The preseason is over and the MLS season is upon us. FC Dallas head coach Luchi Gonzalez and his staff have spent six weeks prepping the team for the season. A series of scrimmages throughout those six weeks of work on fitness, technique, and tactics has put the team in solid position to kick things off on Saturday against the New England Revolution.
So what, coach Gonzalez, did you learn about your team? What surprised you? Or did everything you know about this team coming into the season prove to be true?
“Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t know how to answer that…”
“I’m not going to name names.”
“[There were] not too many surprises,” Coach Gonzalez continued, “but there have been a few that have been really positive for the group and I’m really looking forward to working with these pieces.”
That’s all right, I got your back coach. I’ll name names for you.
What We Learned from Spring Camp
Dominique Badji is reborn. You can see it in his body language and his production – a team-leading 6 preseason goals – Badji’s confidence is way up. It’s a product of comfort here in Dallas and getting settled. It’s also how he fits into Coach Gonzalez’s system and with the players around him. Badji looks as good as I can recall a striker looking coming into a season. But don’t take my word for it, listen to the man himself.
Santiago Mosquera is the Man. Of all the players on the roster, Mosquera is the one making the biggest difference in games. He’s the chaos factor, the breaker of lines, the destroyer of defensive shape. In short, he’s making things happen. He too is in peak form and looking fabulous. If he plays like this all year he will be FCD’s MVP. Can he stay healthy and producing? Time will tell.
Carlos Gruezo has come alive. It’s not that any of us doubted his game or thought he was a bad player. But Gruezo really seems to relish the “single pivot” (copyright Luchi Gonzalez 2019, all rights reserved) holding-mid role. His game has elevated and come to life. Gruezo is setting the tone and controlling the pace in midfield. Singlehandedly providing that base the other front 5 need to play. This is the player we expected when he came here three seasons ago.
Jesse Gonzalez is talking. A lot. And Loudly. I mean he’s miles and miles more vocal and communicative now. He’s not only talking and communicating with this back four but the whole side. It’s wonderful to see as this was a big factor holding back his progression.
“We’ve got a little mic in his ear. We’re telling him what to say,” Coach Gonzalez joked. “No, he’s showing that his ceiling is still higher, which is fantastic,” the coach continued. “I see Jesse taking steps, I see him developing, and part of that is communicating, organizing what’s in front of him, what’s on the weak side, transitional moments, prevention shape. It’s good to see he has a higher ceiling than others thought.”
Bryan Acosta is the Ocho. A pure quality 8 and not just that but a for real international caliber 8. A box-to-box mid with wonderful instincts and timing on getting forward offensively but also when to pinch and press defensively. Terrific outside shooter and a real quality long passer. What a wonderful buy this guy is already.
Ryan Hollingshead is captain material. Hollingshead has shown he still has a lot to offer and may be hard to unseat from that left back spot. Coach Gonzalez has been relying on Hollingshead to get the team going, huddle them up, keep the kids working hard and motivated. In short, he looks like captain material. On top of that Hollingshead is showing the offensive spark and verticality (TM Oscar Pareja) the outside backs need in the Gonzalez 4-3-3. Is his defense good enough? We’ll see.
Pablo Aranguiz is a bad fit. Coach Gonzalez’s 4-3-3 doesn’t use a 10. Instead, it calls for midfielders who can defend in the dual 8 spots… and Aranguiz has little to no defense to show. Mostly he’s playing left wing as a false wing. He’s quite interesting there, cutting into the box, shooting from range, playing decisive passes… but even the wing in this 4-3-3 has to compress back and defend in a 4-5-1 type shape in the mid or low block style Gonzalez wants. Aranguiz may end up spending this season as a late-game offensive spark sub.
John Nelson, steal of the MLS Super Draft. This kid is a natural left back, that’s a rare commodity and hard to find. He can already do it at an MLS level. On top of that, he’s been playing right back, on his opposite foot, and is apparently ahead of Bryan Reynolds on the depth chart at that position. Not to mention the scrimmage he filled in at center back. What a steal of a pick at #10.
Jacori Hayes the muscle man. Hayes has noticeably put on upper body muscle, and I hope core muscle, to help hold off defenders and keep the ball in midfield. So far it’s working. He’s played lights out the last two scrimmages and may have beaten out Pomykal for the starting job with Acosta opening day.
Reggie Cannon is lean and mean. The Cannon is on a no-carb regimen he says. After hearing that I looked at a couple of pictures and you can see it. He’s dropped body fat and is looking lean and tough. Don’t take it too far kid, 3-5% body fat is good. Cannon is also becoming a vocal team leader.
Jesus Ferreira is no longer a kid. It’s hard to say specifically what I mean, but I look at him and I don’t see a teenager anymore. I see a young man. He too has put on some muscle, but it suits him. Ferreira has struggled with core troubles in the past and needed some mass. Now he’s got it. He’s looking like a pro and playing like a threat off the bench that will push Badji. I’ve got him ahead of the Cobra (Zdenek Ondrasek) on my depth chart.
Brandon Servania is ready. If FC Dallas had lost Gruezo this winter then Servania would be ready to take over. He’s in the best form I’ve seen him since he became a pro and he’s locked in on being a 6 going forward. He’s not quite as physical defending as Gruezo but he has good positional sense. Plus he’s a better passing going forward. His time will come… maybe even this summer.
Thomas Roberts and Edwin Cerrillo are already MLS capable now. One thing that has really struck me this spring, is that the bottom of the roster depth of FC Dallas is much better than it was 10 years ago. Back in the day, you might have some late-round picks making the team that had little to no chance of playing. These were players that were massive projects at best and at worst were glorified practice players. That’s not the case now. Roberts (an 8/10) and Cerrillo (a 6/8), to name two examples, are so skilled and ready that in the first decade of MLS both would be full-time starters as rookies. Are they going to play a lot this year? No. But they are both good enough that I don’t think time with North Texas SC will help them progress all that much beyond getting some playing time in-game conditions. It’s truly remarkable how far FC Dallas and this league have come.
Paxton Pomykal is the future. It hasn’t happened yet, but at some point, maybe even some point soon, this will be his team. This kid has so much potential. Great range for a smaller guy, terrific work rate, wonderful feet, the ability to break defenses with pass or dribble, and he’s a pretty solid defender. Soon, maybe even this weekend – or at least sometime this season – he will kick off what I expect to be a decade or more run for this team.