Steadily on the come-up at FC Dallas in recent years, midfielder Kellyn Acosta has made his U.S. National Team breakthrough in a 2016 that could yet herald long-awaited success for the club he’s grown up with. MLS All-Star recognition was a reflection of the 21-year-old’s growing impact in the league, even if he has long since vacated his number-one spot in the team sound stakes.
A club’s identity carries extreme significance and strength, but such a precious quality can be dismantled far quicker than it ever took to build. Sitting top of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference at present are FC Dallas, led by a man ingrained in the club’s heritage, the former Colombia midfielder Óscar Pareja, who has been pivotal in protecting such values.
Since first joining the club as a player in 1998 during their time as Dallas Burn, head coach Pareja has held a number of roles and helped launched their Academy, which has proved a leading light in player development at the highest level in the U.S. The club’s system has produced an MLS-high of 14 professional players, of which the Plano-born Kellyn Acosta is one increasingly notable example.
Turning pro at 16, his fourth season of first-team soccer has seen him thrive for FCD while winning his first two international caps at the beginning of the year. More often seen in midfield, Kellyn has started his senior National Team career at left-back and has been included in Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad for this month’s World Cup qualifiers as the U.S. try to advance to the CONCACAF’s final round.
His importance on the field is there to see as he adds his assured style to FCD, but as he has continued to move forward in the main, he has stepped out of the limelight in one other sense. You can now find two of the team’s standout attacking performers – an Argentine duo – in the figurative team DJ booth he once occupied!
“Mauro Díaz and Maxi Urruti. When I first joined the team I was like the mandatory DJ, I had to express myself, but ever since then I haven’t.
“I made a playlist of random stuff: I played a little bit of country, I played a little bit of Hispanic music, I played rap, everything so everyone would be happy.”
That clash of genres Kellyn threw into the mix offers up a little indication of his varied cultural background. Although he was born at Plano Medical Center and went to school a mere 14 miles from FCD’s Toyota Stadium, his grandmother is Japanese, while his father was also born there.
Also with Mexican relatives, Kellyn was raised in the Dallas Metroplex and as a kid he would visit the Cotton Bowl to watch the Dallas Burn play, prior to the club’s relocation to Frisco and renaming to FC Dallas for the 2005 season. At 13, he joined FCD and was thankful that he got to stay at home rather than having to move away while he took the first steps on a path that ultimately led him to the pros.
Before signing his homegrown contract with the club he was initially committed to play at the University of Maryland, but his debut start came at 18 in front of almost 40,000 at CenturyLink Field as Dallas faced the Seattle Sounders. This season, he has scored twice and added five assists in 26 appearances, featuring the most he has ever done so far in his career.
Going back to his early days working with Kellyn, head coach Pareja has often reminded him of his scoring ability, while he believes he has a remarkable knack of winning possession in tight areas. Blending an undeniable soccer IQ with high-energy performances, Kellyn is emblematic of Dallas’ renowned youth focus but could well be a major player in ending their trophy drought which goes back to the 1997 U.S. Open Cup success.
The desire to repay the club’s faith in him through the years by helping deliver their first MLS Cup runs deep, just like music for him from one day to the next.
“Yeah, it’s part of my life. I pretty much listen to everything but I venture more towards the kind of hip-hop and rap; the Drakes, Kanyes, Lil Waynes.
“I also like the electronic kind of stuff; Calvin Harris, I like that kind of music as well.”
Kellyn’s introduction to the Youth National Team system came at Under-14 level and he would be a starter at the 2011 FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Mexico. Two years later, he was the Americans’ youngest player at the Under-20 World Cup in Turkey and appeared again at the tournament in 2015 as the only returning U.S. squad member from 2013 alongside goalkeeper Zack Steffen.
Last year in New Zealand, he was part of a side that made the quarter-final under Tab Ramos, though a late second yellow card in the 1-0 win over Colombia ruled him out of the last-eight shootout loss to Serbia. As 2016 came around, so too did the elevation to the full team for Kellyn that so many strive for.
He joined up with Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad for the annual January camp, arriving as the youngest player and going on to start at left-back and play the entirety of the 3-2 win over Iceland in Carson at the end of the month. The second cap came a few days later, once again at the StubHub Center, as Canada were beaten 1-0, and he is now in his first camp ahead of a competitive fixture, with a World Cup qualifier away to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (September 2nd) before they host Trinidad and Tobago in Jacksonville (September 6th).
Showing the utmost professionalism, competitive edge and quality was of course the priority as Kellyn entered the January camp, but being part of the squad also brings its social element away from the field. From former captains including Claudio Reyna and Carlos Bocanegra, through to recent major tournament participants like Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler, so many who’ve repped the Stars and Stripes have opened the book to their connection with music on here.
Describing what he found in that regard as he joined the full team this year, Kellyn also remembers a French-born midfield teammate from the youth days who now plies his trade in Sweden with Nyköpings BIS.
“Well in the Jan camp I played a lot of my music so that was kind of different, and Jozy (Altidore) played his, Sean Johnson played a lot. In the youth team, I played most of it, or one of my friends, Romy (Romain Gall), played it as well, but I think I was the DJ for the most part.”
As he played his first full international, Kellyn drew praise for how he settled into the game from Jurgen Klinsmann, who described the debut as ‘really, really fun to watch.’ In that first squad get-together, he met aforementioned Chicago Fire keeper Sean Johnson, a seven-year MLS veteran who has also talked highly of Kellyn’s playing capabilities, together with his personality.
For all the physical and mental battles that largely make up the years spent dedicated to the game for players, the opportunity to see new sides to teammates in certain situations is one of the hidden perks. There are many in soccer who use singing or even rapping as a form of release or to showcase their alternative talents and interests, while you can never be too far from seeing a dance-inspired goal celebration, with varying standards of rhythm!
Responding to the question of whether he has ever been made to perform a rendition of a track for initiation in his career to date, Kellyn also names the FCD player you can count on for vocal precision to go with defensive stability on the field.
“No, I haven’t (had to sing), thank God! I mean Walker (Zimmerman) can sing, he’s got a pretty good voice.
“There’s a guy that’s on my residency, Nico Melo, he goes UNC, he can sing. I think he did the national anthem for one of their basketball games, I wanna say, he’s got a good voice.
“Rapping – Romy, one of my good friends, he thinks he can rap, he makes beats and stuff on his laptop. From the Academy, there’s a guy named Bubba (Vernon Bailey) and he used to rap as well.”
Growing up across the street from school, Kellyn watched soccer from a young age and both his parents would go outside with him to develop his skills. It wasn’t long before he realised he could dribble past people and score without too much trouble and like many kids in love with the game, he spent hours at a time kicking a ball against the wall, while the memory of scoring from kick-off in a game as a four-year-old remains with him today.
As he went into his teens, it was FC Dallas Academy graduate and midfielder Marco Carrizales who had a hand in Kellyn coming to the club that became a home, as their dads got talking and Kellyn went along to a practice. He would always find a way to play soccer at school, bringing his ball with him and getting friends to join in at recess.
In turn, he then had to fit school into soccer, as having turned pro, he would do his homework back at the team hotel after games so he could graduate high school. Kellyn went on to play more minutes for FCD as a teenager than anyone else, perhaps especially fitting for the kid who looked up to people like Eddie Johnson and the late Bobby Rhine when he was watching from the stands.
When it comes to music, he has also had his favourites through the years, so what about the artists he has gone to the effort of seeing in person?
“Well over here it’s kind of tough because we have practices and stuff, but I went to a J. Cole concert, I went to Drake, Lil Wayne, Future, and then a couple country concerts. If I could have seen anyone, Michael Jackson would have been cool.”
Playing basketball and football among his sports as a child, Kellyn ran track and was even named the fastest kid in Texas for 100m as a six-year-old. When it came to soccer, winning the National Championship with FCD’s Under-18 Development Academy Team was a moment he places up there with his most cherished.
If he had to pinpoint a main act responsible for the backing track to his childhood and school days, or if he can remember the first album or single he owned, which name springs to mind?
“First CD? Maybe Usher when I was young, I guess it was him I listened to growing up.”
Facing up against Thierry Henry was one of the toughest one-on-one challenges Kellyn feels he has had so far, although not so many years before that, the prospect of competing against one of the all-time greats on a level playing field may not have felt quite within his reach. As a freshman in high school, he had to play JV instead of varsity soccer, which didn’t make too much sense to him at the time, given his ability.
Far better indeed lay ahead and he joined up with the U.S. Soccer Under-17 residency program. Someone who refereed the game for a time when he was younger and also had to miss his prom because of soccer, Kellyn’s commitment to the game has been unwavering.
Along with others from the National Team, he recently spent time in the company of Jacksonville Jaguars players, and of course comes from a place where it is the end zone and not a soccer net people typically see in the distance of their sporting dreams. Kellyn speaks of the football dominance he saw, while he also responds to a light-hearted prompt from this UK-based site about whether there was anything of the Dillon Panthers element to his Texas upbringing.
“Yeah, I mean growing up, that was kind of like a big thing; everyone was counting down the days to football. I think it was a little dramatic, I would say, Friday Night Lights!
“That was in Odessa? I grew up in Allen and football was everything over there; you see the stadium, I don’t know how many million dollars that was.”
The high school football stadium Kellyn refers to is the 18,000-capacity Eagle Stadium, home to the Allen High School Eagles, which opened for the 2012 season. The narratives that unfold within the scene of a stadium as time goes on can be heart-warming, heart-breaking and incredible, and the picture of a team fighting for each other under the lights is powerful imagery indeed.
Kellyn, who scored his first career goal in a win over D.C. United last July before grabbing another against Portland soon after, was asked to envisage an empty training field of his own. Handed the option of anyone who’s ever played the game to join him for some shooting practice in this scenario, he put forward a couple of reasonable enough names.
“I mean that’s tough. Maybe like Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, that’d be cool.”
In truth, Kellyn already gets to mix it with some major established figures in the game while his own reputation continues to rise, and never more so than when he got the call for the 2016 MLS All-Star Game. On July 24th he turned 21, representing the league and Dallas against Arsenal in San Jose just four days later.
He moved up a few digits from his number 23 club jersey to take the 95 of his birth year and started the game at Avaya Stadium. Playing the first 57 minutes, he featured alongside the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Kaká, David Villa and club counterpart Mauro Díaz, with Didier Drogba coming up with the MLS goal in a 2-1 defeat.
Feeling he’s had a hectic year, Kellyn has had to switch between different ways of playing at times, going from motoring up and down from his full-back position to spending much more of his play on the ball in midfield. When there’s so much to occupy the thoughts for club and country it doesn’t always feel there’s sufficient opportunity to sit back and really reflect on what you’ve learned in a wider sense from your efforts, so this was a chance to do just that.
“I mean anything could happen and you have to dig deep. We’ve had some of the craziest games I’ve ever experienced in my life, like last year with Seattle; we thought we’d lost the game and we end up tying the game in the dying seconds.
“Open Cup semis (versus LA Galaxy in August) and Vic (Ulloa) ended up scoring in the dying seconds (of extra-time) to win the game, so I think it’s that ‘never say never’ attitude, no matter the circumstances. You can always pull through if you dig in deep enough.”
Kellyn is currently pursuing business studies and sports management via online courses with Southern New Hampshire University, with Dallas teammates Victor Ulloa, Tesho Akindele, Zach Loyd and Ryan Herman also enrolled on courses. As well as continuing higher education while playing, Kellyn has had his share of learning directly through soccer, going to numerous continents and taking in over 15 countries so far.
Another upside is getting to take on the journey with close friends in the game like FCD defender and captain Matt Hedges, who, like Kellyn, has had injury frustration to get past.
Beginning the 2014 season as a right-back starter, Kellyn suffered a patella avulsion fracture in training which meant he was out from late-April to mid-August. He did, however, make his way back and played 21 times last year, scoring three and assisting on two, while 2016 has been up another level all-around.
From the Academy coaches being at first-team practice and on the bench for games, to youth players regularly being chosen to join training with the seniors, the FCD ethos surrounds the idea of the same environment for all. Although still a young player himself, Kellyn can provide genuinely valuable advice to those working their way up, but what if he was offering that perspective to the version of himself who was just starting out in the game?
“To be mentally tough and to be patient; I think when I first joined the league I was really impatient and I wanted to play but I never had the opportunity to. I didn’t even make the rosters and I think that paid a toll on me.
“I think if I was more patient and I worked harder I think that my time would have come sooner. I think I just tried to force things and force the coach’s hand and it didn’t really work out for me.
“I think that really just messed with my head. As the year went on, I just kept quietly working hard and then my opportunity came last season, so I think patience.”
Leaders in their CONCACAF Champions League group at the midway point, Dallas still have the possibility of MLS Cup, Open Cup and Supporters’ Shield success, which may sound a lofty ambition given the competition, but is something truly great to reach for. Regardless of whether the club manages to go one better than their shattering extra-time loss to Colorado Rapids in the 2010 MLS Cup, the progress Kellyn and his teammates are enjoying isn’t dependent on whether they’re the last team standing when all’s said and done this season.
Along with the chase for achievement, the pleasure in the game’s sheer simplicity has to be held on to. As a child, Kellyn played soccer for fun on concrete and basketball courts until he got involved in a league.
Some of his first organised games were four or five-a-side at school and we end with a return to that kind of freedom. Each interviewee on here is asked to think of all those they have played alongside in their career and to suggest four they would select to play in a team of five with.
Kellyn has said before how Fabián Castillo is perhaps the most talented teammate he has had, but the Colombian forward (now with Trabzonspor on loan from Dallas) may well be one he brings off the bench here instead. The emphasis is on a fun sample team rather than a definite ‘best’ group, so who made Kellyn’s cut?
His team here is defensive Dallas mixed with international attacking adventure, mainly because it dawned on him halfway through that he could cherry-pick from the All-Star Game!
“In goal, I’d pick Jesse (González). A defender, I’d pick Walker (Zimmerman).
“A midfielder that I’ve played with…does All-Star game count? (After being told it does) Oh well, I might have to backtrack a little bit!
“Maybe Kaká in the midfield and then one forward…Drogba.”
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