Today Atlanta United announced that Dario Sala has been added to the Atlanta United coaching staff as an assistant coach. A few years ago we featured Dario Sala in our “Conversations in Soccer” series. Seems like a good time to publish his story again.
Congrats on the new gig!
TOW recently sat down with the goalkeeper of FC Dallas, Dario Sala, to learn more about his unbelievable journey thus far from Argentina to MLS to becoming the Captain of FC Dallas. Beginning as a player on Argentina’s national handball team, to being discovered and playing for the legendary club River Plate, to leaving everything behind and starting a new life in the United States, Dario arrives in MLS and triumphs in a city he recognized from television while growing up in Cordoba, Argentina.
Dario tells the story himself…
I come from a city called Cordoba, which is located in the middle of Argentina.
It’s a beautiful city surrounded by mountains and lakes. I’m proud to be from Cardoba, but I couldn’t deny my hometown if I tried because I speak Spanish with a pretty thick Cordobes accent that’s comparable to a Texas drawl. Wherever I go in the Spanish speaking world, people know I’m from Cordoba because of the way I speak.
As for my family, I grew up in a home with my parents and two siblings. My Mom and Dad are hard-working people who believed that education was the best way for us to escape the poverty that plagued our neighborhood. They sold churros at the local soccer stadium and I worked the concession stand with them as soon as I was big enough to roll dough.
When I was 11, I won an academic scholarship to a prestigious military academy that required me to move to the campus. My parents agreed to let me go, which was a big sacrifice for them because it meant I couldn’t help with the family business. I came home every weekend to work, but during the weekdays, my job responsibilities fell upon my older brother and sister.
Everyone in the family made huge sacrifices so I could have the best education that my country offered. I’ve never forgotten that. I’m fortunate that my soccer career has allowed me to pay for both my brother and sister’s college educations. They both have university degrees now. My brother owns several successful restaurants in Cordoba and my sister works for a cosmetic company in Spain. We’re very blessed.
You don’t really discover soccer in Argentina. It’s part of your life from the day you’re born. When the people in my neighborhood aren’t watching soccer, they’re playing the game or talking about it. It’s everywhere.
Like all the boys in my neighborhood, I began playing street soccer when I was about 4 years old. I played goalkeeper because I was tall and the other kids in my neighborhood were much much better field players. Looking back, I often wonder what kind of careers and loves those kids could have had if someone had noticed their talent. I never played for an organized league as a boy and my parents cared too much about my education to entrust my schooling to the boarding schools run by the professional clubs. As a child, I never dreamed about being a professional soccer player. I wanted to be a soldier in the Argentine Army.
When I enrolled in military school, we were instructed to select a sport that would be our specialty throughout the academy. I picked handball because it seemed to be an exciting game and everyone else wanted to play soccer. I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to follow the pack.
I played right backcourt, which is typically where you play your tallest players. I was already taller than 6 feet when I was 14, so the coaches had me play with the upper class men. I improved tremendously playing with the older kids and I caught the eye of the national team coach. I quit playing handball when I signed my first professional soccer contract. It’s a great sport, but it’s even less popular in Argentina than in the United States. Handball, no matter how fun, was not going to pay the bills.
I was discovered at age 19, shortly after I entered law school. I was helping my father with his concession stand at the stadium and I was watching players take free kicks after practice. I started betting them Cokes that I could stop their shots. Hector “Chocolate” Baley, a goalkeeper on the Argentine World Cup winning team in 1978, saw me and convinced San Lorenzo to sign me to my first contract. He took me under his wing and taught me to look at goalkeeing like a geometry problem. It’s all about stopping shots by cutting off certain angles. Chocolate was my first mentor and I still visit with him whenever I go back to Cordoba. I owe a debt to him that I can never repay.
When I signed with River Plate it was like driving an old jalopy and being given the keys to Schumacher’s Ferrari. River Plate is one of the greatest clubs in all of soccer. Training was crazy because we had 30 to 40 reporters there every day, analyzing every drill and every facial expression. The River fans posses an unwavering loyalty. Hearing the River faithful singing and chanting behind the goal is one of the most amazing feelings in all of sports.
At River, I was lucky enough to have some of the best players in the world as my teammates, players like Javier Saviola, Pablo Aimar, Juan Pablo Angel and Ariel “El Burrito” Ortega.
It also afforded me the opportunity to play in some of the greatest stages of soccer the world has ever known, places like Maracena Stadium against Flemengo in Rio de Janeiro and Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid against Real Madrid.
The River philosophy is that of brotherhood. Every River player, regardless of how long they played there, is a member of one of the world’s great fraternities. No matter where we go in this world, we are bound by that brotherhood. Even if we’re strangers, we’re family. For example, when Juan Toja came to FC Dallas from River, he knew that I was his family in the United States because it was something that tied us together, our history with River.
What was a highlight or two from this time in your career?
I don’t want to pick just one! When I retire from soccer, I’ll think back fondly on a lot of different memories: Ascending to the first division with Begrano de Cordoba, being named to Los Andes All-Century Team, my first start at River, being named Goalkeeper of the Year in Columbia and winning the Inferno MVP in 2006. All those moments mean something to me.
When MLS first started, we heard very little about it in Argentina. We heard that some teams played on turf and we knew they had shootouts because Americans didn’t like ties. It confused us and made it impossible for us to take the MLS seriously. We thought it was going to be like the NASL where they overpaid aging foreign stars and eventually folded.
After I met my wife, I made an effort to learn more about the leagues and I was encouraged by what I found out. The Metrostars offered me a tryout in 2005 and I was interested because that was the MLS club most Argentines could name. But, shortly after my tryout, Newell’s Old Boys offered me a contract and a chance to play for the reigning league champs. I decided to go with NOB.
By the way, I’m happy to report that Argentine fans can name most teams now, thanks to increased media coverage and ESPN’s weekly games. Shops in Cordoba now sell knock-off FCD jerseys. It’s probably illegal, but at least they’re promoting the brand.
How did you decide to come to Dallas and what were your early impressions of Texas?
We had a security incident while I was living in Argentina. Without going into detail, I decided I would not risk my wife’s safety any longer. My team understood those concerns and released me from my contract. I contacted a U.S.-based agent that night and, by the following morning, I had a tryout lined up in Dallas. The deal was if I passed the tryout, I would receive the league minimum for the rest of the season and sign a bigger contract the following season.
I didn’t know much about Dallas at the point. I knew about the Dallas Cowboys. Of course, we all know the Dallas Cup in Argentina because it’s such and important international soccer event. And I knew about J.R. Ewing. I know *a lot* about J.R. Ewing.
My family had the only color television set in our neighborhood, so the entire barrio would gather at our house when “Dallas” was on so they could watch J.R. and Sue Ellen in Technicolor. Everything about North Texas, I learned from Larry Hagman.
When I arrived at DFW, I walked off the plane with a bag filled with all my hopes and dreams. FC Dallas might not have been ready for me, but I was ready for FC Dallas. I thought the team would give me the best shot at the American dream. And I was right.
Was it difficult integrating into the team when you arrived?
I didn’t know quite what to make of the club when I arrived. There were 18 different nationalities in the locker room at that time. We had a Finnish captain, (Simo Valakari), a Colombian Icon (Oscar “Papi” Pareja) and Bobby Rhine, who could not be more all-American if he tried. We had an Irish coach with a brogue so thick, I couldn’t understand one-third of what he said. I had never heard an accent like that, so I needed our Dutch goalkeeping coach to translate for me in English. On my first day, I told Papi that I felt like I was working in the United Nations.
I have to admit I arrived with a bruised ego, annoyed that I would have to tryout. Where I come from, you know a man’s abilities and you make him an offer. I was lucky that Papi was here. He knew my resume and knew that I had started in the Argentine First Division less than a week before arriving in Texas. He explained to me why MLS teams operate the way they do, assuring me it wasn’t a personal slight.
Papi is just one of the great teammates I have been blessed with at FC Dallas. We lost Kenny Cooper, Marcello Saragosa and Drew Moor this past year, which was really tough. They were more than just teammates to me. They were friends. When I had my knee surgery this year, Kenny and his younger sister sat in the hospital waiting room with my wife for hours. Kenny knew that my wife, who was pregnant at the time, would have trouble getting me in and out of the car because I am much bigger than her, so he wanted to be there to help us. Also, his father, Kenny Cooper Sr got me into his orthopedic surgeon, came with me to the appointment to make sure all the right questions were asked and visited me in the pre-op to assure me everything would be ok. He could not have treated me better if I was his own son. This is the kind of family atmosphere we have at FC Dallas.
The good news is that Schellas Hyndman has also brought in a bunch of great guys who will continue this atmosphere. Jair, George, Ugo, Heath and Daniel are tremendous people on the field and off. The coaches are quality people too. Schellas is one of the finest men I’ve ever played for. He’s been more than just a soccer coach, he has been a life coach for me as well. I’m proud to be associated with so many excellent people at FC Dallas.
I mean this with all sincerity: I love the United States. I love the opportunities it has given me and the safety it provides my family. I will always be grateful to this country, this league and FC Dallas for the happiness I’ve known here. I get at least three calls a week from South American players looking to come to MLS. I tell them that to be successfull in MLS, you have to believe in the mission and be willing to help grow the sport here. The salary cap is an interesting idea and I understand why they can’t let salaries skyrocket. It helps avoid the mistakes of the NASL. The MLS does deny us some basic rights granted to us under FIFA and once they address those problems, there will be nothing more that I could ask of this league.
Oh, and I also tell them about Jimmy Buffett and the Parrotheads who come to Pizza Hut Park for his concert every year. His music is fine, but those fans are locos. I’ve never seen anything like it. I could live in the Unites States 100 years and I would not be able to understand Parrotheads.
Off the field, I run goalkeeper camps and help out with the Texas Outlaws, a local indoor PASL team. I have worked with ESPN Deportes radio and Univision. I also do charity clinics for underprivileged children in the local Hispanic community because I understand what it’s like to be poor and have soccer as your only refuge.
Other than that, I live a very suburban life. I spend a lot of time on the golf course, play a lot of Playstation and watch a lot of Elmo with my daughter. I have a nice, quiet life in Frisco and that’s the way I like it.
Soccer in this country is headed in the right direction. As I said, once the MLS recognizes some basic player rights granted under FIFA, there will be no stopping this league. Just look at what Toronto and Seattle have done. I love the fans in those cities and the enthusiasm they bring. You can’t attend matches in those cities without feeling confident about the league’s future.
And of course I watch the USMNT. I’m a big USMNT fan and I don’t think those guys get the respect they deserve from the international soccer community. Our starters play in some of the world’s top leagues and I believe they can compete with anyone. Argentina plays a more finesse game with smaller players, but I like the USMNT’s strength and spirit.
I knew I had become a USMNT convert this summer when I was watching our boys upset Spain in the Confederations Cup. With the exception of the time that Spain had played Argentina, I had never cheered against Spain in my entire life. I found myself cheering for the U.S. and jumping off the couch to celebrate Jozy’s goal. My sister is married to a Spaniard and I called him to chant “USA! USA!” I knew then that I had become a real Gringo. It was awesome.
Can FC Dallas win the MLS Cup next year?
Our form at the the end of the season means we’ll be taken seriously. The spirit and attitude in our locker room in September and October was incredible, the best I’ve seen since I’ve been here. We believed in each other and worked for each other. If we can continue that winning attitude next season, you can count on it.