The 2021 FC Dallas season has not gone to plan.
A club with a seemingly never-ending stream of elite academy talent breaking into the first team found yet another gem as Ricardo Pepi truly emerged, while a number of offseason additions arrived with high expectations. But those signings haven't quite lived up to the billing and they've slumped below the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs line for much of 2021.
Rock bottom – or what the club hopes to be rock bottom, at least – came over the weekend. Dallas were down 3-0 after 60 minutes to a rival Houston Dynamo FC team that had only recently snapped a 16-game winless run. FCD fought back late but ultimately fell 3-2, dropping to 11th in the Western Conference standings with the third-most goals conceded in MLS. They're now seven points below the playoff line, with every team ahead of them having at least one, if not two, games in hand.
After almost three years at the helm, it would be the final match in charge for head coach Luchi Gonzalez. Dallas announced they parted ways with their homegrown manager less than 24 hours following the loss, with eight matches remaining in the 2021 season.
“When you looked where we were in the table and the direction of things, this is not where we expected to be with eight games remaining in the season," club president Dan Hunt told media on a virtual press conference Monday. "The good news is we’re only seven points below the playoff line. We chose to make a change now because we actually believe we have an opportunity to get into the playoffs and we believe Marco [Ferruzzi] is the right guy to lead us.”
Gonzalez departs Dallas with well wishes from Hunt and technical director Andre Zanotta, both of whom thanked Gonzalez for his contributions and praised his character on multiple occasions. The former FCD academy director turned first-team head coach guided Dallas to the playoffs in his first two seasons in charge, but the club struggled this year.
He was in the final season of his guaranteed contract. Longtime technical staffer and front office member Marco Ferruzzi takes over as interim head coach. Ferruzzi, who's been with FCD since 2004 in various roles, was working as their director of soccer operations.
“We’re giving all our support to Marco," Zanotta said. "We really believe Marco can give us more solidity defensively and we believe we can still make the playoffs. Marco has a lot of experience … he knows what it takes for us to get back on track.”
Statistical analysis specialists at FiveThirtyEight give Dallas a 4% chance of making the playoffs. The model believes they're likeliest to finish in 11th, where they currently reside.
“There are a lot of wins and great results associated with Marco at this club that he probably didn’t get enough credit for," Hunt said. "A lot of coaches have relied on Marco, he and Luchi had a great relationship. … Marco is FC Dallas through and through.”
While FCD are firmly focused on the remaining matches of 2021, they shift focus to finding a new head coach. Zanotta and Hunt both asserted that Ferruzzi is a candidate for the full-time role.
As the coaching search gets underway, Dallas may be at a crossroads.
MLSsoccer.com's Charles Boehm wrote about the club's possible wavering faith in "the Dallas way," while Hunt deflected questions about whether ownership would spend more on the first team. Hunt also pointed out that while they're proud of their developmental reputation, he believes they're also a winning club. Dallas are yet to win MLS Cup, though have won one Supporters' Shield (2016) and two US Open Cups (1997, 2016).
That ability to produce and develop elite young talent won't subside, though, even as the club aims higher in the short-term.
“We always need to look at what the DNA of this club is," Zanotta said. "We’re a club that is very proud at developing players. We have no fear to play young players. … We want to continue to do that. The coach that we will find has to adapt to what this club is. Regardless of age, he needs to believe in what our DNA is and our process of developing players. This is something the new coach will have to have.”
“We want the best possible candidate to lead us going forward, whether that’s someone with a lot of experience or someone who is a bright, rising star," Hunt added. "Philosophically, we will always continue to develop young talent, specifically for the US national team and sometimes the Mexican national team. That is who we are. But we also want people who are winners, who will help us be successful. It’s a delicate balance. I think you’ll see us look for someone who proved they can win and help us win, to be successful in Major League Soccer.”
Dallas are currently led by their young core of Ricardo Pepi, Jesus Ferreira, Paxton Pomykal and others. They routinely send players to Europe, be it Reggie Cannon, Bryan Reynolds or Tanner Tessmann on permanent deals over the last year or the likes of Justin Che, Brandon Servania and Dante Sealy on loan.
Pepi has a ton of suitors in Europe and is expected to be the subject of club-record bids this winter. Bayern Munich are heavily interested in Che.
“We’re trying to retain this group, but we’re going to have to make additions," Hunt said. "We’re going to have to spend money [this offseason]. We think we have a group that are a few pieces away from competing for championships.”