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FC Dallas's investments in youth, playmaker Diaz pay off with U.S. Open Cup title

FC Dallas ended a 19-year trophy drought with a 4-2 win over the New England Revolution in the U.S. Open Cup final.

FRISCO, Texas — FC Dallas doesn’t simply spend money. It invests. It plans. The MLS club is frugal in the sense that it can’t really afford to make mistakes. It’s cautious, for sure. But it’s not cheap. 

Take a stroll through the vast complex of fields surrounding Toyota Stadium. Check up on FCD’s fully-funded youth academy, which produces pros and wins titles at an unprecedented rate. And look at the roster. There are no $6 million men in red and white, but there are key players in key positions in whom Dallas has invested.

President Dan Hunt has said FCD’s first-team expenses are somewhere in the middle of the MLS pack, even though it avoids big-splash signings. Instead, the wealth is spread and carefully allocated. Homegrown players are signed and eventually awarded raises and a few talented foreigners, most of whom flew well under the international radar before landing at DFW, are sprinkled in.

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Hunt said here at Toyota Stadium that Mauro Díaz first caught his eye as a 17-year-old playing with River Plate’s reserves. The FC Dallas coaching staff, led by former manager Schellas Hyndman, wasn’t ready to make the $100,000 commitment for such a young player. By late 2013, when Díaz became available again, he cost 10 times that amount. Hyndman had resigned, and this time, FCD splashed the cash. And on Tuesday night, the diminutive Argentine made it rain. It had been 19 years since Dallas won a major trophy—by far the longest drought in MLS. North Texas was parched, and many wondered if the Hunt family and FC Dallas would ever find a winning formula.

“We focused on building the team with young players, and that was a combination of guys that came up through our academy system as well as a handful of foreign players we thought could really add something special,” said Clark Hunt, Dan’s older brother and FCD’s chairman. “We knew it was something that would take several years to play out and we’re seeing it this year all come together.”

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FCD has the best record in MLS and on Tuesday, led by Díaz’s virtuoso midfield performance, it dismantled the New England Revolution, 4-2, to win its second U.S. Open Cup. The first came back in 1997. There have been three lost finals (two Open Cups, one MLS Cup) since, not to mention last year’s near miss of the Supporters' Shield. FCD was wayward at times, irrelevant at others and only recently, under the guidance of manager Oscar Pareja, has the plan taken shape and fallen into place. Pareja, who launched the club’s youth academy, left and then returned to Dallas in 2014. He's true believer in the notion that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. He inspires confidence, demands total commitment and reminds his players that solutions are available for those with the courage and will to look.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, he’ll give you the chance and put you in,” Díaz said. “That’s why there’s such chemistry in this team.”

That chemistry, concocted by Díaz, overwhelmed New England. Juan Agudelo had given the underdog Revolution a surprising one-goal lead five minutes in, but FCD roared back in what was a gripping, wide-open final. Díaz pulled the strings. In the 15th minute, he found Maxi Urruti with a cross from the right, and his fellow Argentine settled the ball and blasted it past goalkeeper Brad Knighton. In the 40th, another pinpoint ball from Díaz left defender Matt Hedges with an open header. Díaz scored the third on a penalty kick in first-half stoppage time and then set up FCD’s fourth with a perfect, 61st-minute through ball to Urruti.

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Díaz is the best player on MLS’s best team (and new Open Cup champ), but he’s not a star. He’s well known only to fans here in Dallas and those who play close attention to the league. But his impact is obvious, and his performance on Tuesday was the stuff of legend.

“He’s quiet and a little shy. That’s how he is. But he’s unbelievable on the field. He was magical tonight.” Dan Hunt said.

“There’s no big names here. But it’s a team formed with a lot of young, talented players and a lot of desire and willingness to win,” Díaz told in the winners’ locker room. “When you have players like that, nobody’s bigger than the team and the team is bigger than just one name.”

When asked if the title was “vindication” for the men and method, Clark Hunt said he was uncomfortable with that word. He conceded that the wait had frustrated many, but he said there were signs over the past two years that the trajectory would lead to silverware. FCD lost in the Western Conference finals last year following a first-place finish and showed promise in the 2014 playoffs against the Seattle Sounders.

“But until you win a championship, you haven’t proved the model,” Hunt said.

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It’s now been proven, and the owner and Tuesday's star said there was more on the horizon. This model, Hunt said, is designed to be sustainable.

“This is the first of hopefully three trophies this year,” he said, referring to the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup.

“This is one step of many things to come,” Díaz said.

The playmaker is 25 years old. Carlos Gruezo, who FCD pried away from VfB Stuttgart, is a stalwart in defensive midfield and is just 21. Newly minted U.S. international Kellyn Acosta is the same age. Hedges, the captain, is 25, as is forward Michael Barrios. This is team that will contend for a while, and Clark Hunt said following the final that, “We’ll add more players as we go.”

The investments are paying off. FCD spends carefully and collaboratively on what it considers important for the long term. As the players, coaches and staff celebrated Tuesday night, Dan Hunt dragged a large trash can into the locker room filled with ice and bottles of Dom Perignon.

“Who wants the good stuff,” he yelled.

The champagne a worthy investment for a team that had waited so long to celebrate. But it was bought with confidence, and there very well could be more in storage somewhere at Toyota Stadium. They may need to break out a bunch more bottles before too long.