The Brilliant Rise of the Dallas Cup
What do David Beckham, Raul, Wayne Rooney, Maicon, Javier Hernandez and Juan Mata have in common? It’s not a UEFA Champions League winners medal, only Chicharito is missing that honour. It’s not scoring at the FIFA World Cup, Maicon never managed that. It’s not winning one of the major league titles, Juan Mata has yet to add a domestic league to his extensive list of honours. The answer is that they all took part in the Dr. Pepper Dallas Cup.
The 36th edition of the Dallas Cup wrapped up proceedings a few weeks ago, with a finals day at FC Dallas’ Toyota Stadium. In total, 188 teams from 41 nations, across 5 continents, converged upon North Texas. Past winners include Real Madrid, Liverpool, Manchester United, Cruzeiro, River Plate, and all of the Mexican powerhouses. Several international teams have won titles, including the United States, Costa Rica, Japan and Australia.
The likes of AC Milan, Barcelona, Ajax and Arsenal have competed but never won one of the best trophies you will ever see. Over 430 FIFA World Cup appearances have been made by Dallas Cup alumni, and even one NBA Hall of Fame inductee. The combined transfer fees from these players totals more than $1bn (Hands up who said that in the Dr Evil voice).
This year’s tournament attracted plenty of English and Spanish attention. One of England’s brightest prospects is the Everton central midfielder, Ryan Ledson. Ledson, 17, captained the Everton U19s in Dallas, having made his first team debut in a UEFA Europa League tie earlier this season. A truly thrilling player that unfortunately didn’t attend is Valencia defender, José Luis Gayá. Gayá has played a key role in Valencia’s Liga BBVA campaign, and thus was retained by Nuno Espírito Santo. All the same, there will have been some attention paid to who else may be the next graduate from the under-19 group that Gayá came up with. That player may be 16-year-old Francisco José Villalba, a midfielder who has already made a couple of appearances for Valencia’s second team in the Spanish third tier.
In truth, much of the future of the game in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, the Caribbean and Oceania has been on display in this prestigious tournament.
The two U19 groups were hit, to a degree, by the upcoming FIFA U20 World Cup in New Zealand. TSG 1899 Hoffenheim were missing several of their players, as are the ever-impressive plethora of Mexican teams that competed. Despite the tournaments being two months apart, a number of national associations are holding extended camps in preparation. There’s a pretty good explanation on that coming from a former Dallas Cup player and coach later on.
Valencia failed to advance from the group stage. The young Evertonians were knocked out by eventual champions, Coritiba, as Ryan Ledson was somewhat overshadowed by Toffees striker, David Henan. Henan had been the U18 Premier League Champions’ standout player throughout the tournament. The 18-year-old Belgian striker had attracted headlines over a loan spell at big-spending Monaco before Anderlecht sold him to Olympiakos. He is currently on loan at Goodison park from the Greek outfit, after one of the more puzzling deadline day deals of recent years. Everton have an option to supplement their Belgian contingent, of Kevin Mirallas and Romelu Lukaku, for £500,000.
In the other semi-final, River Plate fell to a last minute Monterrey winner.
The game seemed destined for a penalty shootout before a low shot by Carlos Rodriguez crept in at the far post. Tomas Andrade, who has been linked with Barcelona and Atletico Madrid for the past two years, spearheaded the Argentines’ attack with little success. An entertaining final saw Coritiba take home their second ‘ball and boot’ trophy in four years, running out 3-1 winners despite finishing the game with ten men. Thiago Lopes, Evandro and Vitor Vieira scored the goals for the Brazilians, while Erick Amaro snuck in for Monterrey at a corner.
Jaguares de Chiapas were one of two Mexican clubs to take home silverware, with a late win against one of 17 FC Dallas youth sides. The second U19 finale saw the host club leading until a 77th minute Ricardo Gonzalez header tied the game. With the fans in attendance prepared for extra time, Daniel Lopez popped up in the 5th minute of injury time to deny the Baby Hoops and coach, Scott Dymond, who had already received a winners medal with his U17 team.
The other trophy that would head South of the border would be held aloft by Santos Laguna in the Super 17 group. They defeated local rivals, Monterrey, to claim their maiden Dallas Cup.
The Dr Pepper Dallas Cup and FC Dallas were invited to co-host Major League Soccer’s Generation adidas Cup. MLS’ U17 tournament had been held at FC Dallas’ Toyota Soccer Center last year with the Dallas Cup committee helping with logistical arrangements, and evidently did such a remarkable job that the league wished to expand on that relationship. With the Dallas Cup committee’s help, the number of international teams and officials increased. The MLS clubs will have hopefully learned a little from their foreign counterparts, with the top three teams coming from outside the United States. FC Dallas lost out their third-place playoff with Palmeiras, while River Plate beat out Eintracht Frankfurt in the Champions Division final. MLS fared better in the Premier Division, with New York Red Bulls beating Independiente Medillin, of Colombia, in extra time.
With this evident growth since the inaugural tournament in 1980, I was curious to know why Dallas has become a youth soccer hub for the world. I sought to find out not only why the competition has grown over time, but what sets it apart from the other major tournaments.
The Dr Pepper Dallas Cup’s Executive Director, Andy Swift, was kind enough to explain. Swift is undoubtedly one of the most knowledgable people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in this sport. He played in Dallas Cup II & III, long before becoming Dallas Burn President, a Vice President at Major League Soccer and a FIFA Match Commissioner.
The Dallas Cup is unlike most youth tournaments because of the unique and holistic experience it provides its participants. Not only do players benefit from a very high standard of play on the pitch, they also receive educational opportunities off of it. The Dallas Cup HomeStay program, which provides teams from overseas the opportunity to stay with local families, allows for cultural exchange between players of different nationalities. Many teams are also offered the opportunity to engage in community activities through team appearances at local schools, hospitals, homeless shelters, and advocacy centers, providing players and coaches valuable life lessons. And due to the partnerships the Dallas Cup has with several referee academies from around the world, such as the Premier League, the FA, CONCACAF, US PRO, and the JFA, among others, the level of officiating that the Dallas Cup provides is arguably unmatched by any other youth tournament in the world.
For more than three decades, the Dallas Cup has offered teams an extremely organized tournament, with elite competition, world-class officiating, and quality venues, in a welcoming environment provided by the warm hospitality of its more than one thousand volunteers. Dallas Cup has always been about quality over quantity (it has never sought to grow the number of teams), and its focus has been to always ensure that the competition and officiating is elite-level.
The flair of the tournament, and particularly the unique prize, is certainly a talking point of this prestigious competition. As Andy’s answer alluded to, it’s the development of young players, coaches and officials that is fundamental to the existence of the Dr Pepper Dallas Cup. I wanted to get a better feel for that, so I asked Charlie Betts from 2014 entrants, Luton Schools U14s.
Luton Schools, as the name would suggest, are a team comprised of the best talents from five high schools in my hometown of Luton. It is a further chance to be scouted by professional clubs, to compete nationally, and earn an invite to a competition like the Dr Pepper Dallas Cup. The management team of Charlie and his father Jim, along with other coaches, volunteered their time to help develop the players and give them a better chance at a professional career.
In a town like Luton, where a third of children live below the poverty line, this extra chance to be developed and scouted is an exceptional opportunity. To emphasize that point, Charlie once had to give a player his own football boots after the family could did not have the means to replace the youngster’s previously damaged footwear. To be offered the chance to travel to the United States, and compete in Dallas, is something that isn’t going to come around too often. The HomeStay program certainly reduces the costs but there was still a significant amount that had to be raised by the players, staff, and families in order to enable this chance.
The team earned their invitation to the Dallas Cup by winning their U13 league, covering the South of England, without losing a single game. They also reached the last 8 of the English Schools FA Inter Association Trophy. Luck was not in the team’s favour, losing at Liverpool with the game being postponed twice due to snow. The boys won team of the year in the annual Luton Sports Network Awards. What Charlie may have been a bit too modest to mention, was that he and Jim were also finalists for coach of the year. Unfortunately, that would prove to be the last season for the league and would result in the Luton Schools team being disbanded. The costs of joining a league further North would exceed the donations that were relied on, particularly after the players, their parents and coaches worked hard to raise the money necessary to see the Luton Schools team compete in Dallas.
Charlie was very kind to speak about a wide range of subjects, such as how the experiences have helped the boys grow as players, and people, and also how it’s helped the coaches to be exposed to styles and philosophies from different nations and levels of the game.
On how Luton Schools’ time at the Dr Pepper Dallas Cup may help the players with their approach to the sport:
A large number of the players come from quite modest backgrounds, and therefore an opportunity like this was amazing. They were a very talented bunch of players, but didn’t always have the necessary backing to take them to the next level of the game. The mother of one of the players had no idea about how the professional academy system worked. When he was asked to attend trials by professional teams, which happened frequently, she did not take him. This was not malicious, she genuinely didn’t understand that this was part of the process.
I played in Dallas Cup XXVII as a 16-year-old for the Royal Navy U19 team, so I had a good idea of the standard and expectations out there. From the outset, we tried to run the team as professionally as we could. I enlisted the help of a friend to join us as a goalkeeping coach, for example. I still feel, though, that the boys were very shocked by the professionalism of the tournament, and of the other teams. It is also difficult to compare Lothair Road or Stockwood Park [two of the council-run facilities in Luton] to Moneygram Park [a $31m, 138-acre facility featuring 14 floodlit pitches]. I would like to think from this experience they have been able to, at the very least, learn that football is not just about turning up for 90 minutes. That, actually, it is about how you conduct your whole life. How things like diet and conditioning are incredibly important. We were fortunate enough to be interviewed by a local Spanish-language TV station, and the Dallas Cup media team, at different points. Suddenly these loud, brash and cocky 14-years-olds became very shy and introvert.
I hope that the experience has helped them to grow in confidence as both footballers and as men. To see how serious the professionals take football is hopefully an experience they can try to aspire to.
On the standard of the opposition and where they differ from English teams:
Due to our exploits in the National Cup we had come up against strong opposition in the past. Liverpool Schools FA, particularly, showed us a new level of natural talent. I must say though, that the standard of the players we played against was similar to teams we had played in England, but the organisation was like nothing we had ever seen before.
On the pitch, the American players had an understanding, an almost telepathic understanding, of where they needed to be and where their teammates were. They knew exactly which runs players were going to make. They knew the little trigger movements and body shapes for what their colleagues would do with the ball. You could clearly see that these were well rehearsed routines within passages of play. We relied heavily on natural, raw talent and moments of individual brilliance. I conducted some online scouting to get any possible advantage that we could on the opposition. I tried to reiterate to the players that these teams will be well drilled and organised.
Through discussions with the players before the tournament, we spoke about what we thought that would look like. It was interesting, because they assumed that this meant things like set pieces and such. Having then spoke to the players after the first two games, they then explained to me that actually organisation in football is when something becomes second nature. For example, the right full back gets the ball; in an organised team he is going to know roughly what area his centre back, his nearest centre midfielder, his wide midfielder and his centre forward are going to be in, without lifting his head. We could not compete with that. We only trained once a week, on a Saturday morning, and that was if we didn’t have a game. The American teams train daily.
As a collective, we then spoke about how we combat this almost robotic play. We concluded that actually communication is so much more important than they had ever realised. We had to let our teammates know exactly what was going on, where they were, and what the situation on the pitch was. It seems a very English mentality to just shout, ‘Come on!’ or ‘Raise your level’ or ‘We need to do better!’. We spoke about what that looks like and how you can communicate effectively, with key information, rather than just shout generic statements. I would like to think that this is something that they have taken away with them and have learned from the US teams. I encouraged the players to analyse some of the most successful teams in the world, both club and country, before and after the tournament.
It was interesting that prior to the tournament, the players highlighted the best teams as being the ones with the best players, mainly an individual approach. For example, Barcelona are great because of Messi, Bayern Munich because of Robben etc. Following the tournament, the players said that they found that the best teams in the world are organised, but also had that improvisation from individuals, something that I feel the American game lacks slightly compared to the more established nations. Rarely did we see a player who had a ‘free role’.
This showed the players that the best teams in the world generally have a combination of both, and therefore as players who aspire to play at the highest level, they also need to possess both mentalities. This will hopefully stand them in good stead in the future.
On the exposure to other nations’ philosophies and styles:
The benefits of this were positive and negative. We played against a team of Hispanic origin. I warned the players that, from my own experience, the way overseas teams play football is very different, particularly the central and south American teams. They almost treat it as an art form.
In England, a player would be applauded for making a huge, lunging tackle. He would be congratulated on his achievement and how ‘brave’ he was. I warned the players that this will not be appreciated in the same way. These sorts of teams want to play flowing, skillful football that requires craft and guile. I compared English football to be like checkers and foreign football to be like chess. Unfortunately the players did not seem to understand my point until the tournament had already begun.
Most foreign styles do not rely on ‘A big lad’ in the same way English football does. Many times we were penalised for giving away clumsy or ‘soft’ free kicks. This team thrived on our cumbersome approach to defending and won plenty of goal scoring opportunities. Sadly the boys were too honest for their own good. At one point, our centre forward was going away from goal and trying his best to stay on his feet, following a challenge by the goalkeeper, and the resulting touch took the ball out for a goal kick. A similar incident took place at the other end. Their centre forward went down and scored the resulting penalty. Our players were furious and accused him of cheating, whereas their manager said our centre forward should have done the same thing. For me, that was the biggest indication of the different philosophies between ‘us’ and ‘them’. What is deemed cheating in one country, is deemed good centre forward play in another.
I think the boys learned a very harsh lesson, and that is how important gamesmanship is in football. On the contrary, if that had been in England, the team we played would not have fared so well. Due to our lack of contact time with the players, it is difficult to instill that mentality into them, being able to adapt your game to your surroundings and opposition. I would like to think that they have learned that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to the game is not a successful one.
How time spent together in another country affected team spirit:
One thing we did pride ourselves in was the team spirit of the players. Regularly, in England, we came back from the brink of defeat to sneak a draw or a win. I firmly believe that from their time in the tournament they have become good friends. I have no doubt that if they were to walk past each other in the street in 10 years time, they would stop and discuss their time in Dallas.
Most of the players had never been to America before and those who had, had been to quite touristy destinations, such as New York and Florida. Naively, a lot of the players assumed that the US is like England, only bigger. They received a huge culture shock. What was great to see was that the players helped pull each other along through it.
The saddest thing is that we won’t see the benefits of this in a team, as the team was disbanded along with the league they played in.
How the teams they faced, and observed, had affected his own approach as a coach:
Having played in the Dallas Cup myself, I thought I had a good understanding of that level of tournament football as a whole. Having then returned as a coach, I realised it was an entirely different game. We relied heavily on donations and the good will of people to fund the trip. We received no formal funding whatsoever. I felt from the outset that this put us on the back foot.
As a coaching team, we knew that we could not match the academy teams for funding and resources, so we had to consider other ways to help the players reach the standard required. Due to work constraints, we could only train at the weekends and they had to be quite intense sessions as we had limited contact with the boys. I think we learned from being out there that repetition is key. Due to the way we trained, we had to ‘nail’ something in a session or two and then move on.
I was fortunate to catch a few sessions from a Brazilian team in the Gordon Jago Super Group, as they trained near our hotel. It was clear to see that quite a few of the drills were ingrained into the players, they probably could have run them by themselves, and almost didn’t need a coach. Of course, they moved onto more complex and game specific drills.
For me, I learn that repetition of the fundamentals is essential. Having watched the pro teams, it was clear to see that the fundamentals were worked on every session, nothing was taken for granted. There were always groups working on, for example, first touch and short passing. Things that you can take for granted, that the players at the highest level can do, when in actual fact it’s these foundations that the complex coaching is built on. Contrary to what I said earlier about the players learning that they need to communicate more, I feel that we learnt that actually a good coach communicates less. I learned much from watching the American coaches. In both sessions and games, they gave short, concise instructions.
In England, the temptation is to bellow and almost talk the players through the game, and to do this consistently. It was clear to see that the philosophy of the US coaches, particularly, is to allow the players to take responsibility for the game and let them learn from their mistakes. I feel that I have learnt a lot from watching the foreign teams, and the way that they conduct themselves in professional environments.
Tournaments such as the Dallas Cup can be such a valuable experience for a young footballer, coach or referee. It’s no coincidence that Spain’s meteoric rise followed a shift in philosophy to institute regular national team camps for younger groups, and to take youth tournaments as seriously as they would a FIFA World Cup. The cultural exchange and the rigors of travel can help develop groups of boys into teams of young men. The chance to challenge themselves in a different climate, against a foreign playing style, can do wonders for footballing development.
Many experts hold the opinion that the English national team will not pose a serious threat until players venture outside the safe confines of the Premier League, and the FA begin to take the best players to each tournament rather than assuming a U21 player has surpassed his need to play in the UEFA U21 European Championships since he has five senior caps. For coaches, it’s the chance to see how their counterparts from other nations differ with their tactics, how they react to certain events and how they keep a motivated and healthy team with such a brief turnaround between games.
These tournaments offer match officials the chance to observe their peers from across the world, to attend events aimed at the co-operation and improvement of officials. As Andy Swift mentioned, these officials are from academies themselves, they are the officials that will oversee a number of the same players, whom they’ve officiated in Dallas, in the 2022 FIFA World Cup and beyond. CONCACAF hosted an international referees symposium, at the Dallas Cup HQ, in preparation for the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
The only man to take charge of both a UEFA Champions League final and FIFA World Cup final in the same year, Howard Webb, was guest of honor.
His role as Technical Director of the Professional Match Game Officials Board, much like his time in Dallas, has been an opportunity to help pass on his years of experience to the up-and-coming whistle-blowers. The former Premier League official was even kind enough to dust off his cards once more, resulting in one youngster from Jacksonville expressing that he was honoured to be the recipient of a yellow card.
Such was Webb’s popularity, that when I went down to the Dallas Cup headquarters to watch 1310 The Ticket’s The Kickaround on location, the South Yorkshire referee was mobbed by young players from at least four continents following his interview with Peter Welpton.
If you’re still not convinced of the sheer brilliance of the Dr Pepper Dallas Cup, just check out Ryutsu Keizai University’s portion of the opening ceremony at the historic Cotton Bowl. 20th-27th March 2016, we’ll see you in Big D!