Few MLS teams have declared their intent to make a deep run at the MLS is Back Tournament as firmly and persistently as FC Dallas, and that puts Paxton Pomykal front and center as the North Texans arrived in Orlando this weekend to begin their final preparations.
FCD’s 20-year-old midfield dynamo has called this a “massive” event for himself, as he looks to make the most of whatever soccer can be played in a potentially watershed year on the path he hopes to traverse from Homegrown teenage talent to impact star in MLS – and eventually, showcase export.
After nagging injuries limited his minutes and required surgeries for the past three seasons running, 2020 was supposed to be Pomykal’s year. He was set to play a key role for the US Under-23 squad seeking qualification for the Tokyo Olympics, an ideal complement to his place in his club’s ambitions of taking a big step forward in their second season under head coach and Homegrown whisperer Luchi Gonzalez.
COVID-19 took a mallet to all that, of course, prompting Pomykal to return to his parents’ home to wait out the early stages of the national lockdown, digging up new habits and practices to stay fit both physically and emotionally.
“It’s difficult, because there's so much chaos and things going on in the world right now that are outside the realm of sports, and that are way more important than sports at the end of the day,” he told MLSsoccer.com. “So to know what's going on, but also to hone in on what your job is, and what you need to be doing is kind of the balance that I’ve had to figure out.
“Being aware of my surroundings and limiting how many times I go to the grocery store, different things like that – just not being able to do my normal routine has been a change, [after] four years of doing the same thing and seeing the same people, and being able to hang out with people and having to halt that and not train, and have to scavenge to find parks that aren't closed to be able to play on grass, or having just strictly run on concrete and do all your ball work in your driveway. It's just different things like that take a toll."
FC Dallas midfielder Paxton Pomykal (right) battles Keaton Parks for possession in a match against NYCFC. | USA Today Sports
Once he got back to his apartment during the first phase of organized training activities, Pomykal honed his cooking skills – “I'm a big Texas boy, so I love my steak and asparagus and potatoes,” he noted proudly – and worked on the mental side of his craft. He speaks of the search for both internal and external motivation, looking not only in the mirror but at the faces of teammates and coaches on Zoom screens to maintain an eye on the prize.
It’s a potentially vital toolkit at this juncture. A succession of knee issues and soft-tissue problems ranging from core muscles to hamstrings have also taken a psychological toll, threatening to sidetrack one of the most promising young creators in the US player pool.
“I think I’ve been unlucky in a sense with some of my injuries so far,” Pomykal said. “I work hard and I push my body to the limit and I give everything I have in games and in practice, so at the end of the day I have to look back on that and respect that that's just the way I am, and sometimes my body's gonna break down because of that.
“But I think that it's made me stronger for sure, and to know what what my body can take and what my body needs for recovery, for diet, for sleep, for everything. I think now that I'm in my fourth year and understand how long of a season it is and how many games we play and how to navigate it a little bit better, that I'm going to be much more prepared going into this year.”
Paxton Pomykal Highlights
Paxton Pomykal Plays of the 2019 Season
Last fall Gonzalez and his side made what many considered a statement of intent to the rest of the league as the young, unfancied side pushed the eventual MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders to the limit in a wild 4-3 barnburner in the opening round of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. It proved to be the champs’ toughest test on their road to the trophy and provided an encouraging if ultimately disappointing experience for FCD.
It was something more painful for Pomykal on a personal level, as he played through pain for 43 minutes of the extra-time thriller, carrying a hernia-type issue that would require an operation days later.
“I'm happy that I had the surgery. I’m feeling a thousand times better than the last playoff game with Seattle,” he noted. “That was definitely a low point for my health.
“I've had a few minor setbacks [since], but when you have a surgery like that where you're repairing a tendon, it just takes time. And look, this virus has had us out for weeks but for me, looking on the bright side, it can be a blessing in disguise. We haven't really had much to do and my body's been able to heal and rest.”
With their depth, youth and desire to intrude themselves on the league’s established elite, FCD look well-suited for a tournament that features a dense schedule with limited recovery time in tropical conditions and extended time away from loved ones. And they’ll look to their precocious No. 19 for inspiration.
“There’s a lot on the line,” Pomykal told CBS Sports earlier this month. “I know the first games count towards the league, as well as a [Concacaf] Champions League berth. So it’ll be really important to go there and show out.”