The architect of FC Dallas' remarkable spawning of homegrown players is himself a product of Dallas-area soccer. The 54-year-old Chris Hayden, FC Dallas' VP of Youth Soccer, came of age during the metroplex's youth soccer boom of the 1980s. He played in the first Dallas Cups, played college play at the University of North Texas, and went into coaching after a stint with the indoor Dallas Sidekicks. He joined FC Dallas in the mid-2000s as it began creating the academy program that has for years led MLS in Homegrown signings. Among the players who spent time at the FC Dallas academy are seven who played for the USA in its 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign: Jesus Ferreira, Kellyn Acosta, Ricardo Pepi, Weston McKennie, Chris Richards, Shaq Moore and Reggie Cannon.
SOCCER AMERICA: First memory of playing the game?
CHRIS HAYDEN: My recollection is that as a 5-year-old I formed a team with some friends from school. No one had ever really heard of soccer and there was no coach so my dad started the team. That was in the early 1970s and none of us had ever played soccer before.
My dad started a club after that, on account of that my buddies kept on getting better and they wanted somewhere to play.
SA: Describe the soccer culture that you grew up in in Dallas.
CHRIS HAYDEN: Dallas was, at that time, just getting started. I played in Dallas Cup I [in 1980]. This international tournament came — teams from other countries played and I thought, Wow, this is crazy.' It had a big following and the games were in a big stadium. It had a lot of flavor.
The local leagues kind of came through that. I think the Dallas Cup helped the culture become more relevant and led a lot of boys and girls to soccer, in general.
The soccer culture was competitive. We're in Texas so everybody wants to win. Teams were importing coaches and starting to pay coaches in my early teens.
I was born around the time where by the time I was in my early teens the community had a brief history in the sport — at least at the youth competitive level.
The North Texas State team was always really competitive and many of them went on to have good professional careers. I grew up with a lot of those guys and played against them at a time when a lot of that talent was almost by accident.
SA: What the FC Dallas Academy's recipe for success?
CHRIS HAYDEN: I don't think it's any one thing — I think it's a lot of things. You have to tackle it from different angles. We've been in a real sweet spot in terms of a number of things.
The most important thing is a real connection to the first team. You have to have like-minded people making decisions. That can be owners, head coaches, technical directors and staff making roster decisions. Regardless of who the head coach is, starting with the Hunt family at the top, there was this openness and expectation that we could do it.
If you have a barrier between your youth development system and a pathway to the first team — the most important factor there being integration, or training, because you have to stick a toe in the water before you jump in — then there won't be any belief. And if you don't have belief, you won't be able to have success and even if you do you won't be able to replicate it.
That's the most important thing.
Some other ingredients: Dallas is a multicultural area — you can find center backs here, wingbacks, No. 10s, wingers and goalkeepers. It's a melting pot of different ethnicities and cultures. I think that helps you when you're organizing your teams. You can play different styles just with the player pool here in Dallas and probably be successful, but when you put it all together, especially when you're looking for particular player profiles, I think it makes it really helpful.
The climate here — you can play soccer year-round. And we have a huge youth footprint here — 200 and something youth clubs. There is a lot of work in Zone 1 — 6-, 7-, 8- and 9-year-olds. That's been helpful in creating a culture of young player development.
We have a lot of players either in our first team or who are playing in Europe who started with us at 5, 6, 7 years old. That's pretty unique — having a kid for a decade before we sign him.
Homegrown players on FC Dallas' 2022 squad include (L-to-R) leading scorer Jesus Ferreira, Paxton Pomykal, Edwin Cerrillo and Brandon Servania.
SA: Soccer is a lot bigger now than it was 10, 15, 20 years ago and I’m surprised that FC Dallas, which plays exciting soccer and has national team players, has struggled until recently to sell out its stadium.
CHRIS HAYDEN: Yeah, that's a tough one. I've been here since 2005 and I would say that the stadium experience and fanbase is improving. Especially in the last few years, I've seen a noticeable change. We're not selling out a large stadium but the experience has improved.
We have a lot of transplants here and I think this town has always been a football town and a winner's town. You need to win something to catch the attention of the local media and the casual fan. This is not a soccer issue — it's been this way with the Rangers, the Stars and the Mavericks. They'll go through periods where the team is really popular because they're winning or are more relevant.
I've always said we're one championship away from selling out our stadium for five or six years consecutively.
SA: Taking the youth soccer job at FC Dallas in 2005, what were some of your goals upon joining?
CHRIS HAYDEN: This predates our academy. I started and it was just a local youth club that was absorbed by the pro team and rebranded as FC Dallas. My initial reaction was that I wanted to help out a club develop a player pathway for a really talented young kid to go into pro soccer.
That had never been done but I was interested in that project. I grew up in that era after the NASL folded but before MLS was launched. I was in a lost generation of players but I did play a little indoor.
I always coached, though, and when I coached really good kids I always wanted to help them find what's next. Of course, coming here was interesting to me but I didn't have any knowledge of how to make that happen.
It was a lot of people at the club that got on the same page over a few years to create the academy in 2008 and then to try and create that bridge for players. It'd take another five or six years for us to find our way.
I started coaching when I was 20 years old or so — I got my A license in 1991. So I'd been coaching for a while before I came to FC Dallas and was excited about a project that hadn't really been done before in the U.S.
SA: With the conception of MLS academies and youth teams, many youth clubs, which historically took the burden of developing youth guys, felt animosity towards franchises who took a lot of their business. At the same time, it makes logical sense that pro clubs should have dibs on the best players in their area. How have you seen the evolution of club relationships in the Dallas area?
CHRIS HAYDEN: That's tricky. There is a lot of money involved and it was very difficult to navigate that without conflict. You're not operating in a vacuum as an MLS club and you're (hopefully) coming in and creating a pathway for the best of the best. It's really difficult to coexist.
Those relationships are really important — we need those clubs. You need competition and someone to push against. I don't think those relationships are a lot better today than they were a decade ago. You still have a lot of the same conflicts.
I do think there is a clearer understanding of what an MLS academy is and what that experience provides. There are a lot of people seeking that experience — I remember in the early days speaking to families and they wouldn't really know what that pathway really looked like. And I think we didn't have the clearest idea either — it was just a dream.
Until you've done it, it's not based on reality. Once you start providing Homegrown contracts to players and those players start reaching milestones like their first start, or first all-star appearance, or national team call-up, those moments start to help the broader soccer community understand more clearly what could happen.
At that point, you don't have to sell what you're doing anymore, you just have to be clear about what you want to do and make sure you're selecting the right players that want those things.
SA: What are some of those conflicts between MLS academies and youth clubs that still exist?
CHRIS HAYDEN: One of the big issues is compensation. Only until a few years were we even compensated for players who had been with us during their youth development years.
Now, of course, we've sold players and generated a lot of revenue and it's the new norm. Now it's an expectation more than a desire.
But the compensation issue is one that the clubs and the league is trying to navigate right now. To have more clubs participate in compensation in a way that they want to send players to MLS academies — platforms that can elevate the player.
If a youth club sends a 14-year-old kid to an MLS academy and one day he ends up in Europe — if the youth club is sharing in that revenue, maybe everyone would start working together instead of against one another to keep that from happening.
I don't think there will be a lot of headway made until that's sorted out. You're fighting for resources — in our case, we've got 240 teams in Dallas. On any given weekend we're playing a lot of our rivals. These are people who frequent our stadium as fans but play for another local club. I don't know how to coexist in that ecosystem without creating some sort of conflict.
It boils down to leadership and communication. I think it goes both ways, too — it's not just the non-MLS clubs that have to improve that. We have to help and be better at recognizing these other clubs.
SA: Would you like to comment on the issue of MLS teams’ territorial rights for players? It’s a controversial topic.
CHRIS HAYDEN: Well, it's getting ready to change. I don't have all of the specifics but I know the league is working hard to design that plan and deliver it to the clubs. I can't publicly comment on what it will look like in its final form. But I do know it's going to be released rather soon and that it will change the way that clubs are protecting some of their players and even their entire territory. It will lead to different scouting plans and some different talent plans.
I don't think any two clubs will handle the changes in the same way.
SA: Your coaching has included a couple of Development Academy Coach of the year honors and championships, including the U-17/18 DA title (top photo). How much coaching are you doing nowadays?
CHRIS HAYDEN: I'm not coaching — I took this [academy director] job in 2019 so I haven't been on the field coaching since then. I coached from 1988 to 2019 so I've done a lot of that. I'm not retired but I've taken a brief hiatus. I think it was a good challenge for me to try and lead a really diverse staff — meaning, people from different backgrounds coming together under the same methodology. It's hard to be on the field and focus on one team and be helping many coaches at different age groups at the same time. I'll return to the field at some point.
SA: What’s your advice for coaches just getting their start?
CHRIS HAYDEN: My advice is to observe other coaches. Find mentors who have been there but form your own opinions on things. It's hard to skip over the process of learning as a coach. It's like a player — you need to learn kinesthetically. You need to spend time in those spaces and observe and reflect in order to change your belief system.
Most of the time you coach how you yourself were coached. You end up working with a mentor who's developed their own philosophy over a number of years. It's very easy to be compelled into adopting what they say. But I think without trial and error and reflection it's hard for you to have a firm belief in what you're doing and I think that makes you a less-credible messenger.
When you're conveying something to someone, it's not what you say but how you say it. Kids can read that and will respond to it so you really need to reflect, observe, and through trial and error develop your own belief system.
Until you try everything, it's hard to land on what your true beliefs are and it takes time to have the knowledge that tells you why you believe in those things.
The last piece is to continue to be open-minded and to have a growth mindset. That's helped me a lot as I've been exposed to other people and ideas.Top photos: FC Dallas; bottom photo: Michael Janosz/ISI Photos