Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

What the 2023 MLS season meant for FC Dallas


I’m not going to call this a lost year – not when you’ve got a breakout center back like Nkosi Tafari – but I think, by most measures, FC Dallas fans probably consider this season to have been a disappointment.

Jesús Ferreira and Alan Velasco both took a step backwards, while Paul Arriola, Paxton Pomykal and Sebastian Lletget all missed a ton of time. They moved on from their DP center forward in early January, then never replaced him. They signed a U22 Initiative right back, but he struggled to integrate and then popped his ACL.

They were much better at coming from behind to grab points than previous iterations of los Toros Tejanos, but they remained very bad at playing from the front to put teams away.

And so, yeah… an early exit from the US Open Cup, an early-ish exit from the Leagues Cup, 46 points and a seventh-place finish in the West followed by a Round One exit in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs at the hands of the Sounders (it always seems like it’s at the hands of the Sounders).

I think if you had offered a spread of probable outcomes for this season, what we got was somewhere in like the 40th percentile, right? Not a disaster by any means, but not much to write home about and not much to hang your hat on when it’s all said and done.

Formation & Tactics

Nico Estévez strikes me as a really smart tactical coach. His team is always prepared, which means “always knows where to funnel opposing attackers to make it difficult, and rarely sees his team get opened up from lack of attention to detail.”

The downside is his team is so well-drilled without the ball, and so cognizant of their overall shape, they can become ponderous and predictable with it. This is a failing common to teams committed to positional play.

So just past the midseason mark, coinciding with the arrival of veteran d-mid Asier Illarramendi, Estévez had his team dial back on the positional play and morph more toward an emphasis on transition play. They didn’t give up the ball entirely – not by a long shot – but baked into the metamorphosis was a change from 4-3-3 single pivot to more of a 4-2-3-1 with Illarra making the game from deep and Velasco, playing as a true No. 10 creating in more of a free role.

It wasn’t perfect, but I think it suited them.


Is their 4-4 home draw (followed by a PK shootout loss) to Inter Miami in Leagues Cup the most thrilling game any MLS team has played in this calendar year? If it’s not, it’s on the very short list of contenders.

This was the first game in which Estévez truly unveiled Velasco at the 10, and the kid was so damn good that Messi sought him out afterward to trade jerseys. A month later, Velasco would be called into the Argentina squad for the first time, which was a massive achievement.

But the true high point of the season came just before its end, when they beat the brakes off a very good Sounders team, 3-1, in Frisco. That included an absolutely gorgeous team goal to open the scoring:

I think we all knew Dallas weren’t going to turn around and win the Round One series up in Seattle, but that performance – Arriola getting on the board, Pomykal and Illarra bossing the game in the middle third, and young North Texas SC product Bernie Kamungo looking like an absolute star – was proof of concept for the whole damn thing.

They need to be that team 35(ish) times next season across all comps.


They were that time like three(ish) times this season across all comps, and one of them was not in Match 3 at Seattle.


Kamungo or Tafari? How about both?

Tafari might’ve been the best all-around center back in the league this year. He didn’t win Defender of the Year, obviously (he wasn’t even a finalist), but this guy has grown into a spot among the league’s best over the past couple of years. Just phenomenal tactical, technical and physical gifts.

Kamungo is still learning the tactical part of it, but on a per-minute basis this kid was one of the most productive attackers in MLS: 8g/5a in about 940 minutes across all competitions. He also got his first camps and caps for the US U23s (a fantastic story, given his youth spent in a refugee camp in Tanzania) and put up numbers there, too.

Both these guys are stars.


While there were some disappointing individual performances this season, and some crushing injuries, nothing was quite so dispiriting as Dallas’ decision to not get a DP striker to put fear into opponents (Arriola slid into a DP spot).

It’s tough to get into a fight against Messi or against the Sounders with one hand tied behind your back.

2024 Preview

Five Players to Build Around

  • Ferreira (FW): I still think his best spot is as a second forward in a front two, but he’s continued to be effective as a false 9 in a front three, so what do I know?
  • Kamungo (RW): I don’t think it’s wrong to hope for a dozen goals from him off that right wing. He’s quicksilver out there.
  • Tafari (CB): One of the very best in the league.
  • Pomykal (CM): Was really excellent down the stretch in a double pivot with Illarra.
  • Illarramendi (CM/DM): Brings experience and calm to the proceedings, but also knows when to turn up the tempo.

Offseason Priority

I could, and maybe should have added goalkeeper Maarten Paes to the above list. He was very good this season.

Anyway, the health status of Velasco and Geovane Jesus (that injured right back I mentioned above) will/should determine a lot of what they want to aim for this offseason. Can they tread water until those guys are back, presumably around early summer? Should they try to, or aim for replacements out of the gate and then work those guys back in?

Whatever they decide, they’ve still got that DP situation to determine. If it was me, I’d spend it on a high-level, true No. 9 and drop Ferreira into the Hany Mukhtar role. If he’s your most creative player (and with Velasco out, he probably will be), then the idea should be to get him on the ball earlier and more often without breaking the team’s attacking shape.

Getting a traditional No. 9 out there to work as a fulcrum, then, makes a ton of sense to me.