From Beckham To González, The Dallas Cup Is Proving Ground For Future Stars

When David Beckham joined the LA Galaxy from Real Madrid in January 2007, he changed the course of MLS forever. For one of the biggest names in soccer to leave one of the biggest teams in soccer, it sent shockwaves throughout the rest of the world and announced MLS on the world stage, as a fledgling league secured its first ever star, a titan the likes of which Americans had not seen since Pelé’s New York Cosmos days. 

Few realized, however, that before everything—the red card against Argentina, the free kick against Greece, the move to Manchester United’s academy—Beckham first visited the United States during the 1988 Dallas Cup.

As a 13-year-old on the Under-19 Essex Schools team, Beckham got his first taste of international competition and American adoration here, right in the belly of North Texas. Unlike most youth tournaments, he did not stay in a hotel; instead, his team elected the Dallas Cup Homestay Program, and Beckham, along with the rest of his teammates, stayed with a local family. Paired up with another teammate and assigned to a home, Beckham had a childhood experience that he still reminisces about to this day. 

“That trip was different because instead of staying together, we lodged on our own with local families,” Beckham recalled in his 2003 autobiography Both Feet on the Ground. “The first people I stayed with were Mexican and [they were] really nice people. They were mad about soccer and couldn’t do enough for me. All my Essex teammates were staying in these huge houses and being driven around in huge cars.  We’d just get in the pickup and drive down to McDonald's for breakfast every morning. I had such a great week with that family; I sometimes find myself thinking about them even now.”

Two ingredients—Texas hospitality and selfless dedication of local volunteers—have allowed the Dr Pepper Dallas Cup to survive over 40 years and amidst a whirlwind of changes in American soccer. Each year, 1,500 volunteers come out to help manage the Dallas Cup, some even taking a week off from work. Between 30 to 40 of them work as committee chairs, managing registration, press relations, and other administrative areas. Many more families, all of which have children playing in the Cup, volunteer to host the 244 teams that will play in this year’s Cup, which has run from Palm Sunday to the Easter Sunday since its inception in 1980.

“We would be so lost without our volunteers,” said Dallas Cup communications director Evan Boehmer, one of the tournament’s four full-time employees. “The one thing that let this tournament survive is Texas hospitality.”

The homestay program has helped give the Dallas Cup a unique flavor, a flavor that has made it stand out from the rest. Many teams, like Eintracht Frankfurt, have the budget to send their teams to hotels, but choose the homestay program to give their players an extra level of professional development, turning them into more open-minded individuals. But it isn’t just limited to players; many referees also stay with host families. With referees returning back to Europe and raving about their experience amongst their colleagues, the Dallas Cup ended up attracting some of the best referees in professional soccer.

“The tournament was able to get very high-level FIFA officials to come and referee, that was kind of unheard of,” Dallas Cup executive director Andy Swift noted in an exclusive interview with FloFC. “For a youth tournament to have that kind of officiating, it raised awareness.”

By the time the Dallas Cup was formed, the seeds of soccer culture in North Texas had already been sown by Ron Griffith, an Englishman who came to Texas in 1966 to pursue higher education at the University of Texas at Austin. Two years later, Griffith moved to Dallas and founded the Texas Longhorns Soccer Club, one of the first clubs in North Texas to travel internationally to play games. In order to repay the hospitality of foreign clubs, Griffith conceived the Dallas Cup, a youth tournament where players could stay with Dallas families.

Over the next two decades, North Texas’ soccer culture was shaken to its core, but the one thing that remained was the Dallas Cup. 

A year after winning the North American Soccer League (NASL) Central Division, the Dallas Tornado finished dead last in the league with a 5-27 record. That, combined with woeful attendance numbers and a mass exodus that saw seven teams exit the NASL, convinced team owners Lamar Hunt and Bill McNutt to end the team, instead merging it with the Tampa Bay Rowdies. 

In 1984, the NASL folded completely, which led to the mid-80s rise of indoor soccer. The Dallas Sidekicks, the region’s major indoor soccer team, began in 1984, and lasted through 20 years and four leagues. On the amateur side, the Dallas Texans Soccer Club and the Dallas Longhorns vied for supremacy as the best academy in North Texas. Today, FC Dallas lays claim to both the most popular team and the most productive academy in the region, but amid all those changes, the Dallas Cup has kept growing.

“The Dallas Cup has survived the folding of the NASL, then the heyday of indoor soccer,” Swift said in an interview with 3rd Degree Net, an FC Dallas-centered podcast. “For 40 years, we’ve been the thread through all these soccer events.”

With Griffith’s Dallas Longhorns and Kyle Rote Jr.’s Dallas Tornado laying down the roots for soccer in the region, the Dallas Cup helped bridge the gap between the collapse of the NASL in 1984 and the establishment of the MLS in 1996. For years, it was the only place Texans could find high-quality outdoor games, and while Dallas had a dearth of professional teams, it had an abundance of youth players, many of which got their parents into soccer.

“It’s happened for just so long, if you were ever involved in Dallas soccer at any kind of competitive level, you had to at some point have been involved with the Dallas Cup,” FC Dallas communications manager Carter Baum said. “You went to the stadium, you remember Freddy Adu coming through here, you might have played, you might have had a friend who played, you might remember Raúl who came in and put on a show.”

Eventually, the Dallas Cup became a staple in the community. Families signed up to host players from abroad and from other states, Dallas youth teams dreamed of qualification to the Dallas Cup, locals turned out in droves to help run the tournament, and leading soccer outlets like Soccer America, World Soccer, and even Brazilian magazine Placar sent their reporters to cover it.

Swift played in the Cup with Lone Star Arlington, and he worked in the tournament both as a journalist and as a volunteer. Moreover, his family hosted four players from foreign teams: two from Canada and two from Guatemala.

“It was able to capture lightning in a bottle in the early 80s in that there really wasn’t a tournament like it anywhere in the world,” Swift said.

With FIFA selecting the United States as the hosts for the 1994 World Cup, making the announcement on July 4, 1988, more teams wanted to travel to the U.S. to get a taste of their future hosts. Was the United States, a country that had not qualified for a World Cup since 1950, finally getting serious about soccer?

Eventually, teams from all around the world began to join the party. Before becoming one of the greatest basketball players of his generation, Hakeem Olajuwon played in the Dallas Cup with the Lagos Stars. Before becoming one of the greatest forwards in MLS history, Jaime Moreno entered the tournament with Tahuichi, a Bolivian academy that won the U19 Super Group a record four times between 1987 and 1990. Before leading Real Madrid to domestic and international glory, Raúl won the Dallas Cup Super Group twice with Los Blancos’ youth side. With ESPN International broadcasting the Super Group finals in the mid to late 90s, the tournament received worldwide exposure. In 1998, the Cup hosted 68 international teams, a record that remained unbroken until 20 years later.

Bit by bit, the Dallas Cup earned a spot on the Mount Rushmore of youth tournaments, alongside Sweden’s Gothia Cup, France’s Toulon Tournament, and the Norway Cup. It developed and expanded, both in organization and in fanfare. The tournament, which started out as a 24-team tournament in its inaugural year, received more and more applications from teams around the world. Having begun as a U19 tournament, the Dallas Cup now boasts 10 different age brackets from U12 to U19, including the U14 and U19 Super Groups.

Every year, between 400 and 500 teams submit applications to play in the tournament, and only half get accepted. The organizers go through an extensive vetting process, analyzing their current form and performances, before inviting the lucky applicants back. The local teams, on the other hand, must either win their division or compete in a preliminary qualifier to gain entry: the Ken Smith Memorial Day Tournament, the Bobby Rhine Invitational, or the Fall Classic.

During its early stages, the tournament was played on 16 fields in public parks on the northern edge of Dallas and at Lake Highland High School's stadium. Today, it hosts the matches in established, well-manicured venues: the Cotton Bowl, the Toyota Stadium, the MoneyGram Soccer Park, and Classic League pitches at Richmond College. In total, it makes for 26 fields, four team hotels, two stadiums, and a busy 10 days.

The highest age bracket of the tournament is the Gordon Jago U19 Super Group, named after the legendary Dallas Sidekicks manager and the former director of the Dallas Cup. Nine out of the 12 teams that will play in the Super Group are either in first or second place in their respective youth divisions. Many of the players in this age bracket have already debuted for their first team, such as Adnan Januzaj in 2013, but they still come to compete for glory. For some, it’s finishing school. For others, it’s a jumping-off point.

In 2017, Jonathan González started for Monterrey in the U19 Super Group Final, against Paxton Pomykal’s FC Dallas. A few months later, González was voted as the best rookie in Liga MX, and he caused the most high-profile dual nationality tug-of-war in recent times when he switched over from the United States to Mexico. Pomykal, on the other hand, has been the breakout star of the current MLS season’s early stages.

One out of every 11 goalscorers from the past two World Cups has played in the Dallas Cup, including Croatia’s Ivan Perišić, who scored in last year’s final against France. But perhaps what’s most impressive about the tournament, more than the quality of the players, is the diversity of the teams.

In 2001, Catholics and Protestants from Northern Ireland joined forces to form a team in the U19 division. In 2003, nine Israeli and nine Palestinian boys composed a team in the U13 division, with each Israeli child being paired up with a Palestinian roommate in the homestay program. In 2006, as war-ravaged their country, the Dallas Cup brought in the Iraqi U14 National Team to compete.

With such an international following, sometimes things inevitably get lost in translation. In the 80s, the Reineken Fusche team flew from West Berlin to Dallas, only to be denied entry into the tournament because it had forgotten to send in an application form. Once, a score of Maltese fans from Los Angeles arrived to support a Maltese team—they didn’t have a Maltese team, they had a Maltese referee, but he didn’t show up. One team flew from Georgia (the country) to New York, somehow thinking that Dallas was merely a short bus ride away. They scrambled to get to the tournament, making it just in time.

The Dallas Cup relies on sponsors such as Adidas, Dr. Pepper, and local eatery Pollo Campero for funding. Furthermore, this year’s coverage of the Dallas Cup will be split between Univision Deportes, who will cover both Super Groups, and FloFC, which will cover 25 quarterfinal, semifinal, and championship matches ranging from the U13 all the way to the U19 age group.

Last year saw a single-day attendance record of 20,644 on opening day. With some of the state’s finest prospects set to take part, such as FC Dallas’ Ricardo Pepi and Solar SC’s Richard Garcia, the community will surely turn out in droves this year to celebrate the tournament that has become synonymous with North Texas soccer.

Zach is a lifelong D.C. United fan and the creator of Follow him on Twitter.

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