Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By DAN KARELL
HARRISON, N.J. — It’s safe to say that Kellyn Acosta isn’t your average 18-year-old.
While others kids his age are likely finishing up high school or starting their first year of college, the FC Dallas defender is going head to head against the likes of Thierry Henry, Diego Valeri, and Camilo Sanvezzo on a week to week basis.
Perhaps more surprising about the youngest starter in Major League Soccer is that Acosta already looks like he belongs.
“It’s crazy, as if I’m not like most 18-year-olds,” Acosta told SBI after FC Dallas’ match against the Red Bulls. “I’ve had time to adjust, but I’m enjoying it.”
Despite FC Dallas’ late-season struggles, one of the few bright spots has been Acosta’s play.
On September 22, Acosta made his seventh consecutive start for FC Dallas in a 1-0 defeat to the Red Bulls, deputizing at right back with Zach Lloyd out injured. Going up against the aforementioned Henry and Red Bulls winger Johnny Steele over the course of the full 90 minutes, Acosta looked comfortable in his role, able to defend as well as launch attacks.
“Quite honestly I thought the first 20-minutes he was doing well, then the next 20-25 minutes he seemed to have really hesitated going forward and the quality of services,” said FC Dallas head coach Schellas Hyndman. “(I) talked to him a little bit at halftime and I thought he had a very good second half. It’s not easy playing against Steele, who I think is a strong physical player, or Henry who floats out, or a guy who was causing a lot of problems for us was just the physical play of Cahill.
“I thought his maturity the way he looks (out there), it’s beyond his years.”
Playing beyond his years is nothing new to Acosta. As a 15-year-old, Acosta spent a year in the U.S. Soccer residency system in Bradenton, Fla. and made the Under-17 roster for the 2011 U-17 World Cup in Mexico, playing all four games for the team in the tournament. Again, this past summer while he was still 17-years-old, Acosta was the youngest member of Tab Ramos’ U.S. U-20 squad that competed at the Toulon Tournament in France in May and June as well as the U-20 World Cup in Turkey later in June.
Though he didn’t appear at the U-20 World Cup, Acosta returned to FC Dallas and within a week of his 18th birthday, he made his full team debut in a friendly match against Stoke City, playing the full 90 minutes. Three days later, Acosta made his MLS debut off the bench at the Seattle Sounders, and since then, he’s started every game that the club has played.
“It’s great, all my hard work is paying off,” said Acosta. “I’m just going to keep working, keep trying to get starts as much as I can, and that’s all I can do. Overall it’s been a good experience for me getting some minutes, I’ve enjoyed every minute that I’ve played.”
Acosta became FC Dallas’ seventh homegrown player signing when he inked a contract with the club on July 12, 2012. Though the club have signed a total of ten homegrown players at this point, they haven’t exactly provided a clear road to the first team. Two of the club’s homegrown signings, Bryan Leyva and Ruben Luna, are no longer with the club, while three others are on loan with lower league clubs to gain playing time.
The onetime Maryland commit was inactive the rest of the 2012 season despite signing before the roster freeze, and even once he was active this season, his involvement with the U.S. youth national sides and academy, as well as the veterans in the lineup ahead of him, kept Acosta far from seeing the field.
“It was tough, but I wanted to keep working hard and adjust my play to the first team, because it’s a big step from the academy team to the senior team,” said Acosta. “I was just looking to work hard, get some reserve games in, and go from there.”
Acosta’s big break came when the incumbent right back Loyd suffered a hamstring injury in late July, forcing the FC Dallas coaching staff to make a difficult decision.
“It got to a point where (when) Zach Loyd got injured, it put us in the situation of saying ‘do we put a left footed player over there, or do we give the boy a chance?’, and he’s really taken advantage of it,” said Hyndman.
Now that he’s receiving a consistent amount of minutes in the lineup, Acosta has passed another milestone. With his 77 minutes played last Sunday in FC Dallas’ 4-2 defeat to the Columbus Crew, Acosta is now the owner of the record for the most minutes played in an FC Dallas uniform by a homegrown player.
It’s an impressive feat in a season that once looked bereft of chances to make any starts, and even more considering that Acosta made his debut on the same weekend that the U.S. U-18s arrived in Northern Ireland for the Milk Cup, a squad he originally thought he would be on.
Even with the early success in Acosta’s young career, Hyndman made sure to issue the teenager a caveat to help keep his head on the ground, as his team fights for its lives to grab the final place in the Western Conference playoff race.
“We’re real happy for him but he has to understand, he hasn’t arrived,” Hyndman said. “It’s just an opportunity to get better.”
It’s an opportunity that most 18-year-old kids aren’t afforded with.