put their best pure soccer player in central midfield. We see it time and time again. But someone along the way needs to look ahead at these kids’ paths. Year after Year if the best player is a central mid… you end up with a clog at central mid and holes at other spots. (see North Texas SC right now.)

In short, be less concerned with maximizing any given single team and more concerned with what it looks like on a greater positional pathway. I would expect there should be entire club depth charts of prospects and talent in the TDs office.

Some of those kids need to be moved to other positions. Maybe some of them early on. Don’t stack the central midfield year after year. Center back, wing, etc, need love. Turn a playmaker into a 6 or at least a deep-playmaker.

Reggie Cannon, for example, was a 10 before he joined FCD and became an outside back. Justin Che was a forward before he became a center back. Sure, wing to outside back like Bryan Reynolds, that’s obvious and easy. More of all of these kinds of moves, please.

A great recent example is looking to be Ian Charles who moved from holding mid to center back this year as a U17 and is excelling.

FC Dallas U17 defender Ian Charles (15) sends a long ball up field in the MLS Next match against Dallas Hornets on Saturday, March 2, 2024 at Toyota Soccer Center. (Daniel McCullough, 3rd Degree)
FC Dallas U17 defender Ian Charles (15) sends a long ball upfield in the MLS Next match against Dallas Hornets on Saturday, March 2, 2024, at Toyota Soccer Center. (Daniel McCullough, 3rd Degree)

Step 6 – Greater Scouting

FC Dallas needs more scouts on the Academy level. Right now, there is just one. As far as we know, scouting mostly happens when FCD plays someone or between FCD games at tournaments. This is mainly just a budget issue to be fair.

There are many stories of FCD playing a game and some parent on the opposition sideline getting a visit shortly after from someone at FCD.

I know Luchi Gonzalez used to go scout FC Dallas El Paso once a year. I think FCD still does that. It’s how Luchi and company spotted Ricardo Pepi. But FCD has other “affiliates” and I don’t know that we’ve ever seen a single player from one of them.

FCD should be out scouting all over North Texas, the US, and even foreign countries. Foreign clubs bring in Americans, why isn’t FCD bringing in more foreign kids? Antonio Carrera is from Pachuca, for example.

The State of the Academy is Strong

Look, the FC Dallas Academy is still quite good. But it’s not the best anymore. That might be Philly Union these days. NYCFC is making big waves.

The FCD Academy can improve. And I think I’ve shown a couple of ways here.

One Last Thing

While I don’t think it’s been announced, everyone and their dog is talking about a shift in the MLS Next “ages of emphasis” for MLS Academies.

From what I understand the U19s are being converted to U18s. And the other year of emphasis is going to be U16. The “years of emphasis” are the age brackets in which MLS teams will be required to run a team.

This is a change from the current U17 & U15 emphasis – U19 was kind of extra, most MLS teams don’t have one. This is a change back to the U16/U18 emphasis that was in place in the Development Academy as Paxton Pomykal and Jesus Ferreira came through.

FCD will thus run a U18 and U16 and while most MLS clubs will drop U17, FCD almost certainly will keep their U17s

The chatter – and there is loads of it – is that this MLS Next age shift is happening this summer.

It will be interesting to see if FCD also keeps playing in the local UPSL Texas North with some kind of U18-20’ish team. I think they should.

FC Dallas U17s (2007s) at the end of the 2023-24 Season. (Courtesy Munson Photography)
FC Dallas U17s (2007s) at the end of the 2023-24 Season. (Courtesy Munson Photography)


  1. It’s become commonplace in the last few years to tout Philadelphia as having the “best” academy but i’m not sure exactly what “best” means. Most people seem to point to how they do in Academy level tournaments and/or youth national teams. That speaks to the top end of the Academy system but I’m not sure that is the best measure of an Academy as a whole. From what i understand the FCD Academy is still the largest in MLS – it simply encompasses a lot more players both locally and with the affiliates. FCd seems to be less selective or exclusionary. The Union seem to be focused on attracting just the very best (almost in an exclusionary way) – their system is not as large as FCD and what i get from reading stuff online and the small bit of social media i consume is that they heavily recruit players from all over the country. That’s one of the reasons they faced sanctions last year from the league for violating the Homegrown territory rules. It seems they are less interested in the Academy as an institution in itself – instead there is a heavier focus on the production of MLS level talent. This is what i get from a distance and not being part of it so i could be wrong.

    1. The “best” Academy is measured only by the ability to produce pro talent for your team. That’s it. The last few years Philly has out performed others in that area.

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