Stejskal: Why FC Dallas turned to their academy to hire Luchi Gonzalez

Luchi Gonzalez - FC Dallas head coach - portrait

He needed an assist from a certain legendary manager, but new FC Dallas head coach Luchi Gonzalez found a framework that just about sums up the club’s whirlwind offseason and vision for the future.

“Pep Guardiola said that the academy shouldn’t play like the first team, the first team should play like the academy. I think that kind of says it all,” Gonzalez told on Sunday, referencing the Manchester City manager and Barcelona great.

It certainly explains a lot about the last few weeks in Dallas, who are leaning on academy products to rebuild their technical staff and first-team following one of the more chaotic months in club history.

The upheaval began a few weeks after Dallas lost at home in the Knockout Round of the MLS Cup Playoffs to the Portland Timbers with the announcement that longtime head coach Oscar Pareja left the club to become manager of Liga MX side Club Tijuana. VP of soccer operations Luiz Muzzi, who was only promoted to that role in September when technical director Fernando Clavijo began a health-related leave of absence, will soon follow him out the door to take over as GM of Orlando City. As key figures left the technical staff, senior players were moved off the roster. Maxi Urruti was traded to Montreal on Dec. 9; Tesho Akindele was sent to Orlando that same day;  Roland Lamah was picked up by FC Cincinnati on Dec. 11 and Victor Ulloa was sent to the expansion club in a trade on Dec. 12.

That’s a lot of change for the first team. According to club owner and president Dan Hunt, all that turnover will be followed by an increased role for FCD academy alums.

“It is fair to say it’s us doubling down on the youth movement,” Hunt told

That starts with Gonzalez, who, though he was all set to take the head job for FCD’s newly-launched USL League One team before Pareja departed, was officially named first-team head coach on Sunday. The 38-year-old joined FCD as an academy coach in 2012 and led their U-18s for three years before he was named academy director and U-16 head coach in 2015. During his time at the youth level, FCD won four U.S. Soccer Development Academy national titles and graduated 15 players to the MLS roster. Those Homegrowns haven’t made much of an impact as pros, however. Of the 23 players Dallas have signed to Homegrown deals in their history, only Ulloa, Kellyn Acosta, who was traded to Colorado last summer, Reggie Cannon and Jesse Gonzalez have made meaningful contributions to the first team.  

Dan Hunt and his brother Clark, FCD’s co-owner, chairman and CEO, are more than aware of that. It significantly informed their coaching search, which they led and did not include the departing Muzzi. The Hunts want to get more out of their young players once they sign MLS deals. They wanted a coach who shared that vision. They got that and more in Gonzalez, who worked with all seven of the Homegrown players currently on the FCD roster when they were in the academy.

Combine that shared vision with his success at the youth level, his regular experiences working with the first-team in training under Pareja, a positive tactical plan and a presentation that left both Hunts “blown away,” and hiring Gonzalez over five other finalists for the job was a clear choice for FCD.

“My brother and I visited about it a lot, and it was great because we were completely in alignment that Luchi was the guy for us,” said Dan Hunt. “We just project his growth to be incredibly high, given his passion and desire. Luchi is a person who holds himself incredibly accountable with everything that he does, and I think that’s going to be great for us.”

It could be great for some of those younger Homegrowns, as well. Midfielder Paxton Pomykal, forward Jesus Ferreira, midfielder Brandon Servania and midfielder Thomas Roberts are expected to compete for minutes in 2019, according to Hunt. Pomykal has a particularly big opportunity, as Hunt said that the 19-year-old will battle with 2018 summer signing Pablo Aranguiz to start at attacking midfield next season. It’s even possible that defender Chris Richards will play a significant role for FCD next year, with Hunt saying that his reported transfer to Bayern Munich is not yet completed and that he may return to Texas to play in MLS once his loan to the German giants expires at the end of the month.

A pathway has been cleared for the younger players, but that doesn’t mean Dallas expect to take a step back in 2019. Both Hunt and Gonzalez rejected the notion that Dallas will turn exclusively to untested youth next season, saying that they don’t plan to move any of their other established veterans this winter and pointing to returning starters like Gonzalez, Cannon, Matt Hedges, Carlos Gruezo and Michael Barrios as proven options that they think will keep the team competitive next season.

“I think you’re going to see a different environment philosophically on the field and in our system,” said Hunt. “I would tell you I’m as excited as I’ve ever been. We know there are going to be some growing lessons in all of this because we’re going to have a young staff, but for hard work, desire, knowledge and ability to communicate, they can put a championship team on the field.”

There will also be a few new signings – Hunt said that the club hopes to announce a new striker and a new center back this week, both of whom could be signed using Targeted Allocation Money – and a slightly different system in 2019. Gonzalez pitched the Hunts on a 4-3-3 formation in his interview, a departure from the 4-2-3-1 that Pareja ran for most of the past few seasons. That formation isn’t set in stone, of course. What will remain consistent is Gonzalez’s underlying principles, with the new head coach saying he wants Dallas to press slightly higher and create more “numbers-up situations” all over the field than they did under Pareja.

That style should be a bit more consistent with how Dallas’ academy teams play than Pareja’s. That consistency is important to Gonzalez, who, returning to that Guardiola quote, wants FCD to be a club that are driven to trophies by their academy.

“The club has an identity, the club has a way that it wants to develop players, train and show on gameday,” he said. “That way will vary with different head coaches, obviously, but over time, a club that has a tradition and a clear identity with history, that club will bring in a first-team coach that’s in-line with that philosophy. And that philosophy should always be there in the academy. It should always be uniform and clear at the academy level. I feel that solution has been happening with Oscar… and now we have another step of that. So, that quote from Guardiola, it’s easier said than done, obviously, the first-team, the professional level, the pressure is quite different, but we are that kind of club. We are that kind of community in FC Dallas and we’re going to continue to show that uniformity, top to bottom.”