Pour one out for #LuchiGang. A gif is worth a thousand words:

The hope was that Luchi Gonzalez, who was a legendary coach and developer of talent with the FC Dallas academy, would follow in his mentor Oscar Pareja’s footsteps and lead Los Toros Tejanos steadily upward and into title contention by Year 3.

It didn’t go that way. It went the other way.

Formation and tactics

Dallas came out this year playing in a … 3-4-2-1? What, why?

I’m not sure, but it didn’t work. They won once over the season’s first two-and-a-half months, and Luchi eventually reverted back to a 4-3-3-ish 4-2-3-1 that seemed to better suit much of the personnel.

And here’s the thing: After the change, Dallas played better soccer than either of the past two years. They had a clear philosophy of play – they built methodically from the back, as evidenced by the fact that they’ve hit more passes in their own half than anyone else in MLS, as per Opta – and ended up in the top third of the league in possession, chances created and big chances created, all while residing in the top 10 overall in expected goals.

That is the attacking profile of a playoff team.

The defensive profile is, uh, not. For all of the frustrations about FCD's high-priced attacking imports (there is a lot of it, and it is justified), the end of LuchiBall came because of a turnover-prone midfield, a defense that couldn’t scramble and a massive regression in goal compared to Jimmy Maurer’s 2020 season.

Highlights

We should just drop a season-long Ricardo Pepi reel in here, right? He’s had the best goalscoring season of any teenager in MLS history and you might have heard that’s translated to the US men's national team as well.

That game was a particular high point, quite obviously for the hattie but also for the fact that it kicked off a 10-points-from-four-games run during the toughest stretch of the schedule that made it feel like, yes, Dallas were really going to turn this thing around behind the attacking play of Pepi and Jesus Ferreira.

Lowlight

On September 18, with their playoff hopes fading but still alive, Dallas went down to Houston for a Texas Derby match. They fell behind 3-0 by the hour mark, and while a couple of late goals from Jader Obrian made the final score look respectable, that 3-2 final was something of a lie. It wasn’t actually that close.

Here is the last kick of that game, from the foot of DP striker Franco Jara:

On September 19, Gonzalez was fired. He’d been with the team in one role or another for nearly a decade and had coached many of Dallas’s current players when they were just children.

Parting with a head coach who’s meant so much to the organization and has had such a hand in the growth of players like Pepi and Ferreira – not to mention the likes of Bryan Reynolds, Tanner Tessmann and Reggie Cannon, each of whom were sold for millions – is not like Cincy parting ways with Jaap Stam or Chicago bidding adieu to Raphael Wicky.

Revelation

Obviously Pepi. He’s scored at every stop of his career thus far – from age group play to USL, from USL to MLS, from MLS to the national team – so it’s not precisely a revelation that he’d be good. But the kid set a damn record! That’s revelatory.

I’m going to put Ferreira here as well. He’s quite literally been all over the place in his young career, from false 9 to inverted winger to true 9 and then, this year, to more of a trequartista role. He hasn’t been Best XI caliber or anything, but he’s more regularly shown the types of flashes, as a 20-year-old, that make you think he very well could be a Best XI player sometime in the not too distant future. Like father, like son.

It was a necessary bounce back after a miserable 2020 from the kid.

Disappointment

You saw that Jara clip above. One of the big reasons Pepi got on the field in the first place is that Jara was so ineffective, and he has thus become the face of Dallas’s long-standing recruitment problems. Let’s run down the list:

  • Freddy Vargas played himself out of a starting job in about 500 minutes
  • Obrian has scored in just six of his 29 appearances and is a massive downgrade in terms of passing/general playmaking from Fafa Picault and Michael Barrios, the guys he was supposed to replace.
  • New d-mid Facundo Quignon has had some nice moments but is turnover-prone. And he lacks recovery speed so those turnovers instantly become five-alarm fires.
  • Andres Ricaurte lost his starting job because he just can’t defend at all and doesn’t do much of anything in the final third.
  • Jose Martinez and Bressan were beaten out for minutes by 2020 SuperDraft pick Nkosi Tafari, and none of them could keep the backline afloat when Matt Hedges got hurt.

The last unequivocally successful import for Dallas was probably Reto Ziegler (though both Zdenek Ondrasek and Thiago Santos, each of whom was sold over the past 13 months, have arguments). Most of the guys I listed above aren’t even starting caliber, let alone unequivocal successes.

If you miss on 90% of your signings, you’re not going to regularly make the playoffs no matter how good your academy is.

2022 Preview

Five Players to Build Upon:

  • Ferreira (AM): Like I said above, there are glimpses of Best XI potential in there, and if I said “10g/10a in 2022,” that wouldn’t sound outlandish, would it?
  • Paxton Pomykal (CM): Pomykal has made it through 2021 mostly unscathed, and is approaching 1500 minutes. He’s spent most of them on the wing – his defense allows the LB to get forward – but they desperately need his ball retention, ball-winning and problem solving back in the middle next year.
  • Tafari (CB): There have been growing pains, but he’s been more good than bad, and if he gets 2000 minutes next to Hedges next year Dallas will be in good shape.
  • Szabolcs Schon (W): The young Hungarian has probably been the best of the imports, balances Ferreira nicely and should improve in Year 2.
  • Ryan Hollingshead (LB): He just turned 30 and missed a crucial stretch of games in September, but he’s still the best attacking left back in the league.

Offseason Priority:

As with so many of the other teams down around this part of the table, finding the right coach is job No. 1. They’ve recently been linked to Paco Jemez, which made me wince (I watched a lot of his Cruz Azul teams and wish I hadn’t), but nothing’s official yet. I imagine the search will proceed into the offseason.

Obviously there will be some roster holes to fill as well, and lots of money to fill them with. It stands to reason that someone will make the Hunts an offer they can’t refuse for Pepi, and that kind of cash can go a long way in this league. Young defender Justin Che, meanwhile, is supposedly set for a winter move to Bayern Munich for a not insubstantial amount.

Decline a couple of contracts and maybe buy out Jara, and things could get better quickly.

Things could also get much, much worse, though. Dallas would’ve been in Wooden Spoon territory this year without Pepi and, given the front office’s recruitment struggles, it won’t be easy to replace him no matter how much money they’re given to do it with.