Futbol in América: Dallas Cup's vital role in growing U.S. youth soccer

Editor's note: This has been translated from its original form on ESPN Deportes as part of its 'Futbol in America' series.

DALLAS, Tex. -- When it comes to future talent, the Dallas Cup has been one of the most important youth soccer tournaments. Established in 1980, the tournament has hosted some notable U-13 to U-19 players that later went on to play professionally in some of the world's biggest leagues.

Raul Gonzalez, Wayne Rooney, Peter Crouch, Michael Owen, Keylor Navas, David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Andrea Pirlo, Rafael Marquez, Andres Guardado, Javier "Chicharito" Hernández, Giovani and Jonathan Dos Santos, Ronaldinho, Diego, Juninho, Lucas, Maicon, Robinho, Ramiro and Rogelio Funes Mori are some of the stars who have competed.

"It's an invitational tournament," said Andy Swift, executive director of the Dallas Cup. "We have around 400 teams that apply each year and from that we accept between 150 and 180 teams, plus those who qualify locally for finishing in first place or through regional qualifying tournaments."

"It's a mix: we have clubs that speak to us from time to time and tell us they have a team they want to send," he added. "This is the case with clubs like River Plate, Boca Juniors, Real Madrid and so on. Then we invite others specifically. We contact them to see if it works with their schedule."

Real Madrid, Manchester United, Arsenal, Corinthians, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Eintracht Frankfurt, plus the majority of the Mexican League, Major League Soccer, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and many more have taken part in the Dallas Cup, which is set to take place during Easter Week, as has been the case for the past 39 years.

"It's a tremendous showcase; professional scouts come as well as college scouts," said Swift. "Many players not only earn professional opportunities, but also receive college scholarships."

"Not all players go on to be professionals. Many will have the opportunity to study," he added. "There are lots of players coming over from Europe, from teams that aren't as renowned as Manchester United or Real Madrid but that have good players who want to be spotted by colleges in the United States."

According to Swift, diversity, culture and development are also important priorities of the Dallas Cup, which involves around 900 players divided into eight different categories, from U-13 to the elite U-19 Super Group.

"The competitive side of things is very important to us with a very high level of refereeing, pitches and teams," said Swift. "But the goal is not only to develop soccer players, but to develop human beings. We give the boys the chance to go to hospitals, schools and to have a cultural exchange to give them a rounded experience as people, not just as soccer players."

For American soccer prospects, the tournament represents a great opportunity to test and improve themselves against many of the best players in the world, for whom the Dallas Cup has also proven to be a highly effective shop window.

Giovani dos Santos, 12 years old at the time, was spotted by Barcelona while playing at the Dallas Cup and soon after, he joined the club's youth academy. "Raul played with Real Madrid here in 1993 and in 1994 and lifted the trophy on both occasions," said Swift. "Only a month later, he was in the first team. Brazilian side Vitoria won the Dallas Cup in 1997 and 1998 and sold four players to Serie A clubs after winning the 1998 tournament."

Most of the international players and those from other areas of the United States stay with the families of local players or volunteers. In his autobiography, David Beckham described in detail how his trip to the United States to play in the Dallas Cup proved to be a very important chapter in his development as a soccer player and as a person.

Enjoy the full "Futbol in America" series

- Episode 4: Soccer thrives in the Big Apple
- WATCH: New York, where soccer never sleeps
- Episode 3: Dallas Cup's vital role in growing youth soccer
- WATCH: Dallas, the international takeoff
- Episode 2: Los Angeles academy bringing together Latino youth
- WATCH: LA inherits the American dream
- Episode 1: Miami ready to make its mark
- WATCH: Miami, the city with fans with no team

At 13 years of age, Beckham stayed with a soccer-mad Mexican family who could not do enough to look after him, despite their lack of money. "The first people I stayed with [on my first trip to the U.S.] were Mexican," said Beckham in his autobiography, "Beckham: Both Feet on the Ground."

"They turned out to be really nice people and couldn't do enough for me. All my Essex teammates were staying in these huge houses and being driven around in huge cars to the best places [in Dallas]. We'd just get in the pickup and drive down to McDonald's for breakfast every morning," he added. "I had such a great week with that family. I sometimes find myself thinking about them even now."

Jesse Gonzalez, who currently plays in goal for MLS side FC Dallas, played in the Dallas Cup on three occasions and always knew it was the place to prove his worth as a player.

"It's a tournament where you can show what you're made of," said González. "This tournament is where people say 'that player's going to go far.' It's almost a professional-standard tournament and you need to focus every day."

Cartagines midfielder Kevin Vega agreed that the Dallas Cup played a crucial part in his meteoric rise to playing in Costa Rica's Primera División at just 18 years of age.

"It was a great experience for me," said Vega. "It helped me a lot personally and when it came to making my debut in Costa Rica. It's a really interesting tournament that's at the highest level on a global scale."

When Vega faced FC Dallas in a friendly on Feb. 11, the occasion had more to do with Vega's childhood nostalgia than with football itself.

"Of course it brought back memories of when I first came to Dallas to play in the Dallas Cup," he said. "I stayed with a family from here. It was one of the best times in my life. When we came on the bus to [Toyota Stadium], I was remembering everything as if it were a movie in slow motion."

In a recent interview Gordon Jago, one of the founders and former executive director of the Dallas Cup, proudly recalled some of the tournament's finest moments.

"The clash between Manchester United and Real Madrid in the first game of the Super Group in 2006, in front of 17,000 people in FC Dallas' stadium was one of the best moments I experienced," said Jago. "I was also proud to have brought the Under-12 Peace Team over in 2005, with nine players from Israel and nine from Palestine."

Young players from the most established and traditional clubs in the Dallas-Fort Worth area dream about the Dallas Cup from the moment they first step onto a pitch. The Dallas Cup's efforts go towards ensuring that soccer continues to improve in the United States, especially after its senior team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

"It's a shame that the United States didn't qualify for the World Cup. There's a lot of talk about the reasons behind it and the future doesn't look too bright until we properly analyze the United States," said FC Dallas academy director, Luchi Gonzalez. "You have to look at what we're doing in MLS to help youngsters reach a high level."

FC Dallas is the current reigning champion of the Under-19 Super Group. In last year's tournament, they beat Everton (England) and Maccabi Haifa (Israel) and drew with Tigres (Mexico) in the group stage before beating Brazilian side Coritiba in the semifinals and Tigres in the final.

"There's no doubt that the Dallas Cup has helped to develop our soccer," said Gonzalez, who also played in the Dallas Cup as a youngster before turning professional. "Children's and youth soccer in this country has generally really improved in all aspects such as technique and individual ability."

In the 2014 World Cup, at least 40 squad members from 10 countries had played in the Dallas Cup while 11 of the 23 Americans who played in Brazil 2014 appeared at the tournament.

This year's Dallas Cup will start on March 25 and like every year, will be played at Richland College, FC Dallas Complex, MoneyGram Soccer Park and the Cotton Bowl, where the grand opening parade of all the teams traditionally takes place.