When FC Dallas promoted Luchi Gonzalez from academy chief to head coach in December 2018, it looked to many of us like a “culture hire” – a reflection of the DNA of a focused, self-aware club that prides itself on growing its own, brands itself as “built from within.”
Yes, Luchi – and almost everyone who’s ever worked with Gonzalez, a deeply likable human being, gets on a first-name basis very quickly – arrived with a lack of first-team leadership experience. But after years of rising through the ranks of their academy staff, his fingerprints were all over FCD’s most prized possessions, the blue-chip prospects steadily churned out by MLS’ most prolific youth system. Fittingly, his first-team predecessor, now-Orlando City SC boss Oscar Pareja, was also his academy predecessor.
Choosing Luchi just felt right, just felt like… FC Dallas.
But things didn’t go the way they would have hoped, at least in terms of first-team results. His first two seasons were promising, featuring Audi MLS Cup Playoffs qualification, albeit via seventh- and sixth-place finishes in the Western Conference table. But results have tailed off in 2021 and this weekend’s 3-2 rivalry loss to Houston Dynamo FC – which appears to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for the Hunt family ownership group – leaves them seven points adrift of the postseason places with eight games to go.
That said, Luchi, whose dismissal was announced on Sunday, departs the North Texans with a regular-season record of 28W-29L-25D. Not great, but not dire, and much of it unfolded amid a global pandemic that hit his team as hard as any in this league. Recall the outbreak that wrecked their MLS is Back Tournament bid last summer and placed a huge strain on everyone around the club, as well as the general scramble around MLS (and beyond) to adapt to the altered conditions of top-flight soccer in the COVID era.
“Pragmatism became the strength of teams that did well,” Gonzalez told me over the winter. “The condensed schedule, that was very difficult. I felt like some of our best games in 2020 were actually games we had a full week, full micro-cycle to prepare, to train, to improve things with and without the ball.
“You have to become more pragmatic and practical and efficient and flexible. So some of the games where we actually won and earned points, I wasn't very proud of our football, what we displayed in terms of our game idea, our style of play. But somehow we won certain games playing a little bit more defensive-minded or countering, and it ended up just being a process for myself and the staff to learn to grind out games.”
Meanwhile, the club reaped somewhere close to $20 million worth of transfer fees over his tenure, many of them youngsters he had a huge role in developing over many years. From their academy, right back Reggie Cannon went to Boavista (Portugal’s Primeira Liga), while right back Bryan Reynolds (AS Roma) and center-mid Tanner Tessman (Venezia) both landed in Italy’s Serie A. This summer, center-mid Thomas Roberts joined Austrian Bundesliga club Austria Klagenfurt on loan and forward Dante Sealy went to Dutch powerhouse PSV Eindhoven on loan. Even foreign imports like Zdenek Ondrasek (Viktoria Plzeň) and center-mids Thiago Santos (Grêmio) and Carlos Gruezo (Augsburg) were transferred out over the years.
More homegrown will undoubtedly follow in the coming months and years. Los Toros have established themselves to the global soccer landscape as a premier marketplace for young talent. That’s not a cure-all, nor – obviously – does it ensure the first team’s success in MLS. But it was a sign of a club secure in its identity, with a long-term mentality reflected in the fact Dallas haven’t dismissed a coach in midseason like this since Steve Morrow, way back in 2008.
FCD president Dan Hunt said as much just two months ago.
“We’re not where we’re supposed to be or want to be,” Hunt told The Striker Texas in a mid-July story. “We’ll go through this. Luchi’s had a lot of success here … We’ve been doing this for a long time and you can’t just, you know, irrationally jump one way or another, because that leads to bad decisions. We’ll be thoughtful about how we go forward.”
What does it mean that Hunt has changed his mind? Is losing a Texas Derby clash to a struggling Dynamo side really that shameful? Have the past several weeks convinced him that Gonzalez is in over his head? Or has the big vision been set aside for some tempting short-termism as the current campaign slips away?
So Hunt and the rest of FCD’s brain trust have some questions of their own to answer. As my colleague Matt Doyle has written about at length over the years, FCD’s biggest shortcoming of the past half-decade or so has less to do with what Gonzalez has touched and more with their track record of disappointing overseas recruitment.
“Say it with me: Dallas’ high-priced imports have underperformed and underdelivered,” Doyle wrote in July. “DP center forward Franco Jara has one open-play goal all year [he’s currently on 4g/1a] … attackers Andres Ricaurte and Jader Obrian have fallen out of the XI. Freddy Vargas has fallen out of the gameday rotation entirely [he’s started just once since May], and it’s hard to say it’s been unearned.”
It’s safe to say Jara was a Hunt signing. The Argentine forward cooked FCD in their Concacaf Champions League series vs. Liga MX's Pachuca back in 2017, performances that impressed the owner enough for him to pursue Jara at length until he was finally signed as a Designated Player last year.
The easily-overlooked twist in Ricardo Pepi’s meteoric rise to prominence? It probably wouldn’t have happened this year if Jara wasn’t unproductive for long enough that Luchi had little choice but to bench the 33-year-old and give the teenager a shot. I’m sure Gonzalez had some level of input on the foreign signings of his tenure, but FCD's inability to consistently reinvest their academy profits towards proven upgrades for the first team predates him.
Maybe Hunt & Co. have a new plan and we just don’t get to see its full outlines just yet. I hope they haven’t thrown out the baby with the bathwater, though. And it may turn out Luchi needs a new address to make his next step as a manager. I don’t expect he’ll stay unemployed for long.
The last time I had an extended chat with Gonzalez, I asked him what he’d learned about MLS tactics over his first two seasons, alluding to the recurring debate about proactive teams vs. reactive ones and why life in this league can be difficult for so many of the first type. His answer surprised me in both its content and its detail.
“I’ve yet to see three elements win an MLS Cup,” he noted, explaining that most league champions combine individual quality, depth, efficient finishing, chemistry, mentality and timely boosts of momentum down the stretch. That’s the first element. No. 2 is doing it with a style of play.
“Toronto and Atlanta, those are two clubs that did it with a certain style of play. At least their intention was to dominate the ball, and to dictate the tempo of the game,” continued Gonzalez.
“The third element, that I haven't seen yet, is doing it with this foundation of young players coming from your community … like maybe you see in an Ajax in Holland or Dortmund in Germany. Maybe because there's more history, more time to perfect that model and tick all those boxes and be a champion in Europe, or even South America. It's just interesting that we're still a young league, we still have an MLS Cup champion that’s different every year, but for me has not ticked those three boxes. I would love FC Dallas to be a club that can do that. But we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
That’s a lofty vision, and perhaps FCD can find a way there without Luchi. Or perhaps someone else will select him to fulfill it with their club instead.