Dan Hunt and Dirk Nowitzki before a FC Dallas game.

Sports & Leisure

Dan Hunt Thinks It Is Coming Together at the Right Time For FC Dallas

A Q&A with the Super Bowl-winning owner on the eve of the 2020 MLS season.

Dan Hunt is the president of FC Dallas, which he owns along with his brother Clark. The Hunts, of course, also own the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. That title was a long time coming for the family, who had gone 50 years between Super Bowl appearances.

FC Dallas fans have been waiting half that long for their side to win the MLS Cup, mainly because Major League Soccer is only about to kick off its 25th season. The team won both the Supporters’ Shield (given to the team with the best regular-season record) and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup (named after Dan and Clark’s father) in 2016, but the other prize continued to elude them, partly because star midfielder Mauro Diaz ruptured his Achilles tendon just before the playoffs started. Last season was a promising start for new coach Luchi Gonzalez, as the team gave the eventual champion, the Seattle Sounders, all it could handle, losing 4-3 on a goal in the 113th minute.

So Dan thinks 2020 could be a momentous season for the club, with a trio of big signings joining the young players from FC Dallas’ vaunted academy system, several who have already made appearances with the U.S Men’s National Team. FC Dallas starts the 2020 campaign tomorrow against the Philadelphia Union. I caught Dan in the post-Super Bowl glow, a good time for some pretty short Q’s and very long A’s.

When did you get back from the Super Bowl? We got back on a Monday night and then went up to Kansas City yesterday morning for the parade and then got back last night. So, I’m still sort of recovering with a happy smile on my face.

How was the parade? It was epic. What an unbelievable sight. I’ll tell you, it was so powerful, when you’re sitting there at Union Station looking out and seeing—I don’t even know how many people it was. I couldn’t even—I’m usually pretty good at guessing those things, but with the World War I memorial in behind it, it was one of the most powerful images I think I’ve ever seen, and been a part of.

How far away do you think FC Dallas is from giving the family another title? You know, it’s really interesting. So many things came together in Kansas City at the right time. And I feel like we’re having the same thing here at FC Dallas. Brett Veach, you know, took over there as the general manager and the success and being such a big advocate of Pat Mahomes. And he was really the guy who—and, of course, he was the general manager—but Brett Veach should get the credit there [for drafting Mahomes]. And Andy Reid and I had a long conversation about it and, you know, he said, This is my guy, after all the scouting work.

So André Zanotta is really special here, our technical director. What he achieved in South America, and then coming here. I think there were really three big signings to kick us off here: [forward] Fafa Picault, he was a guy who we actually coveted here. We suffered against him [at Philadelphia], along with a lot of teams in MLS. He’s got that electric pace and he allows teams not to double team Mikey [Barrios] anymore.

And then Thiago Santos was a coup for us, getting him from Palmeiras, one of the giants of South America. And you look at every team that was so interested in him. You’d go, Wow. And he was so committed to come to FC Dallas once we spent some time talking, visiting, he’d already been scouted, embedded here in the process, and it was only FC Dallas, only FC Dallas, only FC Dallas. And we heard it from his agents yesterday, how thrilled he is to be here in the club. And he’s really loving the environment, too, now that he’s on the ground, if you will.

And then, obviously to finish it off: Franco Jara. Getting Franco Jara here. That doesn’t happen without Andre. And he was at the very top of Luchi’s wish list of number nines that we were scouting to bring in. You know, we did have the luxury of having Cobra [striker Zdnek Ondrasek] playing so well the last third of the season, which is really nice. And Ricardo Pepe is developing nicely and then you have all the kids who are national team players that are coming back into form with us, because they’ve been with the national team. So it’s been a little of a disjointed preseason. I’m really excited and—back on Jara, for a second—so obviously it’s a pre-deal, so he won’t be here potentially until the summer. I’m going to leave it as that. We’ve been trying to work on maybe him coming earlier.

Obviously, this is not something that I think Pachuca envisioned happening and so much demand for Franco Jara. I mean America was interested, both Monterey teams were interested in him. I’m sure he had a laundry list of offers in his home country of Argentina, and I know there was European—there was a Champions League team that had tried to sign him last year, and it was a very big transfer fee that was offered for the player last year, which was also declined. So I mean his suitors were many, and including us, and this is something we’ve been working on, but Andre gets it across. So, we’ve got the pieces we’ve now put together. There was a very thoughtful game plan, and you got many guys who have now re-signed with us: Matt Hedges, a National Team player at one point. I hope he gets a chance again.

Jesse Gonzalez, same, you know, and Paxton Pomykal has re-signed and Jesus Ferreira, I think his debut for the National Team was a really impressive. I’m excited for him. And then, lastly, Reggie Cannon, who might’ve been the best player in the game, potentially. He did a great job. We’re talking about what an extension looks like for Reggie here at the clubs. So I mean there’s a great core here. We were just a hair’s breath away from winning in Seattle and taking that next step in the playoffs. And now we went and really targeted these three players. And what I would tell you is, if anything, these are meaningful soccer players. These are guys who move the needle in a big way, and this is not they went out and getting a guy who is player number 17 or 18 or 25 on the roster. These are guys that we expect to be gigantic contributors, to put us on the way to winning trophies this year.

FC Dallas almost beat eventual champion Seattle in the MLS playoffs.

Is this a bit of a change in philosophy, going after these big move-the-needle type players? Because, before, you have been bringing in good players from other places, but not somebody like Franco Jara, somebody who has so many suitors and everybody knows. Is it a slight tweak to the philosophy, to build from within and then make these big swings when you can? Yeah, I think you could say that. And because we are—we’re always going to build from within. That is the homegrown philosophy is ours, and we’re good stewards of that because we want the national team to have success, too. And we want to develop the talent that’s in this area. But you know what? We’re not going to find 11 starters that are Homegrowns right now. One day down the road, that might happen. And we were in a place where we could take a couple of gigantic swings, if you will, on these players and, yeah, that’s Franco Jara. That’s the largest contract we’ve ever guaranteed to a player here. And we’re thrilled. And I mean I saw Franco Jara, I’d seen him before, but, you know, he beat us in 2017 in the [CONCACAF] Champions League. I just said to myself, If we ever get a chance to find that player, I’m bringing that player to FC Dallas.

He torments defenses. I watched them suffer and I always watched the center back suffer, because he’s just a constant, I would say antagonist, in everything he does. And he gets in front of goal and he punishes teams. And I actually think [winger] Santi Mosquera could be in a place where he has his best MLS season right now. He’s shown a lot of things that we knew he had and leading up to this. We will address the other wing now, and so now we want to put a lot of pressure on teams’ backlines. And again Cobra, he can score goals and he’s proven that he is a good goal scorer. He’s pretty natural when he does it. So it’s not just going to be the Franco Jara show.

We’ve got a lot of players that we think are going to contribute. I think the key, though, is really what Jesus does for us. I think that’s a really big thing for us here at FC Dallas because Jesus is very capable of being a double-double guy, and Jesus can be that. One, he’s going to be one of the big stars coming up in MLS. Again, homegrown kid, unbelievable story that his father was captain of the club and league MVP. But if he does those things that I fully think he’s capable of doing, then I think we’re going to have a very special season.

Dan with his brother Clark, coach Luchi Gonzalez, and some of the club’s young players, including Paxton Pomykal and Reggie Cannon.

Do you think the USMNT game the other night with Jesus and Reggie both starting and kind of starring, do you think that was, not a culmination, but one of the high points of how much your Academy’s system has worked out? Yeah, no, but I think there’s even more than that because Walker Zimmerman is part of that group, which is a guy we drafted, and then Brandon Servania obviously came in and did very well in that game. And I know the national team coaches are very high on a lot of our players that they have in. And so, I don’t know, the high point for me was during the U-20 World Cup, seeing all of our guys get to play. This is another high point, but they’re going to be bigger moments to come. I know that. And I know Paxton Pomykal and the ability that kid has is really, really high. And so we get him healthy, I think there’s just going to be more great FC Dallas moments. We’ve got just such a great generation of players coming through here.

It’s about to be the 25th season of MLS and you’re one of the founding families. What kind of place you feel like the league is and right now in terms of, do you think it’s starting to really hold its own against the other league in North America and the world? I can’t believe it’s 25 years. It’s crazy to think about. I remember on my first day on the job in 2001, Major League Soccer went out of business. We couldn’t even get $4 million for Salt Lake when we sold that franchise. We’re all high-fiving each other for $3.9 million, and now you see what the newest franchises are selling for. It just blows you away. And then people, as much as those are costing, they’re spending that much in addition on stadiums and it just kind of takes your breath away to see where it is. All those things happening. But for me this transfer window was really amazing, because you saw a lot of big names from Liga MX decide to make the jump to Major League Soccer in this window.

I know a number of Mexican league owners and I think they’re surprised by the number of stars that are choosing to leave Liga MX and come to Major League Soccer. And we’re seeing a lot of players from Europe making the jump over to North America, too, which is really exciting. We’ve got to continue to be more competitive in [CONCACAF] Champions League. That’s obviously a big thing that’s going to help grow Major League Soccer. But we also need the Men’s National Team program to be successful, because a lot of those players have their roots, one way or another, from Major League Soccer, whether they were in an academy that went ahead and left and never played for the first team or they made the whole progression—academy, reserve, first team. I mean, there are so many variances to that, but we’ve got to have the US Men’s National Team to do well.

Luchi and Dan have known each other since SMU.

You took a risk last year hiring Luchi Gonzalez. He’d been heading up the academy program, but he never really coached at that top level. What made you know he was right for the job? My brother and I talked about it after we went through the interview process, and we had a lot of great candidates who have now national team program jobs and who have MLS jobs, and we had a great pool and we had a lot of interest from around. But I’ve known Luchi forever. We went to SMU together, had a relationship. I watched him grow up in the academy here. In fact, Luchi and I’ve had personal meetings for three solid years, so I spent almost every week with Luchi. And then in the interview process he blew us away. He was so prepared, so organized. Frankly, he brought in a book that looked like a board presentation.

So I saw what he was going to do. Then he put both me and my brother through a video session, of what we were going to do and how we are going to do it. And he knew our player pool so well. We were at a big crossroads. We’ve had a number of young players here who hadn’t played a lot, and hadn’t had a lot of talent. And he said, “Look, this is my plan for these players and we have more players that we’re signing and this is what the future of this club looks like. But we need to go out and also go get players that are players of big stature, that are going to help you win those championships.” And again, I go back to Franco Jara, he’s got plenty of trophies. I go back to Thiago Santos—he’s got trophies. That was the thing, and even Fafa Piccault had won a lower division.

I think he won a lower division trophy, too. And the first two, they had a lot of trophies and meaningful trophies, and that’s a cultural thing. And so that was our big aim: with Luchi, I knew we could get the most out of our young players. I knew that he knew our talent pool. He had a relationship with all the current players. So we had that continuity. And then we went out and got a couple more winners to help the group because this club had tons of success in 2016, and there’ve been really good teams around here. Really unlucky in 2016 that Diaz gets injured because that team was really special. And I think we would’ve been incredibly difficult to beat in Champions League, too, if we had a healthy Mauro Diaz, because we almost beat Pachuca there. He was a special player.

But my point to you is, we knew what Luchi was capable of. We thought his ceiling was so incredibly high. But his attention to detail—it reminded us both of Andy Reid. Andy’s attention to detail is unbelievable. And his game planning and his work ethic, which is the same as Luchi. Luchi is here at all hours, and he’s constantly working, is constantly prepared, puts his staff through so many exercises. It’s just like Andy.

The one thing I haven’t seen him do—and his office isn’t quite as big as Andy’s is, so it doesn’t have a couch—but Andy Reid sleeps on this couch in our training facility, probably at least one night a week. Sometimes he sleeps on our couch a couple of nights a week. Andy is unbelievable, but Luchi—I’m afraid if we put in a couch in Luchi’s office, his wife would call me and I’d have to have a very bad conversation.

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