As someone who has covered FC Dallas almost continuously since 2006, I remember when the club first drafted Matt Hedges back in January 2012. Here was a kid from collegiate powerhouse North Carolina, a talented, young center back who had an impressive pedigree; someone who now-former FCD head coach Schellas Hyndman saw something special in.
It didn’t take Hedges long to crack Hyndman’s starting 11, but since that point over four years ago, he has done nothing short but solidify the Dallas defense and emerge as one of the top center backs in Major League Soccer. Hedges has always had the demeanor of the strong, silent type in the back, someone who didn’t say a whole lot but who still got the job done.
When Hyndman stepped down as coach in 2013, and current FCD boss Oscar Pareja was hired, the man known as “Papi” had a different vision. Pareja saw Hedges as a captain. Someone who breaks out of his shell and becomes not just a great leader through his actions but who could also become more vocal on the field and in the locker room.
So, prior to the 2014 season, Pareja named Hedges and Andrew Jacobson, then a veteran midfielder who now plays in Vancouver, as his co-captains. Jacobson ended up being traded later that summer to New York City SC leaving the armband solely to Hedges.
It was a big leap of faith by Pareja, but one Hedges has repaid time and time again as he has not only become more vocal, but has also come to epitomize what a leader should be on and off the field. Leadership is something Pareja knows all about because he was a well-respected voice during his playing days with the Dallas Burn and FCD.
It was a plan, just to get the most out of him, not just on the field, but off the field also and make him grow as a leader,” Pareja said. “I think Matt has done a terrific job in that department.”
Earlier this season, Hedges missed time due to injury which gave Pareja the opportunity to have other players serve as captain. Speedy attacker Fabian Castillo, who has since been sold to a club in Turkey, along with attacking midfielder Mauro Diaz and Wylie product Victor Ulloa, have also served as captain this season.
Again, Pareja’s aim is to get those players to come out of their shells and to leave their respective comfort zones, much like he did so successfully with Hedges over the past few seasons.
We’re doing the same [thing], trying to get him [Diaz] out of that shell and trying to give him an opportunity to lead the team in a different way, from a different angle,” Pareja said.
Hedges admits going from being someone who wasn’t a big talker on and off the field to becoming a more vocal leader was a huge paradigm shift at first and something he still works on improving at every day. Yet, it’s something he’s become more comfortable with as the years have passed.
Yeah, it showed a lot of faith to do it [for Pareja to name me captain], but it forced me out of my comfort zone,” Hedges said. “I think that’s something as a person and a player that you kind of have to do that to grow. Getting out of that comfort zone helped me become vocal, be more of a leader on the field and in the locker room. It’s something that you don’t think about a lot, getting out of your comfort zone when you’ve been here for a long time and you’re in your routine and doing the same thing, but that was something that for me changed my whole mindset.”
When Hedges looks back on his early days in MLS, he sees himself as he was, the strong and silent type, the sort of leader who was more of a lead-by-example personality. Now the veteran center back who recently got engaged, sees himself still as someone who is quite adept at leading by example. A player and a person who continues to evolve in a number of ways including finding avenues to be a more vocal leader both on and off the field so he can continue meeting and exceeding Pareja’s rather high expectations.
Yeah, it’s something I still need to work on, it’s something you can never really be too good at. It’s telling guys on the field what you want them to do and off the field what you expect of them,” Hedges said. “I think that’s the biggest change for me. Coming in, that was not me at all. But when you get the armband, it’s like you have to do it. You can’t not do it when you have the captain’s armband. I think that’s the biggest change.”
Amazingly enough, despite being regarded as one of the top central defenders in MLS, Hedges has yet to appear in the MLS All-Star Game. However, he was selected to the league’s best 11 last fall, showing that his great work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Of course, as a team-first guy, he doesn’t concern himself with individual accolades, but he admits it was nice to finally get some recognition for his hard work and strong play in 2015.
“Yeah, I’d probably say finally because I feel like, not just me, but I feel like a lot of guys here don’t get as much recognition as they deserve,” Hedges said. “It was nice to get recognition, to finally get that they’re noticing what we’re doing around here or what I’m doing, it’s good.”
But he’s not surprised that it took until last season for him to gain some league-wide recognition for his strong play. Despite FCD having a stellar record since Pareja came on board, the league in general and the media seem to practically ignore or diminish all the good things Dallas has been doing under “Papi,” preferring instead to extol the virtues of more high-profile clubs like the LA Galaxy, New York City FC, Portland and Seattle.
Hedges and his FCD teammates have come to accept that’s just the way things are. When Dallas does get some long-overdue recognition, whether it’s one player or the club, it’s praise they are happy to receive.
“It’s kind of hey, let’s talk about Seattle, LA or whatever, but it’s never really Dallas. Even when we’re in first place in the league, you see one or two articles about us and like five about what Clint Dempsey ate yesterday or something like that. It is what it is,” Hedges said.
Another area where Hedges hasn’t received his proper due is with the US national team. The now-veteran center back has made just one appearance for the US, in February 2015, when he came off the bench for the final 18 minutes of an international friendly against Panama. US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff have seemingly ignored Hedges, a snub which is a head-scratcher to anyone who has seen Hedges play, including Pareja.
“I think Matt is a national team-caliber player, that’s what I think. He’s a player who has grown tremendously in all areas. He just became not just a regular player in our lineup, but somebody who we look to every time. Matt has done a great job for us,” Pareja said.