A meaningful conversation about Alan Velasco’s ascension – he’s No. 1 in the 2023 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR list – must include a mention of Jesús Ferreira and Ricardo Pepi, the previous two honorees in FC Dallas’ unmatched three-year streak of 22U22 winners.

That’s not to distract or detract from Velasco’s superb quality and rich potential, only to explain how and why a skillful, driven Argentina youth international linked to the likes of Brighton & Hove Albion, Newcastle United and AS Monaco wound up in Frisco, Texas, pursuing a path to Europe’s elite like Pepi, Miguel Almirón, Alphonso Davies, and others before him.

The man billed by FCD themselves as the biggest signing in club history, arriving ahead of the 2022 MLS season on a reported $7 million-plus-incentives transfer that’s far and away a club record, might not have landed at Toyota Stadium were it not for the booming youth development operation that had just reaped Los Toros Tejanos a reported $20 million-plus sale of Pepi, the 2021 22U22 king, to FC Augsburg a few weeks beforehand.

“The club had to start to prepare for another exciting young player,” explained Dallas scouting director Leonardo Baldo to MLSsoccer.com. “Once you are receiving this type of money from Europe, you have the opportunity to do a big type of investment.

“At the same moment, [head coach] Nico Estévez was joining the team, and for Nico, Jesús was always a No. 9 – there's always this question about Jesús being a 9 or a 10 or a 9-and-a-half, and Nico, when he joined the club, he said ‘Look, I see him as being a good 9, the type of 9 that I like.’ So if we are going for another player, we can go for another position. We can go for a No. 10, we can go for a winger.”

Wise beyond his years

After becoming a teenage regular at Independiente and helping the Albiceleste Under-17s to a 2019 South American title, Velasco’s stock was sky-high for years. Media reports claimed CAI had placed a $20 million buyout clause on him and an unnamed MLS club was said to have had a $14 million bid rejected in January 2021.

But as the financial shortfalls of the COVID-19 pandemic reverberated at Independiente and across world soccer, El Rojo eventually had to compromise on a much lower figure.

“Alan is a player that we were following for a while, and we always liked his style of play. We thought he could be very interesting for the way we like to play here,” said FCD technical director Andre Zanotta. “Especially being so young. And when we kept moving with negotiations, with speaking with agents, with his club and especially when we spoke with Alan for the first time, we really felt like he’s different.

“He's young, but he's so mature. He has such a good understanding of what's going on and even the relationship he had with his agents – that he's in control, different than other kids at this age. So he really showed a lot of personality to us.”

FCD considered all that, as well as the passionate, pressurized landscape he had navigated at Independiente. And the versatility that allows him to influence matches as either a winger or central playmaker. And the combination of quickness, technique and audacity on the ball that can exploit defenses like on the golazo he netted against Nashville SC on his Dallas debut. Then they factored in the particular rhythms of MLS that make dynamic attackers like him so useful.

“Creative, dynamic, with dribbling skills: This is the type of profile that, if we take a look at players from the league from the past, this is the type of player that succeeds in the league, like Sebastian\] Giovinco style, [\[Hany\] Mukhtar style,” said Baldo. “These skills are always welcome in MLS. This league has a lot of transitions, the spaces for this type of player to play.

“And playing for a big team in Argentina, we know that is not easy. It's a hard environment to be playing, it’s a very political club, Independiente, with amazing supporters. So if a kid is playing in this type of environment, you are decreasing the probability to make a mistake. So when you start to put everything in the basket, these were what pushed Alan high on our list.”

They also communicated as much to Velasco, whose subsequent experiences have backed up their dossier.

“What I notice here is that there is a little less friction than the Argentine league, in terms of the contact between the defenders and the forwards,” Velasco noted to MLS Season Pass analyst Stefano Fusaro in an exclusive Spanish-language conversation about his 22U22 honor this week. “Beyond that, at a certain moment of the match, [MLS] matches begin to open up, they begin to play a little more slowly so that players with my characteristics have a little more space to decide in the final third. … I like that because, well, there is more space to attack, dribble and play tricks.”

The FC Dallas way

Velasco also showed savvy and self-awareness beyond his years in identifying FCD and MLS as his next destination.

“Alan is a very nice kid. He is clever, he understands the next steps of a career,” said Baldo. “And he knew that if he went, for example, to the Premier League, he would have a hard time to play from day one. And then he will be losing game time that for this moment of his career, that will be key for his development.

“I remember Alan was very clear with that. He said, ‘I know that if I go to MLS, I have more chances to play. I will work with a European coach that will push me higher in what I can do. I will have minutes, I will learn another language. I will play for a team that is selling players to Europe consistently.’ So he understood that OK, this step is not a step back or a sideways step. I'm doing a step forward to develop.”

The North Texas club’s best-in-class record of talent identification and development – no one in MLS has sold more players abroad for more money over the years, and five FCD players have topped this list since its launch in 2010, when it was originally “24 Under 24;” no other club has won more than twice – has created a virtuous circle.

“I think it’s credit to MLS and how the league is growing and what it’s becoming,” said Zanotta, who noted Velasco’s arrival prompted congratulatory text messages from several MLS CSO counterparts who’d desired to bring the Buenos Aires native to their club.

“In the case of FC Dallas, we've been very successful in selling players and transferring players to Europe’s top leagues. So I believe we've been the club that has been more successful in doing this and we've sold many players in the last three, four years, and obviously this was noticed by Alan, by his agent. And if his idea is to continue his career one day in Europe, FC Dallas is a good place for him to be.”

Alan Velasco celebrate 1

Weight of expectations

Even a blue-chip prospect like Velasco is far from a can’t-miss, though, as the Atlanta United roller-coaster ride of his CAI-to-MLS predecessor Ezequiel Barco illustrates.

“In this industry, you always have to take risks,” said Zanotta. “You're not buying a computer that you're going to plug in and you know what's going to happen. You're dealing with human beings, and especially when players move from one country to another, there are many things that can affect them. So more and more in our scouting process here, we try to get as much information as possible about the player that we're trying to bring, from teammates, from former coaches and sporting directors or people that knew the player on a daily basis.”

Velasco, particularly with the high expectations inevitably placed on his shoulders, faced a deceptively arduous task in acclimating to both a new league and a new off-field situation from what he’d known back home.

“The biggest and most important challenge that I face – to this day – I won't tell you how difficult it was, but it was very difficult,” Velasco told Fusaro, “was the fact of coming to live alone in a country where everything is very different from what I lived where I grew up, which is Argentina's culture.

“It doesn't look like my country at all and I think that was the most difficult thing,” he continued. “There were three, four very difficult months. But I think it is about going through that stage and having a little courage to do what you like. … I’ll tell you, the club did things very well with me. I always had their support and I think that's why it became a little bit easier.”

It was not only Velaso’s first stint abroad, but the first change of club for the CAI academy product. And a 19-year-old whose career has powered his close-knit family’s climb from very humble means towards the middle class was suddenly thousands of miles away from his parents and siblings and the home they made together.

Alan Velasco - goal celebrate 2

"Constant evolution"

Those bonds were evident when the Velascos invited a Texas Monthly writer to join them for an asado (barbecue) they held while watching an FCD-Seattle Sounders match earlier this season.

“At the moment I am feeling good. I’ve been living in another country for a while, I already have my things here. My day-to-day life is much calmer and more normal,” Velasco told Fusaro, noting he’s excited to soon welcome his older brother to Texas for a visit.

“I feel much, much more adapted, settled with what it is like to live here in the United States. I don't know, I think that replacing what it is like to not have a family is very difficult, it’s a [bear] for me. But we make video calls with the family, and from time to time they come to visit me.”

Working mostly out wide, Velasco scored six goals and seven assists in 26 league matches in his first MLS campaign. Though his productivity dropped off in year two (3g/4a in 26 matches), he’s lately prospered in a more central role.

Throughout, FCD have sought to nurture both his physical resilience and tactical sophistication, benefitting both his and his team’s near-term form while building his skill set for an eventual move on to one of Europe’s top leagues.

“He's just in a constant evolution here,” said Zanotta. “We’ve got to remember, he’s still 21 years old, so he's very young. FIFA’s established that the formation period, the development period of a player, is from 12 to 23. So Alan is still in that process, and he's been here for almost two years now. And we feel he’s very, very comfortable, very adapted to the country, to the club.

“What clubs, especially the top-league clubs, what they look for is consistency: The player is consistent in the way he's playing, he's playing at a top level, making a difference. And Alan, we and the coaching staff always ask him to risk more, and he’s got to score more goals, assists, create more chances, and I think he's been helping us in that more and more. But once he reaches that consistency throughout a season, I think he will be a player that, it will be tough to keep him in this league for longer.”

Moments like the Aug. 6 Leagues Cup Round-of-16 clash between Dallas and Inter Miami in Frisco, where Velasco was the best player on the pitch not named Leo Messi in a 4-4 barnburner eventually won by the Herons in a penalty shootout, can make it all worthwhile.

Velasco introduced himself to Messi in the leadup to kickoff – “I thanked him for everything he did for us Argentinians,” he revealed, a nod to the GOAT’s 2022 World Cup heroics – then shined under the global spotlight that follows the Albiceleste icon wherever he goes. The two maestros exchanged jerseys and embraced afterward, a sequence that also revealed the large Diego Maradona tattoo on Velasco’s back which underlines his respect for his nation’s proud footballing history.

“That day was a crazy thing,” recalled Velasco this week. “It was a game that had many, many, many views from all over the world, both here and in other parts. Although it was not the result that we wanted, we did all get the beautiful experience of having played against the best player in the world.

“Everything was very nice, except the result.”

Alan Velasco with Lionel Messi

National team dreams

That game helped Velasco earn an Argentina call-up alongside Messi in last month’s international window. And while he wasn’t on Lionel Scaloni’s October list, he’s clearly on the radar and appears to be very much in the reckoning for the Albiceleste’s Olympic team at next year’s Summer Games in Paris.

Though that tournament is not granted mandatory-release status by FIFA, FCD sound keen to support Velasco’s national-team prospects, and surely recognize what a prominent platform the Olympics would provide both parties.

In the meantime, Velasco is focused on powering Dallas to the positive results they need in their final two regular-season games in order to grab one of the Western Conference’s final three slots in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Currently clutching the No. 9 seed, they control their own destiny.

A star performance from Velasco might just be what pushes them over the top.

“I'm adapting more to the league and already learning how everything is here. The truth is that I'm very happy and enjoying it and putting everything into it to be able to enter the playoffs,” said Velasco.

“There are many Latino players here, many well-known players with a lot of experience in world football and in Europe as well. It's good that they are currently playing here and yes, for me personally it is something very nice to face, every weekend, very important players who sought a very great trajectory throughout their careers. And it is good that the league continues to grow over time, and surely it will continue to grow in the coming years.”

Alan Velasco - FC Dallas - goal celebration 2