FRISCO, TX — FC Dallas homegrown midfielder Thomas Roberts has been the latest player in the team’s academy pipeline to gain meaningful minutes under head coach Luchi Gonzalez.
However, it is on the defensive side that Roberts is adapting to the MLS level, something Gonzalez desires in his middle third. Instead of having a player just focused on offense and occasionally on defense, Gonzalez demands each player put in a shift, creating a system where the team can have three box-to-box players in the midfield at one time.
“I was really focused on my defensive role in the game, try and work on my press and I thought I did a pretty good job of forcing it into the midfield so we could recover the ball,” Roberts told Pro Soccer USA. “I thought we did that very well to put ourselves in good attacking moments.”
Roberts is known for his attacking capabilities and creativity on the ball. He said during the match he was comfortable on the ball and nothing made him nervous as he looked to create in the offensive third before getting subbed out in the 64th minute. The emphasis now from the coaching staff is to add a defensive element to Roberts and to help him press. It’s an attribute the team has deemed necessary to get the 18-year-old to the next level.
For inspiration, Roberts has looked no further than his teammate and fellow teenager, Paxton Pomykal, whose pressing ability and work rate have received rave reviews throughout the 2019 MLS season and the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup. After losing the ball, Pomykal sprints towards the opponent in an attempt to win it back.
“It’s a part of the game,” Pomykal said about pressing in March. “The game is two ways, attacking and defending. My role on the team is to do both. It’s not as fun as attacking, but that’s the only way to get the ball, is to defend and press and get the ball back so if you look at it that way, it’s kind of fun.”
Roberts wants to emulate that side of the game from Pomykal. It’s a transition for a player that has been deemed a No.10 for much of his career, but a necessary one in his development.
“What he does and I think is so special about him is how he intercepts and gets in and wins duels,” Roberts said of Pomykal. “That’s what I’m trying to improve.”
To do that, Roberts needs to be match fit. FC Dallas‘ USL League One side, North Texas SC, has provided two full 90-minute matches for Roberts to do just that and Roberts is hoping for more opportunities to better prepare himself for the first team.
Defensive work in Gonzalez’s system requires players to cover a lot of ground, but Roberts is up for the challenge because running is his self-proclaimed strong suit.
“I think I do a good job of covering ground,” Roberts said. “I think that’ll help out a lot too because it’s more of a box-to-box player and I honestly — it sounds crazy — but I like running that much. I don’t know why, but I just enjoy it. I can run for a good amount of time.”
Gonzalez sees a lot in his homegrown midfielder in the 160 MLS minutes he’s played in, a player strong on the ball and always looking to create. Now, Gonzalez knows Roberts can add another component to his game, especially with his homegrown counterpart excelling in that attribute.
“It’s great for him to look at it that way, that he has a model already within the club,” Gonzalez said. “I know our players have models all over the world, but when you have models within your own team and club, or someone that is a few years older than you or near you, that’s fantastic. I see that in his actions. His strength is attacking, it’s creating, disorganizing the opposition and if he can improve his ability to help the team recover the ball and press, it’s only going to increase his impact on the game. Paxton went through a process in the last year or two in that way and of course, we miss him, but that’s a nice, refreshing thing to hear Thomas in that reflection of his influence.”