FC Dallas president Dan Hunt in face of the current soccer crisis: 'I think we need to be investing even more in youth soccer'
by Paul Kennedy @pkedit
Dan Hunt's involvement in professional soccer began soon after another moment of crisis for the country and at a pivotal moment for MLS in 2001.
The FC Dallas president (left in photo with Landon Donovan and brother Clark) was in New York on 9/11 and says he ran from the Twin Towers as they came down in 2001.
He soon thereafter joined his late father, Lamar Hunt, and Clark, now the FC Dallas and NFL Kansas City Chiefs chairman and CEO, in their sports endeavors that then included the Chiefs and two MLS teams, the Kansas City Wizards and Columbus Crew.
The 12-team MLS was on the verge of folding when Dan Hunt sat in on a league call.
"I was sitting in Chiefs office, me, my brother Clark, my dad and [Hunt Sports Group president] John Wagner," he recalled. "MLS folded on that phone call, the first day on the job. My brother turned to me and said, Congratulations, you have been hired and fired on the same day."
A couple of days later, the owners changed their minds.
"Our dad, Philip Anschutz and Robert Kraft banded together," Hunt added, "and put two teams out of business and kept 10 between the three of them."
MLS is in crisis again, facing the economic fall-out and an uncertain future because of the coronavirus pandemic. On another level, it is at the crossroads in terms of player development with the demise of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. MLS has announced plans to launch a new development league, but all clubs are not like FC Dallas in terms of how they prioritize their youth program.
FC Dallas has 12 Homegrown players on its 2020 first team, and other academy products are scattered at clubs in Germany, Denmark, Portugal and Mexico and in MLS and the USL (see below). In all, six FC Dallas academy products are senior internationals -- four making their debuts in the last 18 months.
"I don't think you will find a bigger believer in the youth game in the MLS ownership than me and my brother Clark," said Dan Hunt on a Zoom call with media on Thursday.
But he says owners need to step up in the area of player development like his father, Anschutz and Kraft did to save MLS in 2001.
"It's incumbent on owners to take the lead in this," he said, "and I want to be that person. I hope we have some other fellow owners who care, and I know we do, but we have people with varying interests in how they develop young players. For any ownership group to say they don't have good talent in their market is farcical for me. It's a joke because it tells me you are not working at it."
Any time he hears that from another owner he says he laughs and asks, "Is the DNA of a player in Dallas better than the DNA of a player in your market? Then people get real quiet because they know it's because of a lack of effort."
Hunt says soccer will change around the world in the aftermath of the pandemic.
"This is a moment where given what is going on and the challenges all across the globe," he said, "I think we need to be investing even more in youth soccer and our youth program here. I am sad in saying this because I think the game of soccer globally has changed. It is not a time to slow down, it is not a time to stop investing. It is a time to continue to push and innovate. There will be professional soccer, there will be amateur soccer, there will be World Cups. If you stick your head in the sand, it isn't going to work. You will be passed by."
Hunt calls youth development "a hard beast to manage," given the how expansive the United States is and the complications of travel, but he says it won't go away.
"It is our lifeblood at FC Dallas," he said. "It is who we are, who we have become known as from an organizational standpoint. We've built these great Homegrown players. We are so incredibly blessed. I think we do a very, very job we do mining players and talent here in Texas and the surrounding states. We do have a lot of scouting that goes on. We're not going to stop. We're not going to stop building FC Dallas on the youth talent we develop. That's just the core of who we are."
Six Homegrown players played for FC Dallas in its 2-0 win over Philadelphia in their 2020 opener. They included 18-year-old Tanner Tessmann, who started and had an assist in his MLS debut days after giving up a football scholarship to Clemson to sign a pro contract with FC Dallas.
Hunt says there were "highs and lows" with the games FC Dallas would get in the Development Academy. He credits the success it has had recently with the launch of second-team North Texas SC, which won the USL League One title in its first season.
"Having young players playing against grown men who are professional soccer players, albeit some of them journeymen, that is a great experience," he said. "Some of them are 26, 27 years old. They may be a lot faster, more physical, so you have to use your brain and what tools you have to beat that player, to get out of situations, help your team be successful. That catapulted our young talent ahead. The poster child for that success is Tanner Tessmann and what it did for his performances. His first two professional games were unbelievable performances for an 18-year-old. There are plenty more of those to come."
The other thing FC Dallas has done is give its young players plenty of international competition. It's not just in the Generation adidas Cup, the MLS youth tournament FC Dallas hosts at its complex in Frisco, or the Dallas Cup, in which FC Dallas won the 2017 Super Group with a team that included Reggie Cannon, Paxton Pomykal, Jesus Ferreira and Brandon Servania, all now senior U.S. internationals.
"We love traveling them to Mexico, to Central America, to South America, to Europe, hostile environments, where fans are in their faces, whether language is a challenge, the hours are different," Hunt said.
He said MLS youth teams must find a way to get more games against youth teams from Liga MX clubs.
"I just believe that," he said. "You look at the success of the Mexican youth national teams and what their clubs can do. We have to build a much more meaningful format with them."
Dallas youth soccer has one of the richest traditions in the United States, Hunt grew up playing on teams like the Flame, Comets and Texans. Solar, the 2019 U-16/17 champion, and the Texans played in the Development Academy, and he hopes they join the new circuit MLS is putting together.
"We're not going to get all the players here in North Texas," he said. "They're are good players at other clubs. It can be said around the United States. I hope there is an involvement for the other clubs and top players in the DA. I hope all these players aspire to be a professional soccer player or play in college. There has to be an end game for them. We're not going to get them all in MLS. I hope these top clubs continue to compete in this new sort of league, new sort of organization, whatever it ends up being. One, from a travel point of view, we are not going to probably be able to fly these kids around and play an 'MLS schedule' for them. That would be incredibly complicated. Maybe one day it happens, but we are not there yet in my opinion. They need local and regional competition so I hope local clubs can be a part of this. Otherwise, I don't think you get the diversity of games."
Hunt says the current pandemic will trigger a depression on the global transfer market -- an unfortunate turn for MLS clubs, who were just entering it.
"Obviously, that is not good for MLS," he said. "We were just starting to see significant spikes in values. Obviously, the Alphonso Davies deal was a giant one, and there had been a lot of interest in other players in the league. Specific to FC Dallas, there had been interest in our players. So that is not good for the business model of any soccer team because transfers are really the lifeblood of most clubs around the entire world. That's not good, but I think it will come back over time."
Hunt believes FC Dallas will move ahead of its MLS rivals.
"We are the best suited or one of the best suited for what the new world looks like," he said. "It is something I spend every day thinking about and working on, our youth club and academy. Not a day goes by that something doesn't come across my desk that we are dealing with. If you have owners who are not committed, they will fall behind in this, whatever the new world looks like. We're a big believer in this, and maybe there are other owners in MLS that are not or have other priorities. That's our commitment. That's our focus to make the most out of this opportunity in front of us."
Hunt's greatest disappointment is for the young players in the FC Dallas program. Soccer's shutdown came just as FC Dallas was coming through with opportunities to them on the first team or at North Texas SC.
"These are critical moments for soccer players," he said, "really between the ages of 14 to 19, to get minutes to play, to develop their skills.
The thing that worries me is their [lack of] participation from a three- to six- to nine-month period for them. It's going to stunt their development."
FC Dallas academy products (2020 MLS roster)
Reggie Cannon (U.S. international)
Jesus Ferreira (U.S. international)
Paxton Pomykal (U.S. international)
Brandon Servania (U.S. international)
FC Dallas products (other rosters)
Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids, U.S. international)
Christian Cappis (Hobro)
*Brecc Evans (Austin Bold)
[****] Gomez (Porto)
Jonathan Gomez (Louisville City)
Diego Letayf (Tigres)
Weston McKennie (Schalke 04, U.S. international)
Chris Richards (Bayern Munich)
*Arturo Rodriguez (Real Monarchs)
Richard Sanchez (Sporting KC)
Victor Ulloa (Inter Miami)
Alex Zendejas (Guadalajara)
*On loan from North Texas SC.
Note: Gonzalez and Cappis have attended national team camps but are not yet capped.