By David Mullen
The world’s biggest party is underway, and the U.S. is not invited. Iran is invited. Morocco is invited. Nigeria is invited. Tunisia is invited. Senegal is invited. Uruguay is invited. But the U.S. never made it past the velvet ropes, through the bouncer and onto the red carpet.
Despite the rise in popularity and participation in soccer in the U.S., the national team did not make the 21st FIFA World Cup in 2018, which has just begun in multiple locations in Russia and runs through Sunday, July 15. And as far as anyone can tell, Vladimir Putin had nothing to do with it.
But seriously, with advancements in soccer in America, it is stunning that the U.S. is not in this year’s World Cup. “The MLS [Major League Soccer], to its credit, has started a very successful academy program,” said Dan Hunt, president of FC Dallas. “It didn’t start early enough to impact the player pool for this year’s World Cup cycle. If you look at our player pool for qualifying for the World Cup, we had a bunch of good young players and then we had players past their prime in their 30s and we relied on that group of players to help us qualify for the World Cup.
“You really need to have your team in their peak years, which is 24 to 28 in soccer,” Hunt said. “We just didn’t have enough players in their peak at that time.”
With brother Clark, Hunt, a Park Cities resident and father of two, maintains the assets acquired by their father, Lamar Hunt, who passed away in 2006. In addition to FC Dallas, the brothers have interests in the NFL Kansas City Chiefs and the NBA Chicago Bulls. But he is exceptionally proud of the growth of soccer in the U.S. and the success of FC Dallas in particular.
“My dad grew up playing football and baseball and he went to SMU,” Hunt said, “and would tell you he was a very good benchwarmer on the football team. His first soccer game was actually a Shamrock Rovers game. [My mother] Norma was a Rotary scholar in Ireland, so he went to visit and saw a game. And then he went on to see the 1966 World Cup final and just fell in love with soccer. He had a passion for the game, and felt that the whole family could kick a ball and play it.”
Lamar Hunt started the Dallas Tornado in 1967, which went out of business in 1981. They played primarily in the North American Soccer League, which had gained popularity by recruiting players like Pele and George Best, but then ran into financial problems and folded in 1985. “With World Cup coming to America in 1994,” Hunt said, “there was the sort of a promise to have first division soccer players back in America. My dad was the first person to jump back in to major league soccer and the rest is history.”
Not ready to give up on soccer in America, Lamar Hunt was one of the founding owners in the MLS. The Hunt family took the Dallas Burn from the league in 1995, which later became FC Dallas. They initially played their games in the Cotton Bowl, until they built a state-of-the-art Toyota Stadium in Frisco in 2005.
“This is why I love this job so much,” Hunt said. “I get to see the genius of my dad every day when I walk around the stadium or look out my window. It was the last project we got to complete before my dad passed away.”
Today, FC Dallas is at the top of the Western Conference of the 23-team MLS. “This has been an exceptional job by the coaching staff here,” Hunt said. “You think about what drives success year after year, and the reason that we have been so successful this year, in my opinion, is we have the most engaged group of players that all believe they have an opportunity to play and contribute to the team.
“The head coach, Oscar Pareja, has done a great job rotating players in and out,” Hunt said. “And as a result, the competition in practice has been unbelievable, which raises everyone’s level. For me, if you boil it down to the team’s success, it’s the level of competition within the group which is so high and that the coach is willing to spread minutes out and keep people fresh.
“And then there is a second part to it,” Hunt said. “This team has found a way to kill off games when we are ahead, even if we are a man down. In prior years, we would have lost or tied those games. To the group’s credit, they have been able to manage games and get three points. That is a maturity thing.”
Even though the U.S. lacks representation in this year’s World Cup, Hunt will be traveling to Russia for the games. It will be Hunt’s ninth consecutive trip to World Cup games. He started his journey as part of a family tradition in 1986 in Mexico when he was 13. The U.S. hosted the 1994 World Cup, with five games played at the Cotton Bowl, where Hunt served as a ball boy.
By all indications, the top teams in this year’s World Cup are represented by Brazil, Spain, France, Belgium, Germany and Uruguay. Star power is always present, led by Argentina’s Lionel Messi, Portugal’s Christian Ronaldo and Brazil’s Neymar. But the most balanced team seems to be Spain, which combines a strong defense with a potent offense. The key will be how well the midfielders Thiago, Sergio Basquets and Andres Iniesta keep other teams at bay. Look for Spain to beat Brazil in the world Cup finals. While not going out on a limb, “I think France has a very interesting team,” Hunt said.
On June 13, FIFA awarded the 2026 World Cup to the United Bid which was made up of delegates representing the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Eighty games will be played in total, with 60 games slated for the U.S. including the World Cup finals. Dallas is expected to be a host city, with games played either in the Cotton Bowl or AT&T Stadium in Arlington. The economic impact is estimated to be $50 million per city, per game.
Since he and his wife welcomed their second child into the world only a few weeks age, Hunt’s trip to the World Cup will be limited to the semifinals and final game in Moscow. It will be his first trip to Russia, and he is hoping to fit St. Petersburg in along the way. He laughed when I asked if he liked vodka. “I am not one to shy away from it,” Hunt (pictured below) said. “I look forward to testing the derivations of it in Russia.” So at least Hunt will make the party, even if the U.S. team will be waiting for an invitation in 2022.