FC Dallas enters its 20th season with a growing fan base and the promise of far more exposure on local television in 2015.
But North Texas’ top professional soccer club also faces its share of challenges. Even though the region has a thriving soccer community — and the international professional game is far more popular, especially among television and YouTube-watching teenagers, than in previous generations — the Frisco-based club begins the 2015 campaign with few if any household names on its roster.
And FC Dallas’ attendance, although up more than 9 percent last year compared to 2013, still remains near the bottom third of the 20-team league. The club averages 16,816 fans per game at Toyota Stadium, which holds 20,500.
But despite the lack of a David Villa or a Kaka on its roster — those worldwide stars wound up with new MLS clubs New York City FC and Orlando FC — the Hoops start the next campaign with what appears to be an abundance of youthful zest. And, FC Dallas is coming off a surprisingly-good performance last season when the club nearly made it to the Western Conference Championship of the MLS playoffs.
The second season under coach and popular former player Oscar Pareja begins with a kickoff at 7:30 p.m. Saturday against San Jose at Toyota Stadium.
The league also starts the 2015 season with a five-year collective bargaining agreement, having averted a players’ strike over issues such as free agency and minimum salary.
Here is a look at what fans can expect:
Most if not all of FC Dallas’ 34 MLS games can be watched on TV somewhere.
KTXA/Ch. 21 has agreed to televise 17 games, nearly three times as many as last year. Others are on ESPN2, FS1, Univision Deportes and UniMas. Only four games aren’t yet scheduled for broadcast.
“We’ve enjoyed quite a growth spurt as a league in the last five years and can’t wait to continue bringing the beautiful game into more and more homes through our expanded partnership with TXA 21,” FC Dallas president Dan Hunt said.
Play-by-play man Mark Followill will call most games, and KTCK’s Bob Sturm will handle the others.
Pareja, who surprised MLS by taking his squad into the playoffs last year, is aiming to stock his roster with young, energetic talent.
That could be a good thing, especially for a team that trains and plays in the Metroplex summer heat.
Among the most recent arrivals is 23-year-old Colombian midfielder Michael Barrios. The 5-foot-4 Barrios already has amassed four years worth of experience playing in his country’s top division.
“He is a player that we know can come in and help us offensively right away,” Pareja said. “He has the speed and talent to be a great player in this league.”
Barrios will be matched with another young Colombian, Fabian Castillo, 22, who became a popular figure in the Toyota Stadium stands last year and signed a five-year deal to stay with FC Dallas until 2019.
Castillo scored in seven straight matches last year, including four game-winning goals.
“He is the future of this franchise,” said Fernando Clavijo, the club’s technical director. “He is a player we have been able to help grow. We also believe he has yet to achieve his full potential. FC Dallas has a more mature and complete player in Fabian today than we did a few years ago, but each year he remains with FC Dallas the better he will become.”
Also returning is veteran Panamanian striker Blas Perez, who turns 34 on March 13.
But the list of players who have moved on is significant.
Gone are Colombian Andres Ramiro Escobar, Peruvian goalkeeper Raul Fernandez, Honduran Hendry Thomas and former captain George John (now at New York City FC).
FC Dallas snagged goalkeeper Dan Kennedy from former club Chivas USA, whose players were divided among other MLS clubs in a dispersal draft.
Late Wednesday, MLS reached a deal with its players to avoid the league’s first work stoppage.
The key issue was free agency. Players who are at least 28 and have eight years of MLS service will now have a measure of freedom to determine where they play, although any raises they receive will be capped.
Also, the league’s minimum salary will be increased to $60,000, up from $36,500, according to multiple news reports.
Avoiding a work stoppage was a major hurdle for MLS, which started in 1996 with 10 teams — including the Dallas Burn, the original name of FC Dallas.
The league has an unusual, centralized structure. The “owners” of MLS’ 20 teams actually just own a share in the league, and the players are all employed by the league.
Players have argued the centralized configuration of MLS is unfair because it limits their options to choose where to play, and to seek a contract with a team that will pay them a market value for their services.
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796