It’s easy to get pulled into the football craze when you grow up in Texas. Every kid wants to be the next big gridiron star, with dreams of one day playing in front of packed high school stadium, and eventually maybe even for the Dallas Cowboys.
In that sense, Kellyn Acosta was your typical Texas kid.
Despite excelling at soccer, basketball and track from a young age –– every year Kellyn would beg his parents to let him play football. They felt it was too dangerous.
“I always wanted to play (football), but he was like, “stick with soccer, basketball or run track,’” Kellyn said of his dad’s yearly advice. “It was kind of shocking for me because he was a football player growing up.”
His parents finally relented once Kellyn reached the seventh grade. And, of course, Kellyn got hurt.
“I remember it pretty vividly,” Kellyn says of his injury. “It was just a slant route. I caught the ball, was going into the end zone and a guy pulled me from the back and then my legs got caught.”
He finished the game with a high ankle sprain. But the real pain came a week later, when the injury kept him from playing in a soccer tournament.
“I tried to play. I tried to tape it off and I just couldn't do it,” he recalls. “I was pretty upset.”
It’s not like he made the decision on the spot. He was too driven and too competitive, but there just weren’t enough hours in the day or days in the week to make it to every practice, every game, and every meet. And he kept going back to how disappointed he was in missing that soccer game.
He had grown up in a new era in Texas. Yes, football was still king. But he was a product of a burgeoning soccer culture.
One where he could watch soccer on TV at any time, where he could attend his city’s pro soccer team’s games in his backyard and dream of one day wearing that jersey, where he had soccer idols to mimic and aspire to be like.
Soccer became an obsession, and he knew that if he wanted to be the best he could be, he’d have to dedicate himself completely.
THE DA SILVAS
There was no bigger influence on Kellyn falling in love with the game at a young age than José Márcio Pereira da Silva, known since his playing days as Zequinha.
In the 1970s, Zequinha played for some of the biggest clubs in Brazil before joining the Dallas Tornado of the old North American Soccer League. Upon retirement, he made the Dallas area his home, and by the early 2000s he started own soccer skills school.
Rec soccer was fun, but it had become too easy for Kellyn. A father of a school friend encouraged the Acostas to meet ‘Coach Zee.’
He soon did and the relationship quickly grew. Before long, between all his games Kellyn and his friend would take private lessons from Coach Zee.
“I was trying to touch up on my game. I want to get better and better,” Kellyn recalls. “So we were doing these technical sessions with Zee, from juggling to cone work to shooting to you name it.”
The Acosta’s lived across the street from Kellyn’s school in Allen, a suburb of Dallas. Any chance he got, he’d be on the school grounds working on what he learned from Zee.
“I would just spend hours out there; double scissor, cut, cone work, turning, flicks, tricks. I would kick the ball off the school wall and would try back heels and do stuff like that.”
In short time, he had moved on from all his other teams and would only play for Coach Zee, who eventually started a team and joined a club.
“We just realized that we loved the coach and we knew that he had the credentials,” explained Ken Acosta, Kellyn’s dad. “It's just the way he was with the kids – he wanted them to get better. He wanted them to be creative and he didn’t give a lot of instructions during the game. His approach was so different than what we saw from other coaches.
“We knew that we were in the right environment at that time. The kids had fun, and when they're young and they’re not having fun, forget it because they'll quit.”
Like many families of active kids that played sports, the Acostas at times were challenged in meeting all of life’s demands, with work schedules and travel distances being obstacles.
Up stepped the da Silva family. Zee and his wife, Deise, would often pick Kellyn up from school, take him to whatever sport he was practicing on a given day, make him meals, and host him on weekends. Kellyn also immediately grew close to their son, Joao, who was similar in age and also without a sibling.
Of course, soccer was in the da Silva’s DNA, and Kellyn was now part of that family.
“That's what I had growing up, playing for fun,” Coach Zee said. “It was all about fun. And in Brazil, to give you an idea, the first time I had a coach that stayed with me to train something specific I was 16, and a year later I turned pro with one of the biggest clubs in Brazil. So until that point I was playing soccer like wild, without too much guidance.
“I like my kids to get out there and have fun - the game is the best teacher. I’m not there giving them a job. It's not a job at this age, at eight or nine years old. So to Kellyn, I would just say ‘you have a green light, go win the game.
Kellyn watched soccer on TV all the time and naturally gravitating to any Brazilian on the screen, checking in with Zee on what to watch for that could help his own game.
“For one, they were always smiling, just enjoying themselves,” Kellyn said of watching players like Ronaldinho and Robinho. “And then you would see them doing flicks and the tricks and that really sparked my interest.”
He could also do the same a few miles away, in person. One of Kellyn’s teammates on a younger team was Anthony Jeffries. At the time, Anthony’s dad, Mike, was the head coach of the Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas), so Kellyn and his family would often go to games.
“I saw Eddie Johnson scoring a bunch of goals, having fun,” Kellyn says of the former MNT and FC Dallas forward. “He was a young guy. I think he was 18, 19 when he was here and he excelled right away. And I'd watch Oscar (Pareja). I liked guys that were just very passionate about the game and those players really stood out to me because they were enjoying what they did. So that's what really sparked my interest.”
Zee was now coaching Kellyn at local club, ASG, and he knew he had a special player under his wing.
At a club banquet with hundreds of kids and parents present, Zee grabbed the mic and made an announcement when introducing his team.
“I said, pay attention to this name – Kellyn Acosta – because you’re going to hear it a lot.”
Humble and laid back as he was, Zee had clout. Among his many career highlights was assisting Pele’s last goal with the Brazilian National Team in 1971, and playing in the Farewell Games of both Pele and the great Garrincha.
But he knew he could only take Kellyn so far. Acosta had been identified by U.S. Soccer youth coaches, he had even placed second in a national grassroots skills competition organized by Major League Soccer called Dribble, Pass and Shoot. Now, FC Dallas came knocking on the door.
“Zee encouraged me because he said the journey isn’t here with him,” Kellyn said. “He told me, ‘I know you have aspirations of becoming a professional. You need to look at other options and what's best for you.
“So, he's the one who really encouraged me because I was kind of iffy. I had been with Zee for so long, with his coaching style, with the same teammates for seven years now. That was not an easy thing for me to just leave behind.”
The next year, Acosta joined the FC Dallas Academy. His path to the pros was in place.
“I'm just happy and honored to be part of this development,” Coach Zee said. “He’s an example for the other kids. It's a story that I can tell the kids when I’m training them and show them that they too can get there some day. And just to be part of his growing up, for me, was everything.”
FC DALLAS AND U.S. SOCCER
Not long ago, Kellyn had watched Oscar Pareja representing his hometown team at the Cotton Bowl. Now, that fiery midfielder was the head of the club’s Academy Program, and he wanted Kellyn to join him at FC Dallas.
Oscar’s first MLS coach in Dallas was Dave Dir, who was now the Executive Director of ASG – the club where Kellyn was playing for Coach Zee. Pareja and Dir had remained close despite each overseeing separate youth clubs.
“Dave called me and said, ‘I have a kid that I know you will like,’” Pareja said of how he was introduced to Kellyn. “And the first day that I saw Kellyn, I was very impressed. I called Dave back said, ‘So you're going to let him come?’ And he said ‘yes, of course, if you like him. He’s a great player and it seems to me that he's very engaged with the game at an early age.’”
With Dir’s blessing, Pareja approached Kellyn and his family. After asking all the right questions, seeing what FC Dallas had to offer and discussing with Coach Zee, the Acostas knew it was an easy decision. Kellyn was joining the FC Dallas Academy.
“The range that he had in those few first trainings, it was amazing,” Pareja recalled of the then 13-year-old. “And I said, if this kid has that range with that intelligence, and technical abilitiy…Those elements, when you have them in a player at an early age, it just tells you that he has a lot to provide and that he has a high ceiling.”
Accordingly, Kellyn’s career took off.
After a year in the U.S. Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla., and after helping FC Dallas capture the U-18 Development Academy National Championship, he signed his first professional contract as a 16-year-old Homegrown Player in July 2012. The following year, 17-year-old Acosta was the youngest member on the USA's U-20 World Cup squad, and made his professional debut with FCD just 10 days after he turned 18.
Pareja finally got to coach Kellyn as a pro starting in 2014, when he became FC Dallas’s head coach, eventually shifting Acosta from defense to the midfield. Kellyn went on to play in the 2015 Under-20 World Cup, the 2016 U-23 CONCACAF Championship, and made his MNT debut in January 2016 against Iceland.
“He thought I was ready,” Kellyn said of Pareja. “He's a coach that, to him it doesn't matter how old you are. If you're good enough, you're old enough.
“He's more of a player's coach than the most coaches are. He played the game. He was here. He knows the environment. He knows what we have to do to take our talents to the next level.”
“Everyone has their own journey and that just happened to be mine,” Kellyn said. “I had to go through all the steps to get to where I'm at. Looking back on it, I wouldn't change anything because that's shaped me into the player that I am and the person I am today, so a lot of credit goes to the people that were there, that helped me along the way.”
He’s seen first-hand how cyclical the game is. From taking lessons by a former Dallas pro, to playing for a coach he used to watch from the sideline, he’s now an example for other kids in the area that don’t go down the “Friday Night Lights” path.
“It is really cool to see the development of the game in Texas, because it used to be that from the time you could walk, you're going to play football,” he said. “Myself and other homegrown players at FC Dallas have really brought the attention to others that if you keep at it, you can walk in our footsteps. I think that's really special.”
Turning 23 years old in late July, the journey is far from over. He has ambitions to play in Europe, become a mainstay on the National Team and to play in a World Cup.
He knows he’s not the only with those goals. Acosta was one of a handful of players under 24 who played significant minutes for the MNT in the last cycle and played an integral role in the team’s run to the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup title. While still young, Acosta’s 17 caps make him somewhat of a leader among the many next generation players that have earned their own senior team debuts since last November.
“I want everyone to excel because for us as a national team to reach a high standard, everyone needs to bring up their game,” he said. “I think we could really influence it and help each other out in the aspect of really competing hard with our clubs, and when we get to the national team we really need to buckle down because we as a group have a lot to prove. Being younger, maybe we have that extra eagerness and that hunger that we need to take our game to the next level and help our national team keep progressing through the years.”