Once a stable asset outside back is suddenly chaotic for FC Dallas

Heading into the eighth game of an abbreviated season, several questions remain of FC Dallas include outside back. With Reggie Cannon now in Portugal, the FC Dallas fullback situation is suddenly in flux as it begins its next phase after a band-aid fix over the past month.

The team’s usual combination of Cannon and Ryan Hollingshead only featured once since the resumption of Major League Soccer’s season – the 1-0 defeat to Nashville as the pair played as wing backs in a 3-5-2 formation.

A family emergency ruled Ryan Hollingshead out of two games. His return coincided with Cannon being held out of the past two fixtures as his move to Boavista reached an advanced stage.

Johnny Nelson came in as left back cover for Hollingshead. The 10th overall pick of the 2019 MLS SuperDraft has impressed defensively in his four games. Nelson is more of a defensive fullback, as Cannon was at the start of his career. That comes at the sacrifice of some attacking play.

A heat map featuring Johnny Nelson (bottom) and Reggie Cannon (top) from the 0-0 draw vs Houston Dynamo on 8/21/20

On the right I’ve isolated the movements for Johnny Nelson and Reggie Cannon from the recent draw in Houston. I chose this game as it was the last game Nelson played opposite a regular starting right back.

What you can see from it is just how much more Cannon breaks up the field towards the attacking third.

I spoke to Cannon early in his professional career about the difficulty of transitioning to the attack.

“You never know if he’s [Michael Barrios] going to take it one-on-one or two-on-one,” said Cannon after his first start at Toyota Stadium in the Concacaf Champions League in 2018. “Basically I’m right-hand cover and I have to figure out when to go and when not to go, so that’s something I need to improve on in my game.”

Cannon made a rapid adjustment to his game but that learning curve was aided somewhat by forming a regular partnership with Michael Barrios. A player whose tendencies he could adjust to and compliment on both sides of the ball. When to get forward or stay back, and how much your team mate will track back. Add to that over and underlapping runs in support.

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Johnny Nelson lines up a cross against Minnesota United in the 3-1 FC Dallas win on August 29, 2020. (Matt Visinsky, 3rd Degree)

Johnny Nelson has started four games in 2020, and played behind four different players on the left wing. Nelson is acutely aware of the challenges posed by enforced changes at the left wing.

“We’ve been changing lineups almost every game,” said Nelson on a media call earlier this week. “We’ve been having injuries, so it is hard to get a connection with the person in front of me… I think once someone kind of sticks that position in front of me, it’s easier to get the chemistry and the overlaps like you’ve seen with Reggie and Barrios.”

Hollingshead returned to slot in on the right hand side ahead of Cannon’s likely long term replacement, Bryan Reynolds. The effect is breaking two positions at once. While the right-footed Hollingshead played a lot of his college career as a right wing, playing right back means all of the nuances he’s picked up since adopting the left back position in 2016 are now reversed.

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Ryan Hollingshead lines up a cross against Minnesota United in the 3-1 FC Dallas win on August 29, 2020. (Matt Visinsky, 3rd Degree)

“It’s weird because I am naturally a right-footer,” said Hollingshead in a media call prior to the 1-1 draw with Sporting Kansas City. “Because I’ve been playing on the left side for so long it feels inverted. So it took a little bit to just kind of get comfortable on that side. Just doing some simple things getting good touches on the ball, I would say, I think I feel more confident on the left side just because of my run of games on the left side of the field.”

Under many coaches, the full backs are an afterthought in the attacking phase but Luchi-ball is built around the use of full backs or wing backs carrying the ball in transition to feed the front four.

In 2020, Hollingshead hasn’t regained his peak 2019 form either before the shutdown or since. We’ve seen Bryan Reynolds come off the bench against SKC to inject the attacking element you expect to see from Hollingshead.

With an unsettled situation in both full back positions, Luchi Gonzalez and his staff have their work cut out creating stability heading towards the second phase of the revised regular season.

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Bryan Reynolds in action against Minnesota United in the 3-1 FC Dallas win on August 29, 2020. (Matt Visinsky, 3rd Degree)

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