doyle-season-recap-DAL

A nice turnaround season capped by a playoff win.

A GIF is worth a thousand words:

Expectations for Los Toros entering the season were pretty, pretty low, and all the buzz last winter was justifiably about how many players they’d been able to sell, and for how much. $20 million for Ricardo Pepi to the Bundesliga? Hell yeah, folks. That’s some great work!

Baked into that discussion was the fact that by bringing in Nico Estevez as head coach, the whole organization was getting behind the notion of Jesus Ferreira as Pepi’s successor up top. There were other points of discussion as well – Paxton Pomykal back to central midfield from the wing; Ryan Hollingshead to LAFC with the more defense-minded Marco Farfan coming the other way; record fees for both Alan Velasco and Paul Arriola on the wing – but the bet on Ferreira was the big one.

I was super skeptical of it, and truth be told, I still think Ferreira’s best long-term position is as sort of a Totti-style trequartista, which is basically the role Sebastian Driussi has down the road in Austin.

Even so, the bet Dallas placed on the kid being able to get the job done as a No. 9 paid off big-time. In fact, almost every move they made last winter paid off big-time. It was a very good year.

Formation and Tactics

It was a 4-3-3 with a single pivot and a commitment to positional play. That means Dallas were super-duper structured on the ball – Estevez, a Spaniard, is predictably a student of how it’s done by the best minds from Spain over the past two decades.

The idea behind this approach was to use possession, first and foremost, as a way of fixing the defense, which had been broken in 2021. By being smarter and more precise with their positioning in the build-up, turnovers were less costly because they became less likely to turn into counterattacks heading in the other direction.

The other part of this approach is Dallas were always in good shape to counter-press, which became a bigger and more important part of their identity as the season went along. If you’re in good position to provide immediate support when you lose the ball, then you’re also in good position to immediately win it back, right?

As such they were fourth in the league in pressures from an organized state, as per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, but just 15th in pressures from a transition state.

So think of it this way: While teams like the Red Bulls press to blow the game open, Dallas pressed to exert control over the game. And they were very good at it.

Highlight

From mid-March to mid-May they went 6W-0L-3D, a nine-game unbeaten run that was pretty clearly the best stretch of the season. They smashed Portland and Colorado, picked up a Texas Derby win over Houston, and capped it off by going to Carson and beating the Galaxy 3-1.

But I actually think the highlight was their final five-game stretch of the regular season. Dallas had spent basically the entire year above the playoff line because of that springtime of dominance, but the summer doldrums caught up to them pretty hard. Yet when September rolled around, there was a very real chance they could fall out of the playoff picture entirely.

They did not, rolling off a 3W-1L-1D end to the season that secured not only a return trip to the playoffs, but a home game for the fans in Frisco (which, it must be said, was rocking this year in a way it has never quite rocked before).

While the most significant of those results and the best overall performance was the 3-0 win at Minnesota on September 3, it was the home win over LAFC a week later that really sticks in the brain:

HIGHLIGHTS: FC Dallas vs. Los Angeles Football Club | September 10, 2022

That is the first and only time the Black & Gold dropped points from a winning position all year long. Ferreira was brilliant and the fans were right to go berserk.

The other obvious highlight was the PK shootout win over the Loons in the playoffs, which…

Man, that could’ve gone so, so wrong. But it didn’t!

Lowlight

The reason they needed that five-game push at the end of the year was because they were pretty poor immediately after that nine-game stretch in the spring, going just 1W-5L-4D over their next 10 games.

There were a few reasons for it – lack of depth, lack of squad rotation, missing Ferreira and Arriola for a bit due to national team commitments, etc. A big part of it, though, was they just didn’t have the type of firepower to turn a 1-0 lead into 2-0, so a lot of those 1-0 leads turned into 1-1 draws or even 2-1 losses.

And yes, I’ll mention the playoff loss at Austin in here as well. Any time a rival ends your season, that’s a lowlight.

Revelation

I already spilled a lot of words on Ferreira, who’s the true answer here. He scored more non-penalty goals than any 21-year-old in league history aside from Stern John back in 1998 (and it’s worth noting there was almost 20% more scoring in MLS that season). He more than lived up to expectations.

But let’s get a round of applause for Arriola, who put up his best season yet by both the eye test (he was excellent) and the boxscore numbers (10g/7a in 2,570 minutes). He was also durable, with 29 starts and 32 appearances.

Arriola’s never going to put up truly massive numbers, but that kind of productivity combined with the havoc he causes on both sides of the ball – he is the best pressing winger in the league, and he is a demon at attacking space behind the opposing backline off the ball – made him worth every single cent of the record amount of GAM they shipped to D.C. United for his services.

Disappointment

Edwin Cerrillo took a modest step forward this year and looks like the type to become a good MLS player for a long time. But he couldn’t entirely displace Facundo Quignon, and between the two of them, neither was able to be the sort of top-quality tempo-setter – think Victor Wanyama (Montréal), Keaton Parks (NYCFC) or Ilie Sanchez (LAFC), or even young Daniel Pereira in Austin – great possession-heavy teams need.

Because of that, the two more advanced midfielders in Estevez’s 4-3-3 spent a lot of time dropping deeper to do basic distribution work (though Sebastian Lletget, to his credit, still managed to be very effective pushing into the final third). That, in turn, made the overall attack significantly less dynamic.

2023 Preview

Five Players to Build Around

  • Ferreira (FW/SS): I assume he’ll be back unless Dallas get an offer they can’t refuse.
  • Arriola (W): One of the best in the league at his spot, and arguably Dallas’s most important player.
  • Velasco (W): Still has a lot to learn (you don’t always have to come back to the ball, kid), but he’s got a ton of talent and had a very successful year as a 20-year-old.
  • Pomykal (CM): One of the very best two-way central midfielders in the league, and he stayed mostly healthy for a second straight year.
  • Matt Hedges (CB): Bounced back to play over 2,200 minutes and put together another super season.

Offseason Priority

Offload Franco Jara – by all reports I’ve seen, he’s got one year left on that outrageous DP deal – and do everything possible to upgrade d-mid. If the reports of Wanyama wanting out of Montréal because they’re unwilling to hit his salary number in his option year (that has not been confirmed one way or another) are true, then Dallas should just trade up to the first spot in the Re-Entry Draft and snag Big Vic.

A game-orchestrating d-mid of that caliber would unlock so much from literally everyone on the field in attack. Open up that DP slot and spend it there.

Then find a cost-effective, true No. 9 backup for Ferreira. I don’t care if it’s a kid out of college or out of the academy or off of someone else’s scrap heap, or maybe just grab an available veteran like, say, Ola Kamara.

But the point is Dallas are real close here, and a couple of big moves could vault them into true title contention.