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Who might the next big player for FC Dallas be from their U-15s?

As the first team benefits from a wave of homegrown talent, the next Big One may be forming already.

If you’re a close follower of FC Dallas, you may have heard of the ’05 generation already. They’ve given you plenty of reasons to have done so at least.

They won the Dallas Cup U13 group in 2018. They won the Bayern Munich campus tournament last summer, besting teams from Bayern, Juventus, Dinamo Zagreb, and Hamburger SV along the way. They went undefeated through GA Cup qualifying, beating the best MLS academies by a better goal differential than any other club – the team had two of the top three goal scorers, and three of the top five assist providers for the tournament. They won their DA Cup qualifying games by an average of three-goals per game. In October, for the first international competition for the ’05 age group USYNT, FC Dallas put seven players on the roster out of a total 20. In March, they put six on the roster, and the only reason it wasn’t more was they sent one player (Jordan Jones) up an age group to play with the U17 national team.

Obviously, this group is still young, but the combination of success on the field with validation from independent scouts suggests a special group. How good can they be? And what is FC Dallas doing to convert this generation’s massive potential into players for the first team and beyond? We spoke to FC Dallas U15 Academy coach, Alex Aldaz, to better understand the club’s philosophy on player development and the tactical actions they are taking to push the ‘05s to be the best players they can be. Our conclusions? The Academy is constantly evolving to do a better job of actualizing the projections of its brightest pupils. We’re confident that the plurality of the best US prospects will keep coming from the FC Dallas Academy for the foreseeable future.

Managing a high-potential generation: competition from within

The majority of the time an Academy player spends (under non-Covid-19 circumstances) developing and playing soccer is spent in the company of fellow Academy players in training. As we have written about before, the Academy staff identifies players that are “hitting their head on the ceiling” of their current environment and looks for opportunities to give those kids a new challenge. Perhaps the most immediate way of achieving that is by training them up an age group.

“If there is a [player] that is excelling,” said Aldaz. “We need to put him outside his comfort zone, it’s discussion between myself, the U17 coach, the academy director. Everybody agrees, ok, let’s do it. Next step up… and once it’s to the second team, now Eric’s involved, upstairs is involved.”

That goal of getting players outside of their comfort zones is very common in the Academy, and represents a key part of club’s development model, forcing players to adapt to new levels of play. However, there are limits to how far you can push any given player, and the coaches think hard about balancing a player’s load.

“It’s finding the right prescription, “said Aldaz. “When to give them a taste that’s more demanding, and then bring them back down so they can have success again. It’s not just a giant leap and you leave them there. You have to be cautious, and see when they need to go back down, and when they need to go back up.”

Because of that limit to pushing players up age groups, the club has to find way to challenge high-potential players within their own age group as well.

“What we also want to develop is the back of the roster,” said Aldaz. “Because if we don’t do that (and they need games, right, they need competition, they need to struggle), now we can’t push the front half of the roster. You can push the top half of the roster by moving them up, but they’re eventually going to come back down.”

Sometimes that happens organically, as it did the weekend of March 8th. With a large handful of the ‘05s away at national team camps or playing up with the U17s, the FCD U15s fielded a team of ‘05s that don’t normally get all that much playing time, as well as a few players from the U14 team. That gave the coaches the opportunity to grow the players behind the regular starters, which in turn forces the headliners to raise their game.

On the other hand, FC Dallas Academy Director Chris Hayden recently added another dimension to this in a conversation on the Soccerwire podcast.

“Through natural selection over time, some of [the players in a given cohort] are going to emerge as better players than others… That group of high performing players needs competition. Where are they going to get it from? Well, they can get it from older players, or they can get it from players as we start to expand the scouting network. Instead of just looking at players in Frisco, we’re looking at players in Dallas. Instead of in Dallas, we’re looking in North Texas, or we’re looking in the region, or we’re looking nationally, or even at some point internationally for players that have that talent or better.”

NTSC is a great example of this concept higher up the organization, but FCD can use the tactic all the way down the Academy. By bringing in high-potential players from outside of the club, FCD turns up competition for roster spots and turns up the pressure to improve.

Managing a high-potential generation: finding the best competition in the world

It’s a small but unfortunate consequence of the current pandemic that youth soccer was cancelled, because this group was in the midst of one of the highest-profile runs of competitions that any FCD youth team has ever been on. I already mentioned their recent performance in the first section (even omitting that they went down to Monterrey over winter break to play a trio of games against the heavyweights down there).

If the world hadn’t been put on hold indefinitely because of Covid-19, the GA Cup would be starting later this week, and the group would be looking forward to playing against the best teams in North America. The DA Cup and DA playoffs would be coming up, as would the Marveld Tournament in Amsterdam this summer against clubs like Ajax, PSV, Barcelona, Schalke, Atletico Madrid – the giants of youth development globally. I, for one, will wonder whether this group could have run the table through that stretch.

While a somewhat extreme example, this set of games is part of the FCD Academy’s broader goal to blood its players in their youth so they are better prepared to excel at the top levels of the game as professionals.

“If we’re going to continue to get better as a club, as a country, the young American player needs to feel that and know that when he is young,” said Aldez. “And not wait until he’s in a CONCACAF Champions League game on a first team where he’s never played a game in Mexico or Costa Rica or Honduras.”

As in the pursuit of better competition in training above, the goal is to push players beyond what they are capable of today, and to help them build the skills and mentality to do so again and again going forward.

“That needs to be a regular feeling for them,” said Aldaz. “‘Oh yeah, I’m going to Mexico.’ And they know what it feels like, and they know it’s completely different than playing in Dallas or Houston or KC. They’re outside of their comfort zone, but that needs to become their comfort zone if we’re going to excel. And the same when we talk about Europe. ‘Yeah, we’ve been to Europe. We’ve played against Bayern Munich and Juventus and Dinamo Zagreb. That’s no big deal.’”

Players to keep an eye on

“Wait,” you may be saying, “most of these players aren’t even 15 yet – isn’t this way too early for fans of the first team to be monitoring these kids?” Well, a few considerations: (1) there is literally no soccer out there right now – stop being so choosy; (2) Dante Sealy and Ricardo Pepi both signed their first contracts before their 16th birthdays prior to last season, and top prospects like Jesus Ferreira and Bryan Reynolds have signed at similarly young ages in the past as well, meaning we could be less than 12 months from the best players in this cohort playing professionally for the club; (3) this group is good enough that it’s a joy to watch them regardless of their future with FC Dallas – high quality soccer is high quality soccer.

That said, it’s smart to remember how the club views these players. They are still on the super steep portion of their development curve, defining their best attributes and roles. Academy Director Chris Hayden offered the following quote in the same interview linked above specifically referring to scouting players outside of the club, but I think it’s fair to cross-apply to FCD’s internal evaluation of its youth players.

“When we are scouting young, talented players before the age of 14, and maybe even 15, we’re thinking of them as a soccer player, not really as a player that’s playing a role in the field.”

Overall, what types of soccer players define this group?

“Individually, you have a lot of footballers with good technique and coordination that are intelligent in terms of making decisions and being quick to absorb the concepts that you’re teaching them and apply them individually and collectively,” explained Aldaz. “We have some very intelligent footballers in there.”

Of note, many of the players mentioned below (and on the team generally) were born early in the calendar year, meaning that they are slightly older relative to the average player in the age group.

As an aside, this YouTube channel is a must if you want to follow this group. It’s run by the father of one of the players on the team, and I am indebted to him for my ability to talk about the team with any modicum of authority.

CAVEATS / DISCLAIMERS: This is by no means an exhaustive list, and there are way more players with pro potential in this age group than I have mentioned below. I’ve chosen to omit some of the best players in the group because they haven’t played with the team in a while, and I don’t know if it’s because of injury or if they have left the club. The team’s two GKs, Aaron Salinas and Victor Gomez, are both considered to be strong candidates for the USYNTs, but I have no idea how to evaluate GKs. Players develop at different rates, and these kids are still young, meaning players that don’t stand out right now can get better. There will almost certainly be players from this cohort that end up as stellar prospects that I don’t mention below. Ok, on with the list.

Anthony Ramirez (Attacker): Instantly recognizable thanks to his trademark mound-of-curls haircut, Ramirez is in my opinion the best bet of this group to be a Pepi- or Pomykal-type prospect, a star for the national team at his age group. He’s one of the youngest players on the team, and yet he’s a hugely productive attacker who has played all across the forward line and midfield. There are several times every game where he completely embarrasses a defender with his deadly combination of balance, change-of-direction, and ball mastery (seriously, the ball does whatever he wants – it’s uncanny). Throw in advanced timing, vision, positioning, and a healthy dash of gamesmanship, and you can see why he’s the real deal.

Diego Hernandez (CM): Maybe my favorite player to watch on the team, Hernandez is for my money the best “soccer athlete” in the cohort – agility, balance, strength, coordination, etc. He marries a bulldog’s character on defense with ultra-quick decision making and a swiss army knife toolset on offense. In particular, he’s downright dangerous arriving at the top of the box. A dead-ball specialist and sometimes captain for the team, Hernandez belongs in the Paxton Pomykal lineage of FCD midfielders.

Adrian Anguiano (CB): If Hernandez is the best soccer athlete in the group, Anguiano might be the best athlete overall. He does that thing that Zion Williamson does where there’s cognitive dissonance between his size (Anguiano is stocky) and his speed / explosiveness, which, among other things, makes him a menace on set pieces. He makes spectacular defensive plays look easy, and impossible plays look merely hard. One of the players who hasn’t gotten the attention of the national teams yet, Anguiano has been filling in with the U17s while Justin Che is out injured, and I expect his opportunities to only grow over the next year.

Jordan Jones (CM): Given the events of the last few months within the world of FC Dallas, it’s hard to watch Jones play and not see Tanner Tessmann. He’s a big, do-it-all central midfielder that’s always in the right position and tough in the tackle, but possesses technique and body control for small spaces that’s rare in a player of his age and size. As mentioned above, Jones played up an age group with the US U17s in their most recent camp, and before the shutdown he was starting to get real minutes playing with the FC Dallas U17s (who had struggled to find playmakers in midfield).

Nolan Norris (LB): A terrier of a left back, Norris is likely the next Academy player at that position with a real shot at playing at a high-level professionally now that Jonathan Gomez is gone. He’s a terror with the ball in rondo-type situations, tackles with force that belies his size, and picks progressive passes often. Like Hernandez, Norris too is a dead-ball specialist and sometimes captain, and his fiery, competitive demeanor comes through visibly in most of his games.

Tarik Scott (FWD): Tarik Scott is the very productive younger brother of Malik Henry-Scott, a forward for the U19s that is committed to play at the University of Tulsa later this year. Scott the Younger is adept at using crafty changes of direction to put defenders in bad positions, and, because he’s built like a cinderblock compared to U15 peers, those defenders rarely recover. I’m not willing to bet at which position he ends up long-term, but I’m fascinated to see how his role and skillset develop in the future.

Pranav DuBroff (CB): A silky CB that comes from a background in futsal, DuBroff has been one of the regulars with the USYNTs over the past year. He’s a defender that for now relies on great anticipation and timing to kill attacks, and there are few players on the team more comfortable carrying the ball forward under pressure to find a simple, effective outlet to progress into the final third. If his size and athleticism can catch up to his on-ball ability, DuBroff could be the paradigm of the modern, ball-progressing CB.

Kevin Kelley (FWD): Trainee of Scott Sealy and older brother to the similarly talented Kristian Kelley of the U14s, Kelley spent time at Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain before returning to Dallas to play with the Toros. He has been a staple of the national teams, including playing up several years at various points. An impact player despite being a little smaller and lankier than peers for now, Kelley works both hard and smart and has the confidence needed to attempt the spectacular at times.

As I said above, there are a lot of talented players not mentioned here. Your best bet is to get acquainted with Toni Siikala’s YouTube channel or go out and watch some games if you want the full view.