“Johnny Football” looks to stake his claim in 2021

As the smoke still clears on the quick-fire departures of Reggie Cannon and Bryan Reynolds, it hasn’t been Ema Twumasi or Eddie Munjoma that have made their push to start in the vacant role. Instead, Johnny Nelson – with some assistance from the ever-versatile Ryan Hollingshead – has forced his way into Luchi Gonzalez’s starting lineups with the new season just days away.

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FC Dallas defender John Nelson brings the ball down in the MLS match against Houston Dynamo. (Daniel McCullough, 3rd Degree)

The 2019 draftee made a career-high ten starts in 2020, including both playoff games, but those opportunities largely came with Hollingshead similarly moving around the field rather than winning a direct competition for the start. Only once did Nelson start with Hollingshead on the bench – in Hollingshead’s only time out of the starting lineup – as Dallas rested several starters for a win over Sporting Kansas City on a run of three games in six days.

“Ryan is a great player and a great guy,” Nelson told 3rdDegree.net. “I look up to him, I’m asking him for advice every day. Obviously that spot, we’re definitely competing. Throughout last season you saw sometimes he was playing on the right a little, sometimes more left. Sometimes he was playing wing, especially in the playoff games. I think we kind of found a good balance as a team where I was more a defensive player and then Ryan was just playing in front of me.”

One of the reasons Ryan Hollingshead has been a fixture under Luchi Gonzalez and predecessor Oscar Pareja is his versatility. Ohio-native Nelson has played on both sides and more centrally. As his attacking game has grown, he has played higher up as a wingback and in the midfield.

Even with those increased opportunities, the 22-year-old now has his sights set on the left back battle.

“This preseason I’ve been talking with Luchi,” said Nelson. “Obviously I want to be the left back starter, but Luchi did tell me ‘we could see you as a left back, maybe potentially right back if needed, or I could even play in the middle at that. If we play a back three with wing backs.”

FC Dallas head coach Luchi Gonzalez stands alongside draftees Callum Montgomery (L) and Johnny Nelson (R) at the 2019 MLS SuperDraft in Chicago. (FC Dallas Communications)
FC Dallas head coach Luchi Gonzalez stands alongside draftees Callum Montgomery (L) and Johnny Nelson (R) at the 2019 MLS SuperDraft in Chicago. (FC Dallas Communications)

One big difference for Nelson in 2021 will be the loss of fellow 2019 draftee Callum Montgomery, whose option was declined and MLS rights traded to Minnesota United. The pair won USL League One with North Texas SC as rookies after both coming from schools within the University of North Carolina system.

“We came in together,” said Nelson. “we became great friends, roommates. It’s tough to see him go. It really is, but I wish him the best. I know he’s gonna kill it.”

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