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An in-depth look at Luchi Gonzalez’s first season as FC Dallas head coach

While FC Dallas has been a success in terms of player development, the club’s attendance remains among the league’s worst

Luchi Gonzalez’s first year as FC Dallas coach ended with a first-round playoff ouster to the Seattle Sounders. Here’s an assessment of the season, from an on-the-field, development, and off-the-field standpoint.

On the field

When Gonzalez took over in December of 2018, he talked about a vision of playing possession-based soccer, dictating the game by controlling the ball. Gonzalez emphasized rondos and allowed freedom in training, letting players make mistakes while trying new things. That translated often to match day with the team having plenty of possession and looking to break down its opponents that elected to play more of a lower block to frustrate FCD.

Possession chains started from the back, through goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez, who improved with his feet and decision making in 2019. Matt Hedges was a better passer as well in a structure that emphasized building from the back. Fullbacks Ryan Hollingshead and Reggie Cannon aided the offense and looked fearless on both ends, as each had strong seasons in 2019.

There was a rotation in midfield with a trio of Carlos Gruezo, Paxton Pomykal, and Bryan Acosta eventually evolving due to transfer and injury, which saw Acosta sit deeper in a more defensive role. Jesus Ferreira was inserted into the middle to generate some attack and Pomykal partnered, until his lingering injuries elevated Brandon Servania into the starting group. Roles constantly changed for players as Ferreira attempted to adapt to being a playmaker after playing as a forward for much of the season. Acosta went from more of a box-to-box midfielder into a No. 6, diffusing attacks.

There was no like-for-like replacement for Gruezo, an Ecuadorian international and key defensive cog who joined FC Augsburg in July. Acosta was put in that spot and, when paired with Pomykal, the team looked out of balance at times. Pomykal and Ferreira sought to join the attack, leaving a gap that had to be made up by Pomykal’s work rate. Servania sat deeper and helped clean up the work in front of Acosta, allowing for more balance as time went on. 

Oct 6, 2019; Frisco, TX, USA; FC Dallas forward Zdenek Ondrasek (13) shoots the ball on the Sporting Kansas City goal during the game at Toyota Stadium. (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

The attack left a lot to be desired. An issue that plagued Dallas over the last few seasons, a true No. 9 did not emerge in the early part of the season. New forward Zdenek Ondrasek struggled to see playing time, Dom Badji seemed to be preferred as a winger, and Ferreira was the high scorer, but his services were needed in the midfield. Ondrasek went on a goal-scoring tear late with seven goals in his final eight matches.

Michael Barrios was his consistent self, providing assist after assist, but left wing was a much different story. Designated player Santiago Mosquera did not produce, struggling to play 90 minutes and stay fit. Badji never grew comfortable in the wing role and craved a return to his natural and most-efficient place as a forward. As the only summer signing, Edwin Gyasi barely touched the field even.

The team made the playoffs, accomplishing the primary goal set for 2019. But there were bumps along the way, including a 2-1 loss to New Mexico United in the U.S. Open Cup, poor late-season performances and struggles away from home, particularly 4-0 and 3-0 defeats at Chicago and Colorado, respectively. 

Dallas lost arguably its best player in Gruezo and essentially didn’t add anyone to aid a deep playoff push. Gonzalez embraced the kids and they embraced him back, providing key minutes when the vets weren’t up to standard. A first-year head coach making the playoffs under those circumstances while instilling philosophies the team did not deviate far from, Gonzalez proved to be the right hire for this club. 

Most importantly, he believed in the team. Never once did Gonzalez moan about his group of players. Instead, he spoke about his team glowingly, and his passion showed in Dallas’ third goal against Seattle in the playoffs where he joined in the celebrations. A rebuilding year with an emphasis on the youth was expected. Gonzalez did that, minus the rebuilding part.

Oct 19, 2019; Seattle, WA, USA; FC Dallas midfielder Bryan Acosta (8) celebrates after scoring a goal against the Seattle Sounders FC during the second half at CenturyLink Field. (Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)

Development

Development has to be assessed for a club like Dallas that prides itself on growing players and selling them on. Gonzalez believes in the club’s philosophy of developing stars and it showed with eight homegrowns stepping on the field. He gave debuts to Edwin Cerrillo, Servania, Thomas Roberts, Ricardo Pepi, Bryan Reynolds, and draft pick Johnny Nelson.  

From that standpoint, can it be argued this year wasn’t a success? Cannon emerged as a staple on the United States men’s national team. Pomykal earned his first senior team call-up after a strong U-20 World Cup and became the first FCD homegrown to sign an extension worth Targeted  Allocation Money. Cerrillo and Servania also made the U-20 World Cup roster. Pepi and academy player Nico Carrera are currently playing with in the U-17 World Cup. 

Development isn’t just about the academy players and kids. Gruezo’s sale to Augsburg shows potential players coming to Major League Soccer that yes, Dallas can develop you and will sell you if you want to move on. Chris Richards to Bayern is another example of why, for a younger player, Dallas can be the ideal stepping stone.

North Texas Soccer Club’s inaugural season in USL League One proved to be beneficial. Instead of players leaving for USL teams after graduating through the academy, there was a chance to shine at NTSC under a coach in Eric Quill who also believes in development. Players like Brecc Evans, Arturo Rodriguez, Pepi and Ronaldo Damus flourished in the League One environment and got meaningful minutes in a system and playing style much like the first team’s. That’s a year of true development, showing why the USL team is so important for a club like FC Dallas.

Instead of splashing big money on designated players, Dallas invests in this academy setup and infrastructure. The question going forward is can a team so invested in developing homegrown players contend for an MLS Cup? 

Off the field

Oct 6, 2019; Frisco, TX, USA; FC Dallas defender Matt Hedges (24) celebrates a goal against Sporting Kansas City during the first half at Toyota Stadium. (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

While FC Dallas has made strides on the field, the club has struggled off of it in terms of attendance and generating a buzz. Atlanta United gets crowds of 70,000 to jam into Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The San Jose Earthquakes averaged around 17,000 fans at Avaya Stadium.

Dallas sits in the bottom three in attendance in MLS, just ahead of the Chicago Fire and the Colorado Rapids, while the Columbus Crew and Houston Dynamo  — all teams that failed to make the MLS Cup playoffs  — round out the bottom five. 

What’s wrong? This team has been good for years, but have failed to have consistent support, even with an influx of affordable tickets due to decreased demand and increased supply. Is it the sweltering sun in the summer? Another example of a failed move to the suburbs?

The Hunt family has invested in Toyota Stadium. The National Soccer Hall of Fame was moved there and the stadium has gone through recent renovations to its south end. The lease ends in 2037, making a move very unlikely. However, the presence of FC Dallas in the area can be fixed.Sure, Frisco is not close to downtown Dallas, but the club needs to give fans a reason to drive the extra mile to see a young, exciting team play. The marketing of its young, homegrown stars in the fifth largest media market in the United States should be emphasized. 

Final words

In his first season, Gonzalez gave players opportunities to learn and grow, something not seen as often in the final year of Oscar Pareja’s tenure. The team established an identity and learned a style that is entertaining and exciting.

Players who fell through the crack in the academy were given another chance to grow and blossom with North Texas SC. General Manager Matt Denny has eyed the growth of the team as a more separate entity, with NTSC moving to Globe Life Park in 2020. Players can look at FC Dallas as a place to grow and become better before going to bigger teams and clubs, as established by current and possible future sales.

Ticket sales, though, are another conundrum. FC Dallas isn’t the only MLS original struggling with this problem, but the club should be on the front foot to fix it, to showcase one of American soccer’s best developmental projects.

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