FRISCO, Texas– For FC Dallas, certain philosophies have been hammered home since coach Luchi Gonzalez’s first days taking over. Wanting possession of the ball. Pressing to win the ball back. Applying pressure high up the pitch in hopes of causing a turnover. Imposing their will on the match and opponent.
However, sometimes philosophies need to be adapted come matchday, with certain circumstances forcing changes. FCD’s match against Atlanta United was a key moment in exercising that ability to balance a key goal and the realities of a situation.
Dallas defeated Atlanta 2-1 Saturday but averaged a season low in possession with 29 percent. That’s well below the team’s average and not the goal for Gonzalez and his staff in these tough matches. Even with a defensive looking 3-1-4-2 formation, the plan was to press the ball and get pressure on Atlanta through Ryan Hollingshead and Reggie Cannon breaking lines.
“I don’t think that was the mindset going in, to sit back and absorb,” midfielder Paxton Pomykal told Pro Soccer USA. “We have our identity, regardless of the formation we play, and that is to have the ball, play possession, press, counter, counterpress when we lose the ball. We got away a little bit from that in the Atlanta game, and I don’t think that was planned for us to bunker in. But at times, we do have to play like that.”
Pomykal and Gonzalez both emphasized the first 20 minutes of the match, which saw winger Michael Barrios connect with Jesus Ferreira for the opening goal of the match. While Dallas seemed to go into a lower block outside of that opening period, possession against Atlanta is tough to come by, especially at home. The Five Stripes average 64.5 percent of the ball at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the highest in the league. However, that high number has not resulted in points. Atlanta is winless in its first three home matches under new coach Frank de Boer.
“I’ll take those 20 minutes,” Gonzalez told Pro Soccer USA. “It’s not common to go to that venue and in the first 20 minutes try to impose. We did that. We joke about the overall stats in the office, they’re definitely not numbers that we want to make consistent, but they’re going to get better. I’m not going to go open ourselves up either in the 40th minute when we can’t sustain that pressure — and then we concede, and then we completely lose our structure, and then we’re not pressing well — because the score dictates also the behaviors we’re going to have.
“Just finding that balance is the challenge. I’m going to make sure in the philosophy we have, there’s common sense too. Whatever it is we do, we have the opportunity to win doing it. We were winning in that first 20 minutes because of pressure. We recovered the ball. We transitioned. We actually connected six passes before we scored that goal. We didn’t just dump it forward. Our counters aren’t just kick it far and run. The second goal we connected four passes before we scored. There’s a foundation of possession there. Did it dictate and dominate the game? No. I thought the first 20 minutes we were very aggressive and made it very difficult. Then, they started to commit a lot of numbers and create opportunities, and Jesse took care of business.”
Gonzalez enjoyed what he saw out of the team but challenged the players to do even more in future road matches.
“I challenge the next time we go to Atlanta or Seattle that, instead of 20 minutes, we do that for 30 minutes and then we do it for another 20 minutes in the second half,” Gonzalez said. “I want us to take these steps. I can’t expect us to play like this for 90 minutes: lights out, pressure, dominating possession. It is what it is. Atlanta is playing in front of 50,000 people, and they’re going to start committing numbers forward irresponsibly. We need to be responsible in how we defend that and get numbers behind the ball and then counter it with the right decisions. It’s definitely a tug of war.”
Now, heading into Saturday’s match against the San Jose Earthquakes and coach Matias Almeyda, Gonzalez hopes to get back to his team’s philosophy at home, in terms of creating chances and playing higher up the field. FCD has learned some lessons this season, and for a young team with a young coach, those lessons are helping them in the early months of the MLS season.
“We’re excited for this opportunity at home, with a team that’s finding a good rhythm, to again, get back on track on dominating pass and recoveries upfield but also creating shots,” Gonzalez said. “In Atlanta, we did not have the possession stat, we didn’t have the total shots stat, but we had a higher percentage of shots on target for the amount of shots we had. We’re showing that we can be efficient, but I don’t want eight shots. I want 15 shots. It’s a tug of war and I’m trying to balance it.
“I’m happy with a lot of things, but certainly in no way content, [nor] are these players content, with that Atlanta game. We know we can do things better.”