By Jacob Klinger
MLS is three and a half years removed from signing its first Home Grown player under the new league rules that finally gave clubs a competitive incentive to develop their own talent. This summer Jacob Klinger will be checking in on Home Grown players from across the league to see who they are, what they're doing, how they got there, and of course, just what it is they'll be doing next.
Ruben Luna straddles a thick line.
On one side lies a starting spot in his hometown team’s first XI, goals and MLS stardom for a player a few months removed from his twentieth birthday. On the other is a crowded graveyard of professional aspirations. No vacancy.
Luna is just one of six academy graduates FC Dallas has signed to Home Grown contracts, a point of pride for the club. Yet the inherent good feelings attached to those signings do not make the leap to professional consistency any easier.
“The kids that are signed have to produce. They’ve got to continue to grow as players,” Vice President of FC Dallas Youth and Director of Coaching Chris Hayden said. “They may be super-talented at 16, at 18, at 20, at 24, and they have to continually improve because if they don’t they’ll find themselves out of the league quickly.”
Lately Luna has been steadily working himself into the league. After playing four first-team matches in 2010, the young striker featured in 15 games in 2011 while leading the MLS Reserve League with 10 goals in as many games – the league’s second leading scorer tallied five. All three of FC Dallas’s matches this month have seen head coach Schellas Hyndman call him off the bench. He is yet to score, but those that know him best expect that statistic to be short lived.
The FC Dallas Under-12 team was up 1-0 and a younger, pudgier Luna had already shown why he was the best player on the field.
“At that early age, you could just see that he understood the game better than everybody else that was on the field,” Darrin Hedges said. “And he just had the determination unlike any other kids that were out on the field. It was just very apparent that the boy had soccer in his blood.”
At the time Hedges was coaching the FC Dallas Under-12s. Luna was playing for their opponents, Genesis Soccer Club – now known as Genesis Elite FC.
After Genesis went down 1-0, Luna moved up from defense to play striker. He equalized and returned to his starting position on the back line. FC Dallas went ahead once more. And again, Luna moved up top until Genesis leveled the score at 2-2.
FC Dallas would go on to win that game 3-2. But Hedges had seen enough.
“I just told him I thought he played a good game and if he ever wanted to maybe play for a different team or maybe come to FC Dallas and come give our team a look and just about six months later Ruben walked out, walks out to our tryouts and joins our team,” Hedges said.
Every season for the next four years, Hedges’s ’92 Blue team would gain promotion in the Dallas-area youth soccer pyramid. Every season, Luna would be the league’s leading goal-scorer. In 2009 he led the U.S. Development Academy League with 38 goals in 27 games.
Norma Luna, Ruben’s mother, gave him a Manchester United scarf when he was still very young. It quickly became a prized possession just as Ruud van Nistelrooy became his favorite player.
“A lot of players don’t really like him because they say he doesn’t fight for his goals, but the guy scores goals,” Luna said. “He may not be the Messi or the Cristiano Ronaldo, but he scores and that’s really what I like to do.”
Goals are Luna’s obsession. And while he hesitated to call himself a poacher, he spoke like a striker’s striker.
“I don’t really like to put a title on myself, but I mean, hey, I love to score goals. If I don’t score goals I don’t feel right, something’s not right. And I know you have to be patient and goals will come and everything, but for me, I just want to score,” Luna said.
Yet Luna is in transition.
Coming up through the ranks of FC Dallas’s youth teams, he was usually deployed with a strike partner, helping to open up space in opposing defenses. Since Hyndman’s arrival at the club in 2008, though, the club has switched to a lone-striker system.
Luna credits Hyndman for his continued development, but the transition has tested his discipline as well his patience as he finds himself having to compensate for another man up top.
“When I mean discipline I mean on the field … discipline to check for the ball, discipline to show for your teammate, discipline to fight on the field and that has to be consistent, it has to be academics,” Luna said.
Today, Hedges coaches FC Dallas’s Women’s Professional Soccer League (WPSL) team while Luna fights for a regular place in Hyndman’s first-choice squad. Their relationship has transformed from that of a player and coach to friend and confidante.
Luna shares his struggles with Hedges, and chief among them is his desire for more playing time. It is not so much a complaint as something that motivates him. Not a problem for the club.
“I think he’s a kid that’s always been self-driven, works hard and pushes himself. He has expectations for himself,” Hayden said. “I won’t say that he’s patient, you know, I think he’s a kid that wants to play and play now, but I think he understands where he’s at.”
The need for patience is not lost on Luna, who considers every minute of first-team training “golden.”
Luna currently sits on the cusp of becoming an FC Dallas regular. Highly-touted in the ultra-competitive Dallas youth club scene since his pre-teen years, his status as an FC Dallas player was constantly under siege.
But when Luna was still just an Under-14 he knew his future was with his current club.
“I asked him, I said, ‘Ruben, why don’t you go to the Texans, why don’t you go to River Plate and all these other coaches that are promising you the world?’” Hedges said. “and he said, ‘Coach, I’m right where I need to be, I want to play in that stadium right there.’”
He was pointing to FC Dallas Stadium. It’s a place where Hedges expects Luna to firmly step over that career-changing line.
“I’m telling you in my heart of hearts Ruben’s going to succeed,” Hedges said, “it’s because he has that desire. He has that want and he has that drive.”
Jacob Klinger is a contributing writer to Soccer 365 where his column "Ready, Set, America" appears regularly. He also writes for No Short Corners and is currently a journalism student at Syracuse University. Jacob's love for the game goes back as far as he can remember, but was truly christened during the United States' cardiac qualifying campaign for Korea/Japan 2002. Between classes and columns, he still plays. You can follow him on Twitter @MrJacobK or email him at email@example.com.
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