FRISCO, Texas -- On Saturday night at Pizza Hut Park, FC Dallas will face Columbus in their final preseason game, the Pioneer Cup. However, that match won't just be the final tune up before FCD faces Houston on March 27 to open the 2010 MLS season, but it will also allow the club to honor the memory of league founding member and former team owner Lamar Hunt.
Saturday will be extra special to FCD head coach Schellas Hyndman and starting goalkeeper Dario Sala.
Before coming to FCD in June 2008, Hyndman coached for more than two decades at SMU, a school Hunt was an alumnus of and maintained close ties to. It was during that time that the FCD coach developed a close relationship with the American sports icon.
"I don't think words really describe Lamar Hunt and the feelings that I had for him but I'll try. From the first time I ever met Lamar at SMU, he was unassuming, a regular Joe," the FCD coach said. "When I met him, he said 'I'm Lamar Hunt'. I said it was good to meet you, Mr. Hunt and he said, 'Please, call me Lamar'. That was the beginning of a relationship. He loved (son) Clark and SMU, so he was always around. I felt like we had a genuine relationship."
For Hyndman, a big part of Hunt's appeal was an incredible ability to make everyone around him feel special.
"He was a guy when you walked into a room and he'd always introduce you as the most important person in the room. He had an unbelievable, unique style that he made you feel so important in his presence and in other people's presence," the FCD coach said. "He's probably one of the neatest, greatest human beings I've ever met in my life. He's somebody that all of us can model ourselves after. So the Pioneer Cup means something because it is Lamar Hunt and it is two teams that the Hunt family owns with the legacy he continues to leave in the soccer world, especially in the United States. Of course, it won't be long before we're playing in the Lamar Hunt Open Cup, which will bring back all those feelings as well."
Sala has been with FCD since 2005 and is the club's longest tenured player. After his arrival in Frisco, he and Hunt quickly developed a strong relationship based on mutual respect before his death in December 2006.
"I had a great relationship with Mr. Hunt but everyone who worked for him felt that way. He went out of his way to treat his players like family," the FCD goalkeeper said. "He made a special effort to know our wives, our children, our parents. Whenever I saw him, he made a special effort to come over and talk to me about Argentina."
Hunt even made a strong first impression on Sala's wife.
"The first time he met my wife, he didn't know that she was an American or spoke English. But someone pointed her out to him and he walked over to introduce himself to her in Spanish and he asked if our transition to the United States was going well," Sala recalled. "He made an extra effort to make sure we felt welcomed and comfortable in our new community. He later apologized to me for not realizing that my wife spoke English before they met. It's hard to imagine a powerful man like Mr. Hunt thinking he had to apologize to me for making such a thoughtful gesture toward my family. It says so much about who he was."
The seasoned Argentine had spent his entire professional career in South America before coming to the States in 2005 to sign with FCD, a move he credits Hunt with allowing him to make.
"I'm in the United States because of Lamar Hunt. Without him, there is no FC Dallas, there is no MLS and there is no professional soccer in North America," Sala said. "US-based soccer players owe a huge debt of gratitude to Lamar Hunt and as long as I'm in this league, I will work to repay it. I know Mr. Hunt cared about the fans and the fan experience, so I've made it important to my MLS tenure. I try to interact with the fans, get the crowd revved up and accept as many public appearances as possible, things that aren't as important in Argentina's premier division because I know that Mr. Hunt wanted it to be the foundation of FC Dallas."
And he considers it a big deal to honor his memory through Saturday's match with the 2008 MLS Cup champion Crew.
"I love that we have the Pioneer Cup as a way to honor Mr. Hunt. By making it an annual event, we make sure the newer members of the team learn about Mr. Hunt's contributions to the league and to both teams' histories," Sala said. "As the longest-tenured player on FC Dallas, I feel an obligation to keep his legacy alive. I like that the Pioneer Cup comes before the season starts because it gives us a chance to fire up the fan base for the upcoming season. Mr. Hunt probably wouldn't have wanted a big fuss made over him, but I know he would have backed any game that got the fans excited about FC Dallas soccer."
And naming the game the Pioneer Cup is a more than fitting moniker.
"His role in soccer, North American football and tennis is unparalleled in the modern sports era. He's recognized as a pioneer all over the world, including Argentina," Sala said. "I take great pride in telling others what a wonderful man he was. No matter what, I'll always be able to say I played for Lamar Hunt, one of the world's greatest sportsmen."