Back in early March, I wrote a commentary about the biggest factors that would determine the 2019 FC Dallas season. The regime change in Frisco was, of course, the biggest thing on everyone’s mind – a new head coach, a new technical director, a new head of soccer operations, and a doubling down on the FCD Academy to produce talent. But beyond that in the piece, I broke down five areas of concern for 2019.
Los Toros ended up finishing 7th in the West earning the last playoff spot. An average season then, but perhaps that’s good given the number of teenagers running around the pitch.
How did FCD get there? Let’s look back at those five areas of concern and see how they affected the team.
1. Growth of the Midfield
FCD mostly returned their back four, goalkeeper, and front three for 2019. In midfield, however, the pieces were new to the club and/or inexperienced.
Carlos Gruezo, the one returning starting piece, was fantastic as the 6 right up until he got sold. Bryan Acosta was pretty good, but not great, as the linking-8. In the second half of the season, he became the 6 and while he performed better than I expected, it wasn’t up to the Gruezo standard.
At the time, the other 8-spot in midfield – FCD was trying to use dual 8s in the spring – was a battle between Jacori Hayes and Paxton Pomykal. Pomykal proved to be a force as the “free-8” over the first half of the season, earning an All-Star game selection. The second half? Not as much. Injuries, other player’s performances, and coach selections shifted Pomykal to a supporting role. Hayes spent most of the season as a pure depth piece.
Two players I didn’t even talk about in the midfield in preseason became consistent presences in the second half in more of a traditional 6-8-10 look. Once Acota moved to the 6, Brandon Servania took over the 8-spot and earned his starts with some fantastic performances. Jesus Ferreira became the go-to 10, albeit one with defensive, high-press responsibilities.
Two players who saw some early season playing time didn’t factor down the stretch: Edwin Cerrillo and Thomas Roberts.
Over the course of the season, FCD’s young midfield – as I predicted – struggled to break down a low block. They did improve over time, Ferreira being a big part of that; but still, room to grow in this regard. Creating better scoring opportunities, getting the ball into feet in the box, also improved over the year. But like everything else, it can be better.
Verdict: Some, but not enough. There was lots of growth and it helped keep FCD competitive but there is room for a ton more which gives this club upside for the future.
2. High Striker
Next up, the need for a big-time #9 that has been an issue in Dallas for a long time.
In the spring, I was feeling quite optimistic about Dominic Badji based on preseason performance, although I did wonder about how he would fare week to week against MLS competition.
“If every team that FCD faces sits deep and forces the Texans to break them down it could be a long year for Badji. FCD will need to make this tactic ineffective with some quality ball work and passing. Badji may have to do some hard, physical work in the box to get some shots off. That not really his game.” –Buzz in the spring
Boy howdy was I right to worry. Badji didn’t come even remotely close to answering the bell.
Quite quickly Jesus Ferreira, who wasn’t even in the mix at the 9 in the spring, became the go-to high striker. While he was serviceable there, he wasn’t the long term solution.
The solution, over the last 8 games anyway – not even a quarter of the season, turned out to be Zdenek Ondrasek. A complete bust until mid-August, Cobra grabbed 7 goals in those last 8 games (7 of which he played).
Verdict: bust until the very late going. At that point, Ondrasek helped FCD slither into the playoffs. Without him, they would have missed.
3. Breaking Pressure
An underrated requirement of the Luchi-Ball is patient build-up out of the back. But in order to do this, the back 4 and keeper need to be good with the ball at their feet and in passing.
Prior to 2019, this wasn’t the strongest aspect of the club’s defense, not bad, just not great.
This was perhaps the strongest area of the five. Reto Ziegler and Ryan Hollingshead could already pass. Both Matt Hedges and Reggie Cannon raised their passing game. And Jesse Gonzalez? My word what a leap he made. He went from a liability to the best passing keeper in MLS. Just a stunning turn.
Verdict: massive win. Thanks mostly to Gonzalez’s massive improvement, build from the back became one of the club’s strengths.
4. Youth in Depth
While all the national media were raving about the youth movement in FC Dallas, we locals knew early on that is was mostly about depth. Of the youth, only Pomykal looked to have won a starting job at the start of the season, replacing Roland Lamah.
The rest of the youth was about depth. While Bressan isn’t young, he is a lot younger than the man he replaced, Maynor Figueroa, as the defensive role player. Ferreira replaced Tesho Akindele as the key bench attacking sub. Two teenagers – Roberts and Cerrillo – were added to the teenagers already in place for depth, like Servania. Callum Montgomery and Johnny Nelson, while not teenagers, are still quite young and were added via the draft to the depth in defense alongside Bryan Reynolds.
We knew in the summer there was going to be a window when a whole bunch of pieces were missing with callups. Gruezo, Acosta, Cannon, Servania, Pomykal, and Cerrillo (he replaced the player we expected to be missing, Ferreira) were all missing at the same time. Would the youth in depth hold up?
Verdict: pretty good. FCD went deep with a bunch of young players using Cerillo, Roberts, Pablo Aranguiz, Nelson, and Reynolds more then we could have expected in depth. Even Ema Twumasi and Francis Atuahene saw game-time – 27 and 26 minutes respectively – before being loaned out. Considering some of the depth, notably Ferreira and Servania, became go-to starters I might even grade this a big win.
5. Style vs Location
I quite enjoyed Luchi-Ball, it’s a lot of fun to watch and analyze. I did like it better with dual-8s than the 6-8-10, but you can’t win em all.
In the preseason, I was worried about the summer heat’s impact. What would happen when it was 100+ degrees for three months? How would the high press fair in the dog days of the summer heat?
Luchi-Ball worked better than expected at home but not as well on the road. FCD lost only 1 game at home – a feat equaled by only three other teams: LAFC, NYCFC, and Minnesota United. Opponents come into the Texas heat and struggle against the press and possession. That bodes well for the future.
On the road though? That’s where we wonder. Coach Gonzalez swapped out of the normal version of his tactics multiple times away, notably against high possession teams. Was FCD tired in the late July/early August window? They badly needed the infusion of never-say-die guts that Ondrasek brought. Can this style be adapted to the road? Can FC Dallas play this way and win in tough conditions? These might be questions to be answered in the future.
Verdict: Great at home but we still wonder about the road. So the verdict is still out.
“Breaking pressure” and “youth in depth” were wins. “Midfield growth” and “style vs location” (a.k.a Luchi-Ball vs the heat) remain works in progress. “High striker ” was a complete bust till the very end.
No surprise then that FC Dallas was middle of the pack in 2019.