The Year of El Gato

FC Dallas' Mario Torres carries the hopes of Latino soccer fans. But is he the future--or just a cynical marketing ploy?

"Everything went right that day," Torres says of the tryout. He netted two goals in a scrimmage. "There were other guys trying out, but they were trying to show off too much," Torres recalls. "You can tell right away if someone can play or not. What I did, I played simple. I just took my shots when I got the chance."

Torres was invited back to practice, then to spring training camp and then, after outlasting three rounds of cuts, to sign a developmental contract. Being a rare left-footed player helped, but it was Torres' attitude that carried the day. "He was just a stringy, piano-wire guy, but he was hard," assistant coach Brian Haines remembers. "He never quit on a play."

Torres' successful tryout was just one step on what the FC Dallas front office hopes is the road back from the brink of irrelevance. Radical changes--in roster, in ownership, in venue and in management--over the previous two seasons had all been changes for the worse. "The tryout basically started because we had our backs to the wall," sums up Victor Chaves, Cano's predecessor with the club.
FC Dallas head coach Colin Clarke has led his team to 
remarkable success on the field, but attendance figures 
remain anemic.
Tom Jenkins
FC Dallas head coach Colin Clarke has led his team to remarkable success on the field, but attendance figures remain anemic.
Booster clubs like the Inferno, above, and La Raza Latina 
will follow the team to Frisco, where the team hopes a 
new stadium will attract new fans as well.
Tom Jenkins
Booster clubs like the Inferno, above, and La Raza Latina will follow the team to Frisco, where the team hopes a new stadium will attract new fans as well.

The principal culprit was the venue change. The team, under its old name the Dallas Burn, left its cavernous but convenient home at the Cotton Bowl to play the 2003 season at a high school football stadium in Southlake, 30 miles north of Dallas. The move was meant to save money while a new soccer-specific stadium in Frisco was built, but it turned into a public relations fiasco. The artificial surface and permanent football lines on the field made the team a second-class citizen in its own home.

"It's like bringing the Stars to play at the Galleria," Chaves says. "You start to think, 'Do they know soccer at all?'"

The move had been decreed by new team owner Lamar Hunt of Hunt Sports Group. Hunt owns two other MLS teams, the relatively successful Columbus Crew and the dismal Kansas City Wiz, as well as the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs. Hunt pushed out popular Burn General Manager Andy Swift, described by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as "first and foremost a soccer guy," to be replaced by Greg Elliott, fresh from--the horror--the NHL.

The turf and the turmoil eroded the club's level of play, leaving it out of the playoffs for two seasons, the second under new coach Colin Clarke, a former player for Northern Ireland's international team who was promoted from assistant when his predecessor Mike Jeffries was fired. Clarke's apparent preference for Anglo players made him, in the words of Latino league federation President Roberto Castillo, "a bit of a racist." The perception was reinforced as the number of Latino players on the roster dwindled.

"You go from having Hugo Sanchez, and I think it was maybe seven on the roster, down to one or two players that were primarily reserves," Elliott says. "It also was compounded by the fact that the team was awful."

Chaves is even more blunt. "They really basically did everything wrong," he says. Even a tryout for local players he arranged in April 2004 backfired. "The coaching staff was there for, like, 10 minutes and went home," Chaves says. "It was a good gesture, but it wasn't handled properly." Moving back to the Cotton Bowl last year hardly helped: Attendance climbed from a pathetic 7,729 per game to only 9,088, still the worst in the league. The average so far this season is 9,614 in five home games (a figure for the May 18 Colorado game was not available).

This year, several more adroit moves, including the signing of Torres, ought to have at least staunched the bleeding. The name change, from the Burn to FC Dallas, with its "Football Club" prefix, evokes images of prestigious foreign teams rather than a prickly rash. Signing Guatemalan superstar Carlos Ruiz has returned at least a touch of Latin flavor to the starting lineup, and with the best record in MLS, it would seem that no one could argue with the team's performance.

Or how about everyone. "Everybody thinks that FC Dallas sucks," says Irving league President Saul Ramirez. "The level that they have is a really poor level. I've been trying; I've been giving away free tickets, but there's no chemistry between the team and the people." The numbers don't lie: Elliott says that walk-up ticket sales, which are predominantly to Latinos, have dwindled from highs of around 3,000 per game to "in the hundreds." Attendance remains flat even though some 20 percent of tickets are either given away or sold at a discount.

One example of how little slack Latino fans are cutting FCD these days is the case of Oscar Pareja. The 36-year-old veteran has seen limited action so far this season and announced his retirement on June 10, effective at the end of the season. Pareja, an immensely respected, thoughtful and deadly effective midfielder who was the team MVP in 2001 and 2002, has said all along that the retirement is his choice. "I want to quit when I feel like I can play," Pareja says in his soft, measured voice. "I want to quit when the people still feel like I can do it. Don't wait until they say, 'What are you doing? Just quit! You're no good anymore!'"

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