To understand why Oscar Pareja is such a natural at working with young soccer players — possibly the best in MLS at connecting with younger professionals, at squeezing the very most from them — consider this little happenstance from last year:
I had advanced word that Pareja was rolling out a very young lineup for a late-season match, a strategic ploy during a particularly busy stretch. Six players in the first 11 that day (against the LA Galaxy) were more or less rookies. None of that group was older than 22, a set that included eventual MLS Rookie of the Year Tesho Akindele. Kellyn Acosta had recently turned 19. With a home match just four days later, Pareja gave his two best players (center back Matt Hedges and leading scorer Fabian Castillo) the night off.
We’ve seen this before, of course – a manager rolling the dice, hedging for the home game ahead. Only this was Pareja, a man I have known since he first came into MLS as a player back in 1998 – a guy with whom I’ve had numerous, enlightening conversations about youth soccer and player development through the years.
I started to ask Pareja if he really believed that this young lineup, minus his top men and with a piecemeal “center back” duo of right back Zach Loyd and midfielder Je-Vaughn Watson, could pick off three road points against the mighty Galaxy?
Then I saved myself the trouble. I knew exactly what Pareja would do and say. He would look at me like I had a horn growing out of my forehead, polite, but shocked at the question. He would say, “Oh, yes! I believe in my players. I believe with all my heart they can go win this game.” And it wouldn’t just be a line he was feeding the press.
Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images.
That is Pareja’s secret: his impassioned, unbreakable faith in his players. All of them, of course, but especially the younger ones who need it most. He empowers them and then, importantly, doesn’t ask them to do things they cannot do on the field. He sets them up for success and then makes certain they believe in themselves.
And it’s working. FC Dallas has emerged as a dark horse favorite to challenge the status quo heavies of the West (a.k.a. Seattle and the Galaxy) for a conference title. A lot of that is about having a healthy Mauro Diaz creating in the middle. A lot is about getting another rock-solid season from Hedges. And a lot is about Castillo (10 goals, 4 assists last year) continuing his career ascent as well as his personal assault on hapless MLS outside backs.
But a lot is about the Colombian-born Pareja, too. FC Dallas had the league’s second youngest roster last year. In the off-season the club parted ways with Adam Moffat, Peter Luccin, Jair Benitez, Raul Fernandez and Hendry Thomas, all between the ages of 28-35. In replacing them with players like Kyle Bekker (24) and speedy winger Michael Barrios (23), FCD’s roster got younger, somewhat remarkably.
Generally speaking, young teams getting younger is no recipe for success. But with this manager you never know; Pareja and young players go together like Colombian coffee and warm milk.
“You have to provide them with the confidence and the comfort and make them feel supported,” he told me earlier this week. “You have to have faith in them … and I do have faith in them. Believe me, that comes from the bottom of my heart.”
If you think the job Pareja has done with youth in Dallas is an accident or just a small sample, you aren’t seeing all the evidence. He more or less built the successful FC Dallas academy program, and in 2014, FCD led the league going away in terms of minutes played by homegrown signings; Acosta, Victor Ulloa and Moises Hernandez were responsible for most of those minutes.
Back in 2011 the FCD academy was given the only four-star overall rating that year from the U.S. Soccer federation’s evaluations. Not long after that, Pareja earned his first professional coaching assignment, with Colorado.
Photo: Victor Decolongon/Getty Images.
I’m on the record with this, and still believe it: He should have been MLS Coach of the Year in 2013. Had Pareja done in New York or Seattle, or one of the other MLS markets where we tend to pay more attention to these things, what he did at DSG Park outside Denver, they might have re-named the stadium after him. It was that impressive.
The Rapids suffered horrible injury misfortune that year. It wasn’t just that contributors were dropping like December temperatures, important starters were falling. Pablo Mastroeni and veteran ‘keeper Matt Pickens and other projected starters were lost for lengthy stretches.
For most of the season the Rapids had five virtual rookies in the starting lineup. Goalkeeper Clint Irwin, right back Chris Klute, center back Shane O’Neill, midfielder Dillon Powers and striker Deshorn Brown were all, more or less, rookies. (Klute and Irwin had technically signed previous pro deals, just the year before, so they weren’t “rookies” by MLS definition.) Powers became the MLS Rookie of the Year; Brown was a close second.
Pareja got that team into the MLS playoffs. In 20 years of covering MLS, I cannot remember a team with five rookie starters, or anything close, really, advancing into the post-season.
Hedges had already been a two-year starter in Dallas when Pareja arrived back into the club in 2014. “Immediately, in the first couple of weeks, he was telling me I was doing really well, giving me a lot of confidence,” Hedges said, noting that isn’t just in training, but in trusting youngsters to perform in meaningful games. “That’s what they need in order to succeed, confidence.”
None of this is to say that Pareja coddles youth. Starting so many youngsters over the last two years wasn’t all by design; in part, it was due to an excessive incidence of injury. Pareja raises his hand quickly on this one and says, “my fault.” But even that was strategic.
Photos: AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez.
Training is always physical and demanding, a perennial heavy load, the kind Jurgen Klinsmann would surely love. Pareja reckoned the best way to teach a young group and to push success on his club – let’s face it, his roster doesn’t have the superstar power of an L.A. or a Seattle – was to work these guys to heights of fitness and match-day preparedness. Some of the injuries were likely fatigue-related, Pareja admits. He hopes the comprehensive lessons learned from young players in 2014 will help them become better professionals, nudge them toward the best tenets of nutrition, training, lifestyle, etc., so that they may be even better soccer players – the kind who can avoid injury.
Either way, he’ll continue to believe in them, even through the inevitable flubs, foibles and slumps. He likened it to loving your own children, even when they stray.
“Yes, frustration is part of the journey,” he told me. “Not just frustration, but sometimes disappointment, too. That’s when a leader has to step up and just keep believing. That’s when you just have to have more patience.
“As long as I see that their spirit is coachable, that’s the most important thing. I see them like baskets; so long as they can receive information, I can do it. When I cannot see that they have that coachable spirit, well,” and you can sense the resignation as Pareja says this, “that is when I just cannot do it. Until then, I have faith in them.”