I first met Oscar Pareja in 2013, during his final rickety carousel ride of a season with the Colorado Rapids. His project in Colorado had never really gotten off the ground for a variety of reasons, many of them systemic, but Pareja was buoyant still.
The Rapids had just beaten the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-0 to cap a nine-match unbeaten streak that preceded a sharp decline at the end of the season. But in the interim they were surprisingly good, too good really for the talent available at Pareja’s disposal. And in their 2-0 win Deshorn Brown, a young 22-year-old forward Pareja helped establish, scored the ultimate winner.
The first question came in and Pareja offered a platitude about sticking together. And then he said this.
“We doing it by keeping our young players focused,” Colorado coach Oscar Pareja said. “Our young players continue to believe what we are doing and feeling like they are playing for something.”
The more I listened to Pareja the more this theme emerged. The Youth Whisperer.
Since that time Pareja left for FC Dallas and helped mold a first team system the envy of the league. FC Dallas buys young, develops young and plays young. They are the Bugatti of MLS, all sleek lines and shapely corners and stylish delivery. It does not always work – FC Dallas’s list of Homegrown burnouts is longer than anyone’s, and they have yet to win an MLS Cup – but as Thomas Edison once said, failure is only finding ways that don’t work on your pathway to one that does.
Pareja has spent the entirety of his coaching career tethered to the American system, learning its many strange neuroses and plotting tentative and then firm courses around them. He has coached in our broken U17 residency academy, headed up and created the foundation for the FC Dallas development apparatus which has no equal in this country, and has now coached at two different MLS clubs in two wildly different environments. In the midst of it all he’s also played in a country (Colombia) that develops with style and since then has had time to develop his own ethos about compartmentalizing playing style with winning.
Whenever Jurgen Klinsmann vacates his post as the head of the USMNT – whether that’s decamping tomorrow for England or seeing his contract through the 2018 World Cup – Pareja is the replacement.
And if we are honest with ourselves, he is the only choice, if he would have it.
It has never been more obvious to me, since Klinsmann’s ideological rampage through American soccer these past five tumultuous years, that whoever steers the rudder of American soccer in the future must have an intimate, almost familial relationship with soccer in the U.S. Klinsmann claimed this by dint of his longtime residency in Southern California, but he never really did, has, or will truly understand American soccer. Oh, he knows it, but understanding – truly – it is another beast entirely.
Klinsmann spoke lavishly about establishing an American playing style and has not only done little to bring it about, but abandoned a preexisting style on the cutting room floor. He was named the technical director but has largely enacted reforms and installed youth national team age groups ported directly from Europe without the incredibly necessary Americanization. He has openly quarreled with MLS, shut out a handful of its players for unclear reasons and set himself apart from the wider zeitgeist of American soccer through constant nagging of the system in which he operates.
Klinsmann’s words have created great swirling firestorms of debate in this country at various junctures about a variety of different fundamental topics, and that is not without its merits. But on an operational level, those talking points do little to advance the game on the ground floor. He is always on some wayward cloud, floating above everything, throwing down thunderbolts on the masses. He will never change. This is the man himself.
There may be some merit to that (from a national team coach, perhaps not quite as much) but on the ground level, he dithers with tactics, is unable to satisfactorily explain or defend certain key call-ups, plays and then vehemently denies playing players wildly out of position, refuses to shoulder any burden of blame on himself.
Klinsmann has his merits, but he is – whatever he would tell you – set apart from American soccer. He has never really had his hands dug into its muck up to the elbow, saturated with its operational issues on the ground level, working from inside the system rather than above it and around it. He is the president while the community leaders deal with the mess.
This is Pareja. And in reality it is all he has ever been. An operator in the basement, cranking the generator until his muscles scream in an effort to keep the lights on. In the meantime, Klinsmann sits upstairs in his chaise lounge lobbing criticism as the lights frequently dim and flicker and explode in room-limning brightness and sometimes shut off before coming back online. The system is fundamentally imperfect, Klinsmann laggardly posits, while Pareja expends his lifeblood to keep it running from underneath.
In this sense Pareja embodies many of the things Klinsmann does not. From 2008-2011, Pareja was the director of player development over the entire FC Dallas youth setup and coached the U18s to the academy finals in 2011. In that time period FCD signed six of its own academy kids, including current first teamer a rock steady defensive midfielder Victor Ulloa. It also established a slab of foundation that persists to this day as Pareja leads the senior team: just last week FCD put both its U16 and U18 teams in the academy final four. No MLS academy has ever done that before.
Since then he has seen first hand both the lows and highs of professional soccer in America. He has seen an organization shut off its youth spigot and turn to aged, broken MLS vets for help, and he has seen an organization trawl Central and South America for gems while creating a systemic expectation that youth will be served.
Through all of this Pareja has created a style wholly conducive to the American player. FC Dallas does not complete a particularly high percentage of their passes – they currently sit 16th in MLS at 75 percent – but they are a hot rod fed by a nuclear reactor core. Klinsmann has attempted to make America some through-the-middle proactive team that it has never been. By turning Michael Bradley into a marathon runner, the center turned to mush and the U.S. lost its once vaunted ability to play on the counter with anything approaching consistency.
Remember this? When the U.S. could do this at the drop of a hat? It was never Tiki Taka, but at least it was something concrete, rather than the wisps of style we have now.
This is the Pareja system, but with perhaps a bit more flair. It is more Gegenpress than Route 1, but there are elements to both about it. And the most encouraging piece for USMNT fans is that Pareja’s style fits the U.S. player pool right now. Pareja would (mostly likely) fashion a 4-2-3-1 that pushes width like a racehorse, uses the youth that Klinsmann has patently ignored, pushes out to sea the old guard Klinsmann has clung to like a life raft and reaches out to reconcile terms with the valuable MLS players Klinsmann has purposefully forgotten.
And if you were ever worried about the national team coach knowing U.S. Soccer down to its U14 filaments and enacting positive change through a successful and rich past actually doing things inside its constructs, well, it gets no better in this than Pareja.
In truth FC Dallas already plays American soccer and scores American goals, even if it’s with non-American players. Press, make use of turnovers and score with a vicious economy of touches. Look at this: it takes FC Dallas four touches to go 40 yards and put it past the keeper.
This is American soccer, not total 90 dominance or tone-setting play or dictating pace or whatever else. Not right now, not with the players at hand. Those latter things sound nice in sound clips and they placate a vocal portion of the fan base that insists the U.S. is better than it is. But then that was always Klinsmann The Ideologue speaking through us, never the realist telling us not what we could do but what we can do.
Maybe Klinsmann is ultimately better pushed off the field enacting change from 30,000 feet. I’m not certain I agree with even that, especially after seeing what Pareja has accomplished in a diseased system Klinsmann insists is more broken than perhaps it is, but that’s a debate for another day.
But what I can say with a certainty I feel more strongly about now than ever is that Pareja is the mirror reflecting back what Klinsmann could not. He is the engine rumbling underneath us, and he is the next choice to lead the USMNT.