PSP talks to FC Dallas Technical Director Fernando Clavijo

Photo: Courtesy of FC Dallas

Ahead of Philadelphia Union’s season opener against FC Dallas on Sunday, Adam Cann talked to FC Dallas technical director Fernando Clavijo.

Philly Soccer Page: What are the expectations like for Dallas this season?

Fernando Clavijo: In the middle of the season, 2015, we evaluated the team and we noticed that there were some areas that we needed to improve if we wanted to be a contender. After the season, we put a scouting system that we had in place and went out to find the players that we needed for those specific positions that we needed. And that was it!

One other thing, our vision is to give as much playing time as we can to the academy players. At the same time, we need to surround them with experienced players to develop them. And we did that. In all three lines — offensive, defensive, midfield — we improved it. So we are very pleased. But every year, everybody has the same chance. Our league is very competitive. You guys added not only players, but people like Earnie Stewart, a teammate of mine on the national team with a lot of knowledge and a lot of contacts. That is going to help your team to get better. We always need to improve because everybody else is improving every day.

One of the big changes you made was trading away Blas Perez and bringing in Maxi Urruti up top. He’s a guy that stretches the field more than Diaz. Is that designed to create more space in the midfield for Mauro Diaz? 

We have an idea of how we want to play that is very clear to us. We needed to add players according to what we want to do. And Urruti is because of that. We signed Kellyn Acosta for five years, Gruezo, 20 years old, from Stuttgart. We really looked into everything. Our league is very demanding, and we have three tournaments that we are playing in this year. And we want to compete in all of them, we want to have the opportunity to win all of them. So to be able to do that you have to have a roster of players capable of being able to step onto the field and have quality.

What have you done to have more support if Diaz goes down, then?

What we have done is clear. We have a very good understanding with the coaching staff and the ownership. Some of the players we signed, we have them on the radar for probably a year and a half or two years, so nothing new. Having Oscar [Pareja] here, we prepare. We look at the things that make sense for us. Urruti was a player I liked when he went to Toronto. So a lot of things go into play. Contacts mean a lot, and you guys have contacts with Earnie Stewart, and soccer people like Chris Albright. And that’s going to help the environment there. It’s very difficult to do overnight, it takes a bit of time, but when you have the right people in the right places, you can usually do the right things?

Was last year a bit of a surprise for you? How good the team was so quickly? 

I was not surprised at all. We had a good core of young players. But we had some issues in the midfield. We were not dynamic enough to win balls in the midfield and do the things we wanted to do. So we were stretched a little bit. Victor Ulloa played probably 33 games out of 34. An outstanding player from the academy, but a young player. And we put a lot of responsibilities on his shoulders. And we needed to help him to run the midfield. So that’s what we’ve done in the midfield. This year, our goal is: Forget about making the playoffs, we want to be in contention to win a championship. And everything starts on Sunday.

But our homegrowns are more experienced than they were last year, the player we brought in have adapted to the league now, so they’ll be more of a factor. And it’s not easy to keep a group together. Sometimes you have to let people go because of budget reasons. But I think the guys we let go were because of system reasons, and the guys we brought in were to make us better.

What have you learned to look for in academy players that lets you know they’re ready to take the next step? 

The first thing is an ownership group that is willing to go with that. Because sometimes it’s difficult to introduce young players into the first team and get a result at the same time. It’s not easy, it’s not easy. The other thing is to have a coach that believes, 100%, in his heart, that young players are the future.

I was a coach, and sometimes you have a game, an important game, and you want the veterans to bail you out, so to speak. So you have to be willing to go with the young players and when they make a mistake, trust they will come up with something better in other parts of the game.

And you all have to agree. We all have great relationships. We go see games at the academy to make sure we know the talent that is there. There’s no manual that can tell you a player has A, B, and C, he’s a nine and a half, and that’s good for the future. You have to have an eye for talent. And I always say, not just an eye for talent but an eye for talent in MLS, and those are two completely different things. And then you have to be able to bring them up, give them the opportunity, and give them the support to make it. When I arrived, the first player that I signed from the academy was Kellyn Acosta. Today, he already plays on the national team as a left back.

But nothing could have happened if the ownership was not behind it, if Oscar was not behind playing them and working with them everyday. We have a team effort from everyone here at FC Dallas.

Is it tougher for defenders to be ready for the pro level at a young age? You brought a young goalie up long before most goalies get a chance in MLS. How do you know those guys in back are ready?

You are only going to find out if they’re ready when you play them. That’s the truth! Nothing can duplicate a game, a meaningful game. You’re only going to find out about them when you play them. You have to trust, players have to find out that you have trust in them. And when they make mistakes, they have to learn from them. But if you learn from mistakes and look to minimize them, it’s much easier.

I was a defender, and it’s the best position on the field to play, you have the whole field in front of you. You just minimize mistakes, give support, and remember that your first job is to defend! Defend because you are a defender. And everything else you do is more. Sometimes people want to do too much too soon too quick. You need to make step-by-step changes as you go to help the team. And this, for me, is the way to go. Jesse Gonzalez, 20 years old, is starting at the toughest part of our season. Now the US national team is calling him, they’re calling him from Mexico. He’s 20 years old! Our two midfielders right now: 20 years old! It’s exciting for us to look at that, and those players will always get better.

One thing Earnie Stewart has talked about a lot is bringing in players who are good people off the field. Is that a priority for you as well?

One of the things I have implemented here is that I will never sign anyone without having an opportunity to check their family, to have an interview with them. Whether it’s a homegrown or an international. When I made trades, I talked to the families because if you are good in your personal life, and you do the right thing and you care about your family and so on, most likely those same attributes will show up when you play the game. You will care about your teammates, who are like family. You will care about the things you do because it’s the team that’s getting a result. So all of those things for me are key. So I will take a so-so player with good personal attributes over a superb player who is going to have issues.

Sooner or later the locker room is going to make you pay if you don’t have a locker room that supports each other. Because as you go through the season you’re going to have some bad times. And you have to have a group of players that are able to help each other. When you first became technical director, what were some unique difficulties of MLS that you didn’t have to deal with as a coach?

Well, I had been in the league forever, so I was aware. And when I was a coach, I was doing the job of the technical director at the time. We needed to scout, we needed to sign the contracts. Today it’s easier because there are so many more people doing the jobs, which is the way it should be.

I think the most difficult part is to plan ahead. Because you can plan for 2016, but if you don’t look ahead… our rules can change, the CBA changes every four, five six years. If you don’t plan ahead, you may have a great season today, but next year will be a nightmare. This is the most difficult part.

Everyday we are looking for ways to balance our budget, make sure we can get better every year. The league has grown into a such professional environment.

The league’s growth also means that when a guy like Fabian Castillo has a great season, he’s going to get noticed, and it’s actually surprising you were able to keep him around. Does that put extra pressure on you to build a short-term winner because you know someone is going to eventually make a bid for your best players that you can’t turn down?

It’s going to happen. It’s a matter of time. One of the things we have to figure out is: We have to have people in line already so if he goes, we know who we want to bring in. But also, it’s an opportunity. If he’s doing so well that we have to move him, great for him. But it has to be at the right time. When the player does well, it benefits everyone. It benefits the club and it benefits him. But can you imagine how good it would be to leave the team with a championship? As a former player, I know you want to win. And you want to make money, we all do. But at the same time, you want to win a championship. It’s something special that not many people have an opportunity to do. So when you do it, it’s something special. And it’s part of growing. Everybody wants to have a winner. If Castillo can win a championship here, it’ll be better for him, better for us, better for everyone.

And then to repeat is even harder. 

Yeah, because once you win, it’s like you’ll have a player or two that everybody wants!


  1. Mickey Goldmill says:

    It is intersting reading about another technical director’s perspective on their team and the league.

    I will say.. depth depth depth and academy academy academy as the only way to compete in MLS…beyond league games. To be true having a stellar USL team..if that is the way the league is going, where every big club in The Show, has a minor league team is really helpful- that way you can call up the kids for qualifying rounds before the knockout rounds and save your bench for the times in league that you need it… its the only way to be relevant.
    Good read for a junky on a friday night.

  2. Very interesting getting this perspective on a real quality team in MLS. Key point I took away — it is going to take some time to get the whole plan working. This is just the start of several years of improvement! Exciting though to watch it start.

    Thanks for the interview Adam.

  3. Zizouisgod says:

    “You are only going to find out if they’re ready when you play them. That’s the truth! Nothing can duplicate a game, a meaningful game. You’re only going to find out about them when you play them. You have to trust, players have to find out that you have trust in them. And when they make mistakes, they have to learn from them. But if you learn from mistakes and look to minimize them, it’s much easier.”

    Such a great answer. That’s why I think that Rosenberry should start today.

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