Quiet leadership can be hard to spot. If you ask the average FC Dallas fan they might not even know one of the best players in franchise history is currently holding the line in the back four.
About a month ago, center back Matt Hedges passed up fellow club legend Jason Kreis, the 1999 MLS Most Valuable Player, for most starts in franchise history. Hedges now sits on 233 starts and 20,578 minutes played, another club record he took from Kreis earlier this year.
Hedges – who at the time he broke the starts record was more interested in the game result than the record – has had some time to think on passing Kreis and now sees the bigger picture.
“It’s a great honor. This club’s been around a long time and had a lot of great players come through. To be the guy who’s had the most starts is kind of a cool feeling.”
It’s only been one season that FC Dallas Head Coach Luchi Gonzalez has been working with Hedges but he already knows what kind of player he has at his disposal.
“Oh yeah, he’s been big-time,” Gonzalez said of his co-captain. “He’s always been big-time in his humility, in his teammate mentality, and character. And then his performances.”
Hedges, the 2016 MLS Defender of the year, is up to 240 regular-season games played for Los Toros, just seven games behind Kreis. That’s the next big franchise-record Hedges will pocket early next season. That’s a lot of games and it’s the kind of record Hedges says he doesn’t want to think about.
“I try not to because it makes me feel old,” Hedges said. “I still feel like a young guy when I’m out there playing. You see all these 20, 21-year-old guys out here… I feel like that. I’ve played almost 250 games and it doesn’t feel like it!”
If Coach Gonzalez has his way that franchise games record will fall and then some. “We hope he can play for this jersey for many more years. He really takes care of himself off the field and has a great mentality. He doesn’t look like he’s ready to slow down anytime soon.”
Hedges, who on average has played 30 regular-season games a season, could hit the 300 games played milestone sometimes during the 2021 season baring. His current FC Dallas contact runs through 2020 but Hedges has said before he’d like to be a one-club player and based on his gaffer’s reaction that should be the case.
Now 29, Hedges is in peak shape at the prime of his career having been named a 2019 MLS All-Star. Part of his longevity and good physical health comes from his at-home regimen where Hedges maintains his body with bands and recovery boots.
Hedges and his wife celebrated the birth of a baby boy during the recent international break. According to the new father, his young son is a happy baby and takes after his own home recovery methods. “He mostly just sleeps,” Hedges chuckled. “I sleep 3 or 4 hours during the day, especially in the summer. It just drains you. I think that’s probably the main thing, getting a lot of rest.”
It’s a good thing Hedges does take care of his body as he puts in through the meat grinder playing for his club. Like the time he split his face open against New York City FC in a collision with his own teammate, Kelly Acosta.
As other legends known for their longevity have done, Hedges emphasizes his offseason regime. “I don’t really take that long off. Maybe a week just to kind of relax,” he said. “I just try and stay fit the whole time through and maybe even get a little more fit than I need to be in the season because if you let yourself drop too far then coming back it’s going to be really a rough ride.”
No player is too old to improve and for Hedges, the big change this season under Coach Gonzalez has been his passing out of the back, a key component of the style the local media have dubbed Luchi-Ball. A career 84% passer, Hedges accuracy this year has jumped up to 88% and he frequently hits the mid-90s on his best days.
His coach says it’s the reps in practice and games that helped Hedges – who was named MLS Best XI in 2015 and 2016 – make that passing improvement. “We create pressure in training. We have guys flying at him, intentionally, and we want him to deal with that – that chaos – with clarity and trying things.
“He certainly has responded to the things we are working on in training and he has the courage and the confidence to do it in the game,” Coach Gonzalez continued.
Hedges – drafted by Schellus Hyndman in 2012 and who also played under Oscar Pareja – says he was always capable of the quality passing out of the back, but the style at FC Dallas was more of a counter-attacking one in prior regimes. “The way Luchi wants to play he depends on the center backs to do that. I feel like I can handle it.”
As his coach says, Hedges remains a humble guy. As just one example, he didn’t send in a goal-scoring music choice for the team’s new player-specific celebrations.
“It’s not something that happens to me a lot so I don’t think about the celebration,” Hedges claimed, despite scoring 15 regular-season goals in his career. “It’s not ‘Yes! I scored!’ It’s ‘All right! Let’s go get a shutout!’.”
Hedges and his fellow FCD defenders have held the opposition to a paltry 42 goals against this year, 7th best in MLS, and 7 shutouts. “I think it’s just reps,” Hedges said, as usual giving credit for the defensive cohesion to the work he and his teammates put in. “As many games as we’ve all played together in a row, for the backline it’s just that chemistry that comes from playing together.”
And for FC Dallas fans, that cohesion may be peaking at just the right time. Perhaps just the right time for a playoff run?
“That’s a big thing in this league, at the end of the season to be on the up and playing well,” Hedges said. “You see a lot of teams that go to the Cup and win things do that.”
“I feel like we’re peaking at the right time,” he concluded.