Sometimes, it's hard to believe that Paxton Pomykal is only 19 years old.
It's hard to believe because he's a name that has long been bandied around MLS circles, before he captained the United States at the Under-20 World Cup, before he became a vital part of FC Dallas' midfield this season and before he made his MLS debut in 2017.
It's hard to believe because Pomykal plays like a veteran — that's a tired cliche, but it'd be an exercise in time-wasting to illuminate his abilities without pointing to it. It's hard to believe because he carries himself like a veteran, too, handling interviews with a persistent team-first aw-shucks attitude that PR departments dream of.
It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that Pomykal was one of the best players on a United States side he helped lead to the quarterfinals at the U-20 World Cup.
“I don’t know about other people, but me personally, I want to see where I am against the best of the best," Pomykal told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday. "It was a cool test to play against guys like that. Hopefully we can see them in the future (at a senior World Cup.)"
Paxton Pomykal at the U-20 World Cup | Courtesy of U.S. Soccer
Pomykal was an integral part of Tab Ramos' starting XI and tactical set-up. He wasn't just an advanced midfielder tasked with attacking responsibility — his defensive motor and ability to cover ground was key for how the US wanted to spread the field.
“Overall, I was happy with the way I played in some of the games. In others, I needed to provide more for the team," Pomykal said in self-analysis. "Defensively, I covered a lot of ground, won a lot of tackles and was very solid in the middle. But I would have liked to get forward more, take more risks and create more opportunities for the team. Being a leader for the guys was a role I enjoyed, on and off the field. I think I embraced the role Tab wanted me to play, it was fun being that guy for the team and the voice in the locker room.”
Pomykal wore the armband in each of his four starts, as team captain Mark McKenzie started the lone game Pomykal didn't, a 1-0 win against Qatar at the final game of the group stage.
“It shows the coaching staff and players have a lot of faith in me to wear it well and be that leader," Pomykal said. "It was really cool for them to trust me for that.”
The high point of the tournament for Pomykal's side came in the round of 16, when the United States eliminated tournament favorites France. It was an enthralling match, in which the US opted to go toe-to-toe with the powerhouse.
"It’s not like we went in, bunkered down, had a counter attack and got outshot 25-1," Pomykal said. "It was a battle. I’m proud that we played the way we did against them and didn’t just sit back. We played our game. It was awesome. ... You look across the field and see guys starting at Dortmund, playing first-team minutes in Germany. But I look next to me, and I think we have a lot of talent as well. I knew we could do it. We just had to be confident in ourselves. Sometimes, when you see opponents like that you kind of shy away from the big moments. But everybody who stepped on the field that day was up for the challenge.”
Their run ended in the next game, falling to reigning South American champions Ecuador in a hard-fought 2-1 match.
“The locker room was sorrow, guys were disappointed—rightfully so," Pomykal said. "We felt like we could have won that game, Ecuador won the South American tournament and are a very talented side, but we had a very talented side as well. A lot of guys felt like we came up short. At the end of the day you have to take that as a positive.”
Now, Pomykal shifts back to FC Dallas and continuing his breakout season.
Despite the hype, nothing was handed to him.
While Pomykal has long been a highly touted prospect with the lure of potential, it didn't start truly manifesting itself until the 2018 U-20 Concacaf Championship in November. After getting just one start with FCD during the 2018 MLS campaign, Pomykal played a key role for the United States, with three goals and seven assists in eight appearances as the US took down Mexico in the final.
Since, Pomykal forced his way into FC Dallas' plans, starting eight of his team's first nine games despite a deep midfield corps and turning heads with consistent performances. He went from strength to strength with the national team at the U-20 World Cup.
“That’s how life is, sometimes you have up and sometimes you have downs," Pomykal said. "Over the past two and a half years, if someone was to tell me I’d captain the US U-20 team when I signed, and I’d have to endure not really playing for FC Dallas over the first two years and only getting called up to the national team every once in a while, I’d have signed up right away. The last eight months have been really positive, but the year and a half before that, I was rarely touching the field and rarely getting on with (former head coach) Oscar (Pareja) at FC Dallas. It takes patience and time.”
It also takes patience and time for him to come to grips with the fact that he is one of the top talents in MLS. The Pomykal hype train is chugging full speed ahead with seats disappearing by the minute.
“Honestly, the media side of it, I try to stay away from," Pomykal said. “I just try to play and do my best. Looking back on it, I thought there were a lot of things that I didn’t do very well. To be honest, I felt like I could have done better. There’s always room for improvement. At the same time, there were eight guys on our team that had world-class performances. It’s a testament to how U.S. Soccer is growing. Regarding me personally, I’m just happy to play my part for my team and I love the crest.”