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MLS playoffs' ultimate lesson: Play your kids

PORTLAND - The Timbers Army's latest gigantic tifo display loomed large over what was to become Jesse Gonzalez's net when FC Dallas gathered for their final pregame huddle at Providence Park on Sunday.

As Gonzalez and his fellow starters stood near the center circle to prepare for kickoff, the packed-to-the-wood-ceiling crowd turned its collective gaze toward that famed horseshoe-shaped end zone that the Timbers Army has called home for so many years. And when Gonzalez did the same, the green-and-gold-clad horde offered him the same salutation that every similar visitor has received: a throaty, rhythmic chant of "Dodgy 'keeper!"

Just 27 seconds after the opening whistle, Gonzalez emphatically proved that assertion wrong. As Portland launched an attack down the right wing, the 20-year-old product of Dallas' academy took a defiant stand at the edge of his six-yard box and blocked a shot from from an onrushing Lucas Melano.

Go read that last sentence again, and in particular, that first number.


For a starting goalkeeper in a Major League Soccer conference final in what might be America's greatest cauldron of passion for the world's game.

Yes, Gonzalez ultimately gave up three goals as the Timbers won the first leg of the Western Conference final by a 3-1 margin. But just as happened in the semifinal series against Seattle, and in so many regular season games before then, Dallas left an incredible impression on everyone who watched them.

It wasn't just the fast, fluid attacking soccer that Dallas played. It was the fact that 11 of the 13 names who took the field for coach Oscar Pareja were age 25 or younger.

Mauro Díaz, whose brilliant defense-splitting pass set up Dallas' goal, is 24. So is David Texeira, who flicked the ball past Portland netminder Adam Kwarasey.

Kellyn Acosta and Victor Ulloa, the midfield workhorses who free Díaz to work his creative magic, are 20 and 23 respectively. Wing wizards Michael Barrios and Fabian Castillo are 24 and 23, respectively. Central defensive rock Matt Hedges is 25. Left back Ryan Hollingshead, who stands next to Hedges on the line, is 24.

Throughout this year, Pareja has put his faith in his team's youth. And throughout this year, that youth has repaid Pareja's faith, carrying Dallas to the Western Conference's best regular-season record.

You might say in response, "That's great, but the playoffs are a different beast." Indeed they are. Yet when Pareja's charges faced up to the superstar-and-veteran-laden Seattle Sounders, they stood taller than ever.

After losing the first leg in Seattle 2-1, Dallas scored first in the second leg at home, and scored again after Seattle put a road goal on the board. They then survived the ultimate test mental strength by winning a penalty shootout. Gonzalez made two saves and 22-year-old Walker Zimmerman coolly struck the decisive kick.

Just about everyone across MLS (outside of Seattle, of course) couldn't help celebrating Dallas' triumph. Even fans in parts of the country that usually abhor Texas sporting enterprises joined the party.

And if you looked hard enough, you'd find a few folks on Puget Sound quietly admiring their conquerors. Some even wondered if the Sounders might benefit from a push toward youth of their own.

(To which a chorus around them answered: Yes, they would.)

After Sunday's game, Pareja said "we have the talent and the energy and the character" to overcome the 3-1 deficit, then added emphatically: "You will see how important that [away] goal was in Frisco."

It was a pretty good boast, but more importantly, it was another key public endorsement of his players and his philosophy.

"Our character has gotten us through many games [and] difficult times we had, in this game and during the season," Pareja said. "I don't have any doubt that this team can do it again. We are young, we make some mistakes sometimes that cost us games or points, but we know how to bounce back."

That message came through loud and clear in Dallas' locker room.

Acosta was just as effusive in his praise.

"It shows that all our hard work has paid off," he told me. "We keep pushing to become veterans, and Oscar treats us like veterans. So I think just having that mentality has giving us an opportunity, [and] we all appreciate him for that."

It's worth noting that the "veteran" mentality Acosta referred to hasn't just come from club games. Acosta was a key player for the United States at this summer's FIFA Under-20 World Cup, and Gonzalez started two games for Mexico.

International experience, even at a youth tournament, is an unparalleled crucible. And by getting regular club minutes at a young age, Acosta and his teammates have a solid foundation to work from on those bigger stages.

Acosta put it succinctly: "We've played in big games before."

In all, there are seven FC Dallas academy products on the club's senior squad. That total is the most of any American MLS club, with only Toronto and Vancouver having more leaguewide.

The veteran players Dallas does have on its roster are fully on board. One of them is former Union goalkeeper Chris Seitz. Early in the season, he backed up then-starter Dan Kennedy. Now both men have yielded the top spot on the depth chart to Gonzalez.

"At that age, with his size and his strength, [Gonzalez] is something special," Seitz told me Sunday night. "Dan and I and him work together every day and we all battle, and I think he's really been able to take a lot from it. He has come in and he has not only delivered, he has excelled at the job."

"Kellyn and Victor in the middle have been something special of late, and Jesse has playing really well as of late in goal," Seitz said. He specifically noted Dallas' nationally-televised 3-0 win at Columbus in September, in which Pareja started five academy products. The team's midfield four that night had an average age of 19.5.

"It shows the kind of confidence [Pareja] has in this team," Seitz told me. "The more that these guys can grow up and excel and do well, the stronger this team becomes.

Seitz added that Pareja's confidence "is something that probably, within the U.S. soccer system, you don't see a whole lot."

Indeed it is not, and the man who picked Pareja as Dallas' coach would know. Technical director Fernando Clavijo also has a key role in fostering Dallas' youth-oriented philosophy, and as a former U.S. national team player and coach in MLS, he knows what it t to build up the confidence Pareja has.

"First of all, we needed to have a vision all the way from ownership to the coaches to the academy of what we are looking for and how we are going to get there," Clavijo told me. "And then second, finding a coach that is sometimes willing to compromise results to give opportunities to younger players."

I have written repeatedly in my Games to Watch columns during these playoffs about how Dallas' emphasis on youth is a model that the Union can follow.

Let me take that assertion a step further today. It is a model that the Union should follow.

In some ways, they already are. The high school at YSC Sports in Wayne is a big-time investment. The new USL team in Bethlehem is a crucial bridge from the academy to the professional ranks, and it's just as crucial that those players will train with the Union's senior squad during the week.

Seitz has had that experience in Dallas, and he said young and old players alike learn a lot from being together.

"We have U-18's training with us every single day, getting the experience, getting the knowledge and th firsthand experience of playing with professionals every single day," "he said. "I'm obviously a veteran now, but I came in at a young age, and I learned from a couple of greats. To be able to pass that knowledge on to these guys and help in any way I can is obviously something I'm willing to do."

At the top of the Union's hierarchy, there is incoming sporting director Earnie Stewart. He proved as a club executive in the Netherlands that he knows the value of developing young talent - and he showed it during his playing days too, by the way.

But building infrastructure and stating a goal aren't enough to produce success. There has to be action. Dallas has produced players in both quantity and quality, and has made a conscious decision to put them on the field when it matters. That is what separates them from so many other teams in MLS that claim to believe in youth development.

Some of you might wonder why the Union haven't done that already, especially given the team's lack of financial heft. Why haven't they signed a homegrown player since Peter Nowak was in charge? Why couldn't Zach Pfeffer and Jimmy McLaughlin get substantial time with the senior team this year, especially when Andrew Wenger was struggling? And didn't Jim Curtin earn his coaching stripes by leading the Union's youth squads?

Those are all fair questions. They're questions that Curtin has been asked plenty of times, and he hasn't always given detailed answers in public.

I can't speak on his behalf, but I can offer a hunch about something that some people at PPL Park might not be willing to say directly.

During Curtin's tenure (and John Hackworth's before it), there has been a win-now mentality within the front office because of a perceived need to gain attention in the local market by making the playoffs for what would be just the second time in team history. You can figure out for yourself which moves were made due to a lack of patience.

Contrast that with what Clavijo told me Sunday night.

"You see that younger players' tendencies to make mistakes is obvious, and there's nothing you can do - that's part of growing," he said. "We have a total commitment all the way from the top to the bottom about what we are going to do, and we're going to pay the price when we have to. But I think that the benefits out-weigh everything else."

Would that kind of philosophy sit well with Union fans? I'd bet it would with the core fan base, but I'm not sure it would beyond that. The team gets enough criticism as is for not signing stars, and Philadelphia is getting pretty sick of its sports teams trying to sell long-term visions right now.

Yet this year's playoffs have given everyone in MLS tangible proof of what happens when a team trusts in youth - and not just in Dallas, by the way.

Portland has 25-year-old playmaking sensation Darlington Nagbe, 23-year-old Dairon Asprilla (who scored a brilliant goal Sunday night) on the wing and 21-year-old Alvas Powell at right back.

New York has 20-year-old Matt Miazga, perhaps the top U.S. national team prospect in the league. He's joined on the back line by 23-year-old Kemar Lawrence, who was a breakout star for Jamaica at this summer's Gold Cup.

Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter has given the captain's armband at times this year to 22-year-old midfielder Wil Trapp. Wide creator Ethan Finlay, 25, is another key cog in midfield.

Is it coincidental that none of those teams has a big-name, big-money star on its payroll? Some observers of MLS would say yes, but hold on for a minute. While the Los Angeles Galaxy were winning their championships with David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, they were also giving significant minutes to academy products Jose Villarreal and Gyasi Zardes. And there's a new crop coming behind them, led by Bradford Jamieson IV, Raul Mendiola and Oscar Sorto.

Dallas is already grooming its next generation too, by the way. When the time comes to sell Castillo - and that could be soon, as Mexican powerhouse Club América has reportedly put a $7.5 million check on the table - the team will turn to heir apparent Coy Craft.

And when the right suitor for Díaz arrives, Alex Zendejas will be ready to step in. The El Paso native made eight appearances for the senior squad this season despite being just 17 years old, and was part of the United States team at the recent FIFA Under-17 World Cup.

Some clubs have gotten the message. In Montréal, Didier Drogba plays alongside Wandrille Lefèvre, Maxim Tissot and Anthony Jackson-Hamel. Orlando doesn't have an academy, but it signed big-time CONCACAF prospects in Darwin Cerén, Bryan Rochez and newly-crowned Rookie of the Year Cyle Larin to line up around Kaká.

Pareja appreciates that what Dallas does is particular, if not entirely unique. As one of many former MLS players who now coaches in the league, he isn't going to bash his colleagues as a way of promoting himself. But he knows he's got something special going.

"I think we all have respect for each other's model," he said. "There are some different ideas, and that makes Major League Soccer rich. Our idea here with FC Dallas is to create some development with players that we nurse in the academy, and it's good - but I think there are many other MLS teams that do it, and they are doing a great job."

The Union can become one of those clubs. Not in five seconds, to be sure, and if they go in on youth in 2016 they might extend their playoff drought again.

But the academy cavalry is getting ready to make a charge. Keep a particular eye on Sebastian Elney, who scored seven goals in 19 games as a freshman at Maryland this year. If he's in Bethlehem next spring, that will be a very good sign. Georgetown's Will Campbell and Keegan Rosenberry, North Carolina's Sean Wilson and Rhode Island's Derrick Jones are other names to watch.

So is Philadelphia native Darius Madison, who is trying to get back on track toward the pros after being kicked out of the University of Virginia in late August.

Under the wise tutelage of Steel coach Brendan Burke, Union academy prospects should be able to take the physical and mental growth steps needed to make it in the pros.

That tifo I referenced at the start of this piece read "We're gonna ride this bull all the way!" It was a line from the former HBO television show "Eastbound and Down," which the Timbers Army has fashioned into a series of "Cup Bound and Down" displays throughout this year's playoffs. And it wasn't just a catchphrase, since Dallas' logo features a longhorn steer.

It might not have been an entirely accurate reference, though. Instead of putting a bull on the field, Pareja has raised a herd of prime-grade calves.

Even if Portland ends up winning the series, FC Dallas will have left an incredible imprint on these playoffs and the season as a whole.

When I asked Seitz whether other clubs around MLS can do what Dallas has done, I didn't need to elaborate on which one specifically I was talking about.

"If you have other franchises that are willing to invest that sort of time and effort into it, and obviously money, then it's definitely replicable," he said.

Here's hoping Seitz's old club does just that.