FC Dallas opened the 2014 preseason with their first organized training session of the year at the practice fields outside team headquarters in Frisco on Saturday. Spirits were high -- such is always the case on the first day -- but the optimism seemed to be cranked up a level or two beyond normal thanks to the return of Oscar Pareja, the former Dallas Burn star player and fan-favorite who took over as FC Dallas head coach on January 10, 2014, after two years at the helm of the Colorado Rapids.
“We’re excited to be back on the field,” Pareja said after practice. “That’s where we all feel more comfortable. Everybody has good energy and we’re just happy to be back.”
The return of “Papi,” as the former Colombian National Team member and 2002 MLS Best XI selection is informally known, has certainly stoked the fires of optimism among fans ever since he was first rumored to be one of the potential candidates to replace the departing Schellas Hyndman, who retired after a disappointing 2013 season.
Where some new coaches may feel a need to establish their authority with drastic changes right away, Pareja seems intent on taking his time and making the transition as smooth as possible.
“Well, we’re all different. We all have different ways to run things. For sure, that’s going to be noticed. But, I want to do that slowly. The majority of the players know me. I don’t think I’m going to invent anything. It’s just different ways to do things.”
No doubt Pareja’s significant history as a player should ease that transition as well. After such a long and successful career between the lines, it’s no surprise he’s developed a reputation as a “player’s coach” who builds an easy rapport with his teams.
“I always think that coaches are part of the group. We’re not an island. I’ve been in their position. All my life, I was on the pitch. But I want them to see me as their coach.”
Of course, possibly the most important question is how well the coaching transition is accepted by the players. That’s a question which could not be definitively answered on day one, obviously, but there were a few indications that his signing may have a rejuvenating effect on a team that seemed to have grown weary and disinterested by the end of 2013.
One player who seems to have benefitted from the change is 35-year-old defender Jair Benitez, who drew raves from onlookers after Saturday’s practice. Benitez, who has played in 127 games for FC Dallas since 2009, is expected to face tough competition at left fullback from both Michel Pereira, who is 6 inches taller and 20 lbs heavier, and FC Dallas Academy product Moises Hernandez, who is also taller and heavier, as well as 13 years younger, and who enjoyed a successful stint on loan in 2013 with prestigious Costa Rican club Deportivo Saprissa.
If Pareja noticed an extra spring in the step of players such as Benitez, he wasn’t letting on, explaining that it’s still too early in the preseason.
“No, not yet, It was a very general impression today. Really, the object today in training was just to bring them back from this long period [off], so, honestly, it has not been an evaluation process, yet. Being the first day, it would be a bit of a rush for me [to pass judgement]. This is the first contact we’ve had on the field.”
Still, player evaluation should be one of Pareja’s strengths. He served as FC Dallas Director of Player Development starting in 2008 and in 2011 he was named the U-18 Academy Coach of the Year for his work as Director of FC Dallas Youth Academy. Several of those academy players whom he cultivated have since signed with the first team and Pareja said he expects to see some progression from those former charges since he’s been gone.
“They should have grown,” Pareja said. “They’ve had two years with the game, with the coaching staff, training and competing, so for sure, I’m expecting that they’ve grown.”