Fernando Clavijo has Taken FC Dallas to New Heights, but Took an Unlikely Path to Soccer Stardom

FRISCO - Among all the early season action at Toyota Stadium, a monumental anniversary came and went in the front office last month without much adoration - largely because the humble person of interest prefers it that way. 

Over the last five seasons, FC Dallas has moved from Western Conference mediocrity to MLS powerhouse, and it all begins with the man in charge. 

But the Fernando Clavijo we all know and love, the one who lives, eats and breathes soccer, almost never was. 

A New Life, Soccer or Not

At the age of 16, Clavijo began his professional career in his native Uruguay for Atenas De San Carlos in his hometown of Maldonado. He was a coveted player by the club, but he had much bigger and better dreams. At the time, though, the rules on player movement in Uruguay were very guarded. 

“There was a clause that each team had one player that could not be sold under any circumstances, because that player was [seen as] the golden egg,” his wife of almost 40 years, Martha, said. “Fernando was put into that list.”

Clavijo (top right) with Athenas de San CarlosWhen teams from abroad would inquire about the skillful Clavijo, Atenas would set the asking price on a transfer so high that no team would come close to an offer. They didn’t want to lose their golden egg, but their egg was growing rotten of his handcuffed situation. 

“One day, we were married, I was 18 and he was 22, he had a steady job but he saw that his career as he wanted it and as he had envisioned it was not going to go anywhere because he saw that the team was not ever going to sell him,” Martha explained. “He said, 'You know what, Martha? I quit. I won't play soccer anymore, let's go someplace else.’”

Just like that, he hung up his cleats and the couple moved to the United States in search of a better life for themselves. They settled in New Jersey and Fernando was working as a busboy, earning a humble living and pursuing the American dream. 

On the weekends, he’d play soccer at a local park with other casual players. And that’s where, by chance, a diamond in the New Jersey rough was discovered. 

“One day playing soccer with an Italian team at a park in New Jersey, these other Italian guys came and asked him his name,” Martha said. “That was the beginning of a chain of events, because that Italian knew another Italian who knew another Italian and that other Italian had a soccer team. And that's how it all unfolded. Just from someone that saw him in a park in New Jersey.”

Soon, Clavijo found himself at tryouts for American Soccer League side New York Apollos, and he made the squad. As a defender. Clavijo had never played defender before in his life. 

He stayed with the Apollos for two years until he was sold to the New York Arrows in the budding Major Indoor Soccer League, where he would become one of the best indoor players of his generation. He won four MISL titles in his first six seasons in the league between the Arrows and the San Diego Sockers. 

Country Not by Birth, but by Love

Although he was born in Uruguay and still has immense pride for his birthplace, his true allegiance lies in the place that changed his life. 

“He's Uruguayan through and through, but he's also American through and through,” said long-time friend and MLS analyst for Univision, Marcelo Balboa. “I think where the passion comes from is the opportunity and how hard he had to work to become a professional soccer player in this country.”

In 1990, just eleven years removed from that park in New Jersey, the indoor star was being coaxed back to the outdoor game to wear the red, white and blue. The converted defender was part of an influx of indoor players to the National Team after a disappointing performance at the 1990 World Cup, in which the U.S. lost all three group stage matches. 

“The first meeting that I had with him was when they brought him out to practice and they said, 'Oh yeah, this is the guy we're looking at playing center back,' you know, taking my position,” Balboa said. “There's always a little bit of animosity between each other because you're trying to keep your spot. Little by little, once you got to meet him and know him though, you realize he's just a guy who loves playing soccer, a guy that that's all he's wanted to do.

“When he comes on, let's be honest, he was like a father figure to most of us because he was older and the experience he had with the San Diego Sockers and the championships he'd won with them. The one thing that pissed everyone off was that he was older than all of us, but he was faster than all of us.”

Clavijo would make 61 appearances for the U.S. National team in just four years leading up to, and through the 1994 World Cup - the 41st most caps of some 750 players in USMNT history.

“The passion he has for our sport is infectious and I think that's a key thing that draws people in. It's not one of those things where even if Fernando wasn't going to start, or play, he was still there helping the guy that was going to take his spot,” Balboa said. “In '93 when I tore my ACL, Fernando and a guy named Rudy Rudawski were the two guys who brought me back to health. There were times when I didn't want to get out of bed, I didn't want to go to treatment and he would walk over to my apartment because they lived just a few blocks away and drag me out of bed. I think that's more and more how our friendship grew and got stronger. We became roommates and as a young professional who thought he know the whole world of soccer, he straightened me out pretty quick on how life is and how a professional acts.”

The Sheriff on the Block

Any time you travel with Clavijo, you have to allow for more time. Not because he’s a slow traveler, but because he’s a man of the people. He makes friends everywhere he goes and whether he’s known you for 30 years or 30 seconds, he treats you the same.

“He has always remained humble,” his wife Martha said. “He never forgot his roots and he never forgot the respect that his parents put on him to treat everybody the same and to have the same respect for the king as for someone that has not so much to offer financially, let's say. Everybody is equal. I call him the sheriff on the block because he is. Even though he has gotten to the highest of any professional career can get, he remains the same Fernando, or Catano as his nickname is, from the neighborhood.”

“I kid him about being the mayor of everywhere we go,” FC Dallas President Dan Hunt said. “We went to Uruguay on a trip to see Diego Forlan a number of years ago and there were people fighting to carry his luggage at the airport in Montevideo. And that was after leaving DFW, where people were inviting him into the Admirals Club just to sit down with him. It’s just amazing.”

After his improbable playing career came to a close in late 1994, Clavijo couldn’t leave the game he loves. He began a second career as coach. 

"He is certainly a guy I look up to because he's had success at every level he's been at," said Brian Schmetzer, now head coach of Seattle Sounders FC, who played with Clavijo and started his coaching career as his assistant with the Seattle SeaDogs of the Continental Indoor Soccer League. "He gave me an opportunity at the SeaDogs to be an assistant coach there after I injured myself a year and a half into my deal, so I learned from him some of the same coaching points I use today. 

"We ended up winning a CISL championship in his third season, and he actually guaranteed that. His opening press conference for Full House Sports and Entertainment, he got up there and said 'We're going to win a championship in three years.' And he made good on his word."

Clavijo would spend the next 14 years as a coach, with stints as the head man of the New England Revolution, the Colorado Rapids and the Haitian National Team - the most unique experience of his professional life

During his one year in charge of the small, island nation’s men’s program in 2004, Clavijo could never even visit Haiti because of the volatile political climate and three players deserted their country during World Cup Qualification in Haiti. In a difficult situation, though, Fernando’s true colors shined bright once again.

With many players not receiving pay checks from the Haitian Federation, Clavijo would often buy meals for his team out of his own pocket. At one point, his 19-year-old star, Stephane Guillaume, suffered a major knee injury and was told by the team doctor he would never play again. Clavijo took the uninsured Guillaume to his native Uruguay to get help. 

“I talked to my friend, a doctor that did surgery [for] all the big players, and said ‘I cannot pay $10,000 for surgery. Look at him and see what you can do for him,’” Clavijo told me in 2015. “[The doctor told me]…‘Fernando give me $1200 and that [will] cover the hospital, anesthesiology and [my expenses].’ I paid him $1200 and the kid is still playing today. He was never back to [his full potential], but he’s still playing.”

A Whole New Model

FC Dallas found themselves at a bit of a crossroads in the early 2010s. After making the club’s first appearance in an MLS Cup Final in 2010, they struggled in 2011 after losing MLS MVP David Ferreira early in their campaign. With a changing MLS roster building model, the club knew they had an opportunity with the talent right in their own backyard. 

“There's the mentality of clubs that are going out and spending big dollars on players who are coming here for their retirement years, and that's not our philosophy,” said Hunt on the shift in FCD’s mentality. “We said 'Look, we're sitting on a gold mine of resources here, we've got to figure out how to grow that.’”

“When we were first presented the opportunity to come to Dallas, we thought with the history that Lamar Hunt had - Fernando was lucky enough to meet him - we thought that it was going to be a great move for Fernando to bring his knowledge,” Martha said. “We made the right [decision]. Five years later, look where the Academy is. Look where the first team is. It's amazing. I'm so proud of him because he has that keen eye that not everyone has.”

Clavijo’s eye is a driving factor of the success FC Dallas has enjoyed in recent years.

“There's guys that have the ability to coach, there's guys that have the ability to read talent and there's guys that have the ability to put a team together and find the strengths and weaknesses of players,” Balboa said. “I think Fernando has the ability of all of those.”

The biggest move of the last few years came in 2014, when Clavijo led the charge to bring a club legend home. Oscar Pareja, the 10-year Dallas veteran who then helped launch the FC Dallas Academy in 2008, was proving himself as an MLS coach in Colorado. As the development of young, Dallas-bred players was taking another step forward, he was the only coach to jumpstart the shift taking place in Dallas. 

“I knew Fernando from before and I always respected his career in the United States as a player and the different roles that he had…the opportunity to come back to the club knowing that he was in that role, for me was a plus,” Pareja said. “I think one of the things this club has is people that share the same objectives and the vision is the same. The love for the Academy, the love for the process and the passion for the winning and trying to get things done has been the philosophy of life and the resiliency that we have.”

“There's no secret why we brought Oscar back, because he embodies what this club is about and Fernando was the biggest supporter of that. Oscar had a willingness to play young players and Oscar believes in our Academy,” Hunt said. “But Fernando will tell you he puts his hands on the fire, which is one of my favorite sayings of his because I'm still not quite sure what it is - I know it's bad - but he's willing to risk it all for our own young players.”

Clavijo’s ability to intertwine the local talent in North Texas with the young, raw talent he finds his tireless scouting of Central and South America, as well as Europe to fill out the roster is uncanny. He sees things that others can’t, and he finds ways to bring the best to Frisco without breaking the bank. 

“Fernando and Oscar have taken it to another level. To be able to bring in a guy like Mauro Diaz, to be able bring in a [Michael] Barrios, to be able have a Homegrown kid like [Kellyn] Acosta who they developed and gotten playing time, to be able to take a chance on a guy like [Walker] Zimmerman and keep playing and seeing the potential that he has - now he could be a factor of putting pressure on players in the next World Cup and making that team,” Balboa said. “They both see the game similar. That's why they do so well.”

"FC Dallas over the last five years has been arguably one of our best franchises in our league and I think Fernando is a big part of that," Schmetzer added. "The Hunts do a great job and Oscar certainly deserves a lot of credit, but Fernando is certainly a winner and his characteristics coupled with Oscar's and the Hunts' - it's a winning tradition there now."

The Fight of His Life

What makes Clavijo’s successes in Dallas over the last five years even more incredible to think about, is the personal fight he’s kept largely private for the last three years. 

In late February 2014, as he was reaching his second anniversary with the club, Clavijo was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of cancer that begins in the plasma cells of bone marrow.

He wouldn’t, though, let his personal fight interrupt his passion for soccer and for the project at FC Dallas.

“It's an example, for me. It's an example for many,” Pareja said. “Dealing with such a hard situation and being able to compete with the cancer and being able to control it and overcome that part, and at the same time to keep up with the rhythm of the job is something to admire. It's exemplary. You see him every day in the office and you see him all the time with the same character and you see him all the time pushing. There are many people who would look at it more pessimistically than him.” 

In early 2016, Fernando announced that his cancer was in full remission - on Facebook of course. Around the office, you could hear the joy as employees, one-by-one, found out the great news. 

But his battle has not stopped. There is no cure for multiple myeloma, just constant treatment to keep it from coming back. Every week Clavijo must go through chemo and scans, in addition to the plethora of medications he takes daily to keep his disease at bay. At times, he is left tired and feeling weak, but he manages he personal fight and excels at his professional life at the club on an everyday basis.

“Fernando has his good days and his bad days, he and I talk about it periodically and I can tell sometimes when he's run down,” Hunt said. “When you have that kind of driving force to be successful, you're going to be in great shape. It speaks to the person he is and he loves this club. It's fun to watch, along with a lot of people, the love and the passion for the organization.”

“Once he puts a foot out the door, he's in his environment, he's in his happy place,” Martha Clavijo said. “His body reminds him it's time to go home, you're tired, it's time to go to the office a little later this morning, but working seven days a week, as long as he can do it, I don't have a say because that gives him the liberty of doing as he pleases.

“Thank you to the organization that allows Fernando to work when he is well and to take it easy when he's not. Not everybody is that understanding. Five years ago, we knew that we would be working with A++ people. If you are to take Fernando from a plane, a soccer game or anything that is related to soccer away from him, his demise would be sooner than later.”

So onward he fights, through the good days and the bad, constantly looking to make the club he loves so much better. And doing so with the passion and care that he carries with him through every aspect of life - the same Catano from Maldonado, Uruguay. 

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