FRISCO, Texas — FC Dallas head coach Luchi Gonzalez sports a different look as his sits down to discuss his team’s 2019 season. Instead of the sartorial style he displays on game day, Gonzalez wears sweat pants and a long-sleeve warmup shirt on a cold day at Toyota Stadium. Gonzalez has spent the Fridays since losing to the Seattle Sounders in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs refereeing intra-squad matches, and it’s the final training session of the year.
Gonzalez came into the FC Dallas job in December, 2018, taking over for Oscar Pareja, who left for Liga MX outfit Club Tijuana. Gonzalez learned plenty in his first season as a senior-level head coach. From the big regular-season wins over Atlanta United and the Sounders to the disappointing road losses to the Colorado Rapids and Chicago Fire, FC Dallas had plenty of highs and lows in 2019. It was expected to be a rebuilding year with an influx of youth into the first team. Paxton Pomykal, Jesus Ferreira, Brandon Servania, Edwin Cerrillo all received substantial upticks in minutes, and many more young players made their debuts.
Finishing seventh in the Western Conference with the youngest team in MLS might seem like an accomplishment, but Gonzalez doesn’t think of the season in that way. The team fell short of its goal of winning MLS Cup.
“We wanted more,” Gonzalez told Pro Soccer USA. “To see Seattle in the final hurts. We could’ve put ourselves in a better seed, especially that last month of September, the month of May. At the end of the day, we did complete the objective of qualifying for the playoffs and we needed to focus and move forward and believe that we could win away to get to a cup. To see Seattle and Toronto win away and keep winning games to get to the final, but [for us] to do that, two, three, four games is not easy, but we put ourselves in that position.”
Adopting a style nicknamed “Luchi-Ball” by local pundits, Gonzalez’s team played with a sense of flexibility, emphasizing modern, possession-based tactics. Even in tough environments, like at Los Angeles FC, Gonzalez pushed his players to not deviate too far from his philosophy. He expected his young squad to build from the back, a tactic that is difficult to execute. The results were ugly at times, but FC Dallas built a foundation and formed an identity that allowed players such as Ryan Hollingshead to play with a freedom not seen in previous years.
“We have to have a balance of our way and a result,” Gonzalez said. “That’s the job. For me, it’s not easy but man, I said it in preseason, to me it’s a bigger risk if we don’t really commit in these ideas to try and play. That doesn’t mean you can’t skip lines, It doesn’t mean you can’t bypass the first line, it doesn’t mean you can’t play a ball in the air. Those are all really important and fundamentals in the style of play. But we have to go through a natural process to learn that we have these different options, and if a team is going to commit 11 players in our 18, we obviously need to find something to go behind them.
Gonzalez spoke about the April 20 match at Atlanta — as he has on numerous occasions — as an example of the team maturing in the early part of the season. Yes, FC Dallas won 2-1, but for much of the match, the team was pinned deep in its own half as Atlanta dominated with 72 percent possession. FCD was disappointed in its performance, and for the rest of the season, the team focused on execution and playing its way, rather than the way its opponents wanted.
“I thought we evolved towards the end of the year in moments at the end of the season to improve conceptually, find the right balance of possession that actually hurt in penetration to kill and to score and to create danger, and at the same time, improving our defensive blocks, our presses, mid-blocks,” Gonzalez said. “I thought we came in with a clear idea of how to play, and I thought we ended the season with growth in that way. We didn’t just abandon concepts. There were moments where we were more pragmatic but I feel proud that we didn’t abandon our identity of the game. We need to keep improving it. We need to keep mastering it.”
Dallas pushed the eventual MLS Cup champion Sounders to the brink in a 4-3 playoff defeat Oct. 20. Coming back from a 2-0 and then a 3-2 deficit, FCD showed fight and grit. After Bryan Acosta leveled the score at 3-3, cameras caught Gonzalez jumping into the team’s celebration in a moment of jubilation. It was reminiscent of Jesse Marsch’s celebration with RB Salzburg after his team came back from being down 3-0 in a Uefa Champions League game at Liverpool. Salzburg eventually lost 4-3.
“Did Salzburg win that game against Liverpool?” Gonzalez asked. “They lost. Did we win the game? Nope. We lost. We should’ve saved our jump in the huddle until when? Until we scored the goal that gives us the lead. I went too early. I should’ve waited till it was 4-3. It was my instinct and it was my impulse. I feel very connected to these guys.”
The defeat at Seattle left a bitter taste in Gonzalez’s mouth, but it had nothing to do with his players’ effort. FCD was competitive in a playoff game many pundits believed would be the most lopsided first-round matchup.
“There’s a moment that I want to embrace them and give them a big hug, whether it was a win or a loss,” Gonzalez said. “That hug is important for them to just know that I appreciate them. I appreciate their mentality. If they didn’t show the right mentality or attitude, it would be difficult for them to gain trust from their teammates and their staff. They have to put the team first. As long as they show that, they know that we’ve got their back in a life sense, a human sense. I want them to have my back in a human sense.”
Gonzalez has had his final meetings with players to discuss where he sees them fit in the team’s future plans. Make no mistake: Even with the team’s early exit from the playoffs in 2019, the season didn’t end there for the club. Hard work in training had a purpose, beginning the cycle for the 2020 MLS season.
“There’s a bit of a confidence in what we’re doing,” Gonzalez said. “I know we can win games. I know we can lose games. But I know we can respond no matter what. I know we can aspire for more. I think that helps with myself, the staff and the players, especially with some of these young players that debuted this past season. How many of these young guys really didn’t have experience until this season? You have guys like Jesse [González] who is a veteran that developed, you had Kobra, who had adversity in the year, but who would’ve thought a 29-year-old would’ve got back on the national team radar?
“We have a lot of objectives for next year on and off the field. We’re going to build towards them. Some can be may be impossible to do overnight, it’s really a process. Whatever we can control, we’re going to be proactive about it and control it. We’re going to be very intentional about that.”
Come back later this week for Part 2 of Luchi Gonzalez’s discussion with Pro Soccer USA, focusing on FC Dallas’ offseason.