New Coach in TownFeb 01, 2022 ● By Stephen Hunt
In December 2021, Nico Estevez was named the eighth head coach in FC Dallas history. However, he differs from his predecessors in one respect: He was hired from outside of the organization.
A native of Valencia, Spain, Estevez was most recently an assistant with the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT). He also has experience in Major League Soccer (MLS) from his time with Ohio’s Columbus Crew SC (2014-17) as director of methodology and, later, an assistant coach.
Prior to selecting Estevez, FC Dallas had promoted internally or hired candidates with local ties for its five previous coaches. The team’s last external hire came in 2001 when the club brought in Mike Jeffries from Chicago to lead the Dallas Burn (the team’s name from its 1996 inaugural season through 2005 when it rebranded as FC Dallas).
“We’ve done a great job growing and developing people here as coaches and in the front office. Sometimes you need to look externally to get better,” FC Dallas President Dan Hunt explained recently of bringing Estevez onboard. “We thought a breath of fresh air might be really good for us. Obviously, we’re famous for developing young players who go on to play for the U.S. National Team and some to Europe, but we thought this is a great moment not to reinvent ourselves but improve what we already do with a new voice.”
Andy Swift worked for the Burn from 1996-2003, finishing his tenure as president and general manager. He’s since served as executive director of the
international Dallas Cup youth soccer tournament and also co-hosts the radio show The Kick Around, which airs on SportsRadio 1310AM The Ticket.
Swift calls the hiring of Estevez from outside the organization “a step in a new direction. It’s taking a chance on somebody they don’t know,” he said. “Maybe they want the best of both worlds – somebody from outside that can bring experience from Spain and some of that philosophy, yet … somebody that will understand their philosophy (of developing their own players) that will match the two.”
Estevez is FC Dallas’ third coach from Europe. Colin Clarke replaced Mike Jeffries on an interim basis in 2003 before being named the full-time coach the following year. Steve Morrow was a Clarke assistant and then interim coach prior to being named the full-time coach. Both men hail from Northern Ireland.
When FC Dallas’ 2022 season opens Feb. 26 at Toyota Stadium against Toronto FC, Estevez will be the team’s third coach for whom defender Ryan Hollingshead has played. “I’m excited to see what Nico is going to bring to the table. He’s got a lot of experience – good experience in Spain and the national team,” said Hollingshead, who is entering his 10th season. “He’s got a lot of experience outside the Dallas framework. I’m interested to see if Nico can bring in some new ideas that maybe we haven’t had. I’ve really enjoyed my coaches so far and Nico seems like a good guy.”
Estevez is like many who grew up in his soccer-crazed homeland who aspired to play at the professional level. However, in 1999, his career path took an unexpected turn – one he now looks back on as a twist of fate.
“I had a good season and opportunities to make the next step, but those didn’t come. The club (San Jose) needed coaches for the youth. I’d always liked working with young players,” Estevez recalled. He “had some coaches there who inspired me to work with young players to give them new techniques, methodology, ways to approach training and the game. I always was intrigued (by that).”
In 2004, he made a move to Valencia, a youth club in La Liga, the Spanish first division, which has won that storied league six times. Since he had grown up there, he knew that any job with the club – even coaching youths – came with high pressure and expectations to perform. However, those factors were exactly why he embraced the opportunity.
“The thing that inspired me to keep growing in my coaching career is the pressure in a big club. It doesn’t matter what age (of players) you’re coaching. You’re playing against the best teams in big tournaments – teams from Spain like (FC) Barcelona, Real Madrid, Villa Real, their academies,” he said. “We would also play against Lisbon, Inter Milan and Premier League teams. You need to win. There is pressure to develop young players and win. There is no difference anywhere you coach. I feel that here (with FC Dallas) and I like it.”
Seeking a new challenge, Estevez left Valencia in 2011 to coach Spain’s Huracan Valencia. “The pro level was more of a mix between young players and veterans. I was 30, but some players were older than me,” he said. “Everyone was worried about my experience, but they saw I treated humans as humans, had a plan and a clear idea to be better and win, so they believed in me. That gave me confidence to keep growing and it kept my career going in the direction I wanted.”
In 2013, he returned to Valencia to coach its reserve side (or “B” team) and served as the first (or “A”) team’s interim coach. As someone who grew up in Valencia, getting to coach the first team, reserves and youths for his hometown club is an experience he wouldn’t have traded for anything. “It was positive. I was very comfortable because I had my friends, family, wife and kids there,” Estevez said. “It’s true when you are on a bigger stage and coaching pro, there can be more criticism when things are not going right. Usually, it’s your family who suffers a little more. I’m in this business and know what it’s about. When things are going well, we are all the greatest coaches. And when things are not going well, we’re the worst.”
Crossing the pond
Estevez’s next challenge was coaching in the United States. In 2014, he accepted a job with Columbus Crew as the club’s director of methodology, a position sometimes designated as technical director or general manager. After being in that position for three years, he became an assistant under Coach Gregg Berhalter.
After arriving stateside, two things quickly became apparent: The first was that MLS was a very competitive league, and secondly, FC Dallas was producing some of the sport’s top young talent around. “I remember coming to tournaments in Dallas and playing in other places against Dallas. It intrigued me, the ability and quality they had within the academy in how they were able to recruit a good group of players who had a future in the first team and how in that moment they were ahead of any other club in MLS,” Estevez said.
Seeing the impressive level of talent FC Dallas had in its academy planted a seed: If ever the chance to coach in Frisco materialized, he wouldn’t hesitate to accept the challenge.
In 2017, Berhalter left Columbus to coach the USMNT and
Estevez followed as one of his assistants. The new position afforded him the opportunity to work closely with young players in the team’s player pool, a promising group that included such FC Dallas players as Reggie Cannon, Jesus Ferreira, Ricardo Pepi, Paxton Pomykal, Bryan Reynolds and Brandon Servania.
In his new role, Estevez will now be regularly coaching some of these young FC Dallas stars. “It’s going to be great (working with them again) because every time an FC Dallas player came to the national team, I loved to work with every single one of them,” he said. “Servania, Reynolds, Cannon, (Weston) McKennie, (Kellyn) Acosta, (Walker) Zimmerman – all of them were FC Dallas players. They had values that made them great to work with.”
In 2008, FC Dallas started its development academy. In the years since, Dallas has consistently produced high-level players who have generated interest from clubs abroad and been subsequently sold to the highest bidder. McKennie is a former FC Dallas academy talent who now plays for Juventus FC of Serie A in Italy and is a USMNT regular. Cannon is a more recent product who now plays for Boavista FC of Portugal.
In January 2022, FC Dallas sold Pepi, an El Paso native and academy product who had starred with the Dallas first team and the USMNT, to Augsburg FC of the German Bundesliga for a reported $20 million – a franchise record for a transfer. After the sale became official, Hunt was adamant those proceeds would immediately be put back into the club to sign additional players.
Swift considers the Dallas academy one of the continent’s best for obvious reasons: It’s a great drawing card for attracting high-quality coaches. “In my opinion, they do have the best academy in MLS, and you could argue they have the best academy in North America. Just going by the results of players they’ve been able to place with the first team and internationally, that’s a pretty good batting average,” he said. “Any academy from Mexico for a Liga MX team would want to have that kind of average.”
Hiring coaches with youth backgrounds is a trend dating back to 2008 when FC Dallas hired Schellas Hyndman – who had coached Dan Hunt’s brother Clark at Southern Methodist University – away from the Mustangs. In 2014, Hyndman was replaced by Oscar Pareja, who had helped start the academy. Luchi Gonzalez, who played for Hyndman at SMU and worked with Pareja in the academy, was hired in 2018 before being relieved of his duties in September 2021.
Having a top-level pool of academy players to pull from was one reason Estevez accepted the coaching job. However, something else ranked as an equally big positive about this new challenge. “I think FC Dallas has a culture that is well known, young players coming from the academy, a family culture. I think they have done an amazing job with that,” Estevez said. “The front office and club, it’s very family oriented. I believe that in clubs like FC Dallas, the culture and how it’s built is very necessary. It’s a strength. Now, it’s about what can I add from my experience to this culture that mixes with the culture but can also help us evolve in certain areas from the experience that I have in Europe and the national team. We want to help our players to be better.”
During the interview process, something else about Estevez stood out to Hunt that helped him realize he was the right man to fill the vacancy. “There are so many things (to love) about Nico,” Hunt said. “Obviously, he’s had an amazing career path and has such a diverse background. One of the other big things is he’s a human being that you can really connect with. He’s a very engaging human being. We think that connectivity is great and will bring the locker room together.”
No matter the sport, one key task for any new coach is getting players to buy in and believe that their style of play and methodology will make them better players and help the club win. With teams that skew young like FC Dallas, responsibility for buying in first falls on the club’s most experienced player, with younger teammates following their lead.
Dallas has a strong veteran core in Matt Hedges – who, heading into his 11th season with the league, has been named to the MLS’s Best XI twice, is a three-time all-star and was the MLS Defender of the Year in 2016 – and Hollingshead. Both players set the tone for the team with their veteran leadership on the training field and in the locker room.
About Estevez, Hollingshead said, “I think he’s going to be a really good fit here.”
Stephen Hunt is a Frisco-based writer who has covered FC Dallas since 2006.