Before the hype train careens completely out of control, before we carelessly cross the line between deserved praise and unreasonable expectations, let’s start with some facts.
Facts: FC Dallas midfielder Paxton Pomykal is 19. He’s just taking his first steps as a pro. Though he signed a Homegrown deal in September 2016, he’s appeared in only 15 career MLS matches, started just nine and has only become a regular part of the FCD first team in the last couple of months. In the context of a full career, he’s proven nothing. At all.
Facts: Pomykal has been one of the most important pieces in FCD’s smooth transition from Oscar Pareja to new head coach Luchi Gonzalez, recording two goals and an assist in six starts to help the club to a 4-2-1 record. Despite his youth and inexperience, he’s already a leader on the field. He wants the ball in difficult spots, and he’s thriving in those positions. He’s in the top-10 among MLS midfielders in total chances created, total passes in the final third and passing accuracy in the final third. He’s in the top-three in chances created from open play and duels won. That’s territory usually reserved for established stars, guys like Nico Lodeiro, Maxi Moralez and Federico Higuain.
That Pomykal is keeping that kind of company this early in his career is notable. It also doesn’t mean much. Fifteen games don’t make a season, let alone a career. He’ll inevitably hit some valleys. As Bobby Warshaw noted in a piece about him a couple of weeks ago, how Pomykal responds when he’s in those valleys will play a large part in determining the type of player he becomes.
The facts demand that everything around him be taken with a grain of salt. They also indicate serious promise. The U.S. youth international already looks like one of the most complete Americans to come along in recent memory. If he can continue his upward trajectory, he has a chance to become one of the best of his generation.
“I think he has something that’s different,” Gonzalez, who coached Pomykal in the FCD academy before reuniting with him when he took the first team job this offseason, recently told MLSsoccer.com.
What makes Pomykal different has driven much of his early success. His awareness and technical ability are uncommon for American midfielders his age, as is his willingness to break lines with his passing. As Gonzalez has noted a few times in 2019, Pomykal is constantly checking his shoulders. He’s very spatially aware. He almost always knows just where his teammates and opponents are located and he has the anticipation, understanding and technique to know how play with and around them.
Just as importantly, he’s an eager defender. According to Gonzalez, rarely does he “waste a millisecond when either he or his teammate loses possession, he’s immediately fighting to help the team get it back” and he wins an impressive percentage of his challenges.
“I remember immediately seeing this kid has talent, but not just talent, he has an ability to read the game and impact the game both with the ball and without the ball,” said Gonzalez. “He can help the team in his possession, in his creativity and also in transition in terms of recovering the ball with his pressure. He’s just a very proactive player, a protagonist type player. That’s all I’ve ever known of him.”
Gonzalez has played a significant role in Pomykal’s emergence, giving him an extended run of games in 2019 after the FCD academy product spent the first two full seasons of his career struggling for time. Though he played just eight total league games in 2017 and 2018, Pomykal was never loaned to USL to pick up easy minutes. He was the perpetual 19th or 20th man for FCD; too important to send out of town on loan (Dallas didn’t have their own, in-market USL team until this year), not important enough to get time in matches.
That left Pomykal in a bit of an awkward spot, a position that became even more tenuous when Pareja surprisingly left the club last winter. Even though Pomykal wasn’t playing much, Pareja’s staff saw his progress in training. They knew about his work ethic and his on-field qualities. If Dallas brought in a coach from outside the organization, Pomykal would have to start from zero. Unlike his more established teammates, he’d have to do so without many minutes under his belt.
Pomykal said he was concerned about that prospect, but his worries got put to bed when the club replaced Pareja with Gonzalez. The former FCD academy director coached Pomykal from time to time during his first year with the academy, periodically calling up the then-Under-15 player to his U-16 side that featured current US men’s national team midfielder Weston McKennie. Pomykal played with Gonzalez full-time in his second season in the academy, after which he signed his Homegrown contract.
That familiarity has helped Pomykal. Not only was he used to how Gonzalez operates, he was familiar with how the manager wants him to play. He entered preseason with a bit of a leg up on his non-Homegrown teammates, as he was already up to speed on Dallas’ new “triple pivot” midfield.
“We had a very similar formation when I was in the academy with Luchi. Everybody that was a Homegrown that came through the system with him, we’re all familiar with the high press, the possession-oriented principles with a vertical element,” said Pomykal. “Going into preseason, it was easier for a lot of the guys to learn the system just because we were so familiar with it and we knew how he wanted us to play. I knew exactly what he wanted out of me and what he wanted me to do. I think everybody on the team is starting to understand the formation now, and you’re starting to see the outcome on the field.”
Pomykal has primarily played as one of two No. 8s for Dallas this season. Gonzalez said he’s also capable of lining up as more of a defensive midfielder or on either wing, but head coach and player both said they see Pomykal’s future as either a No. 8 or a No. 10.
“No matter where I’m playing, I think the most important thing for me to do is help bring out the ball in the buildup play, put my teammates in good positions to be successful,” Pomykal said. “When you have a man on you and you pass it to a guy and you’re just trying to get rid of the ball, that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to put someone in position when they receive the ball to go forward and create opportunities. When I look back on my games, I like seeing how many passes I had going forward to guys who can take their touch going forward and how many opportunities I created. And then defensively, one aspect of my game I’m really trying to work on is my positioning, especially playing as a double 8 or as a 6, just making sure I’m aware of everything, everyone and every possible opportunity around me.”
So far, Pomykal has done a good job in both areas. That’s a fact, but so is this all-important caveat: It’s early. Really early. The path to a big career is littered with stories of players who had a good run of games at age 19 or 20. Pomykal has some unique qualities among American players of recent memory, but, as both he and Gonzalez readily acknowledged, he’s got a long, long way to go before he can be considered a success.
The next steps? Continued growth in MLS and a potential trip to Poland for the Under-20 World Cup this in May and June. U-20 head coach Tab Ramos will almost certainly want Pomykal for his team, though FCD don’t technically have to release him for the tournament. Pomykal, who starred at the Concacaf U-20 Championships last fall to help the US qualify for the World Cup, said he expects to talk with Dallas about his status for the competition “closer to” its start date. He also confirmed that he’s out of contract with the club after the 2019 season, though the club has two option years after that.
Pomykal and Gonzalez didn’t sound too worried about what might happen with his contract. He knows he’s got a lot left to prove. For now, he’s focused on what’s in front of him.
“It’s early, it’s early, he’s got a lot of years ahead of him, but I think the sky’s the limit,” said Gonzalez. “Can he break into the senior national team one day? Why not? Can he play overseas one day? Why not? I just know this: He’s focused on tomorrow’s training and he’s focused on the next game. I know he’s focused on the short-term goals more than the long-term goals and he lives that way and he shows that each day. That’s a big part of our culture here and he models that. I do think sky’s the limit, but it’s certainly not his focus right now what can he be in a year, two years, five years. His focus is on tomorrow’s training and this next game coming up.”
Correction: The original version of this article stated Paxton Pomykal's contract expired at the end of 2019. Pomykal's guaranteed deal does end in 2019, but the club has two option years.