For the second year in a row, FC Dallas came out of the gate flying.
And for the second year in a row, a late slump ended the club’s season far earlier than they’d hoped.
Their 2018 slide didn’t approach the depths of their brutal second-half collapse in 2017, but it was just about as costly. FCD managed to return to the playoffs this year, but they were bounced immediately, losing at home to the Portland Timbers in the Knockout Round last Wednesday.
The defeat was the fourth in a row for Dallas, who entered their final three games of the regular season in first place in the Western Conference, four points ahead of second-place Sporting Kansas City. They still had some work to do to secure the top spot in the West heading into their Oct. 13 match at D.C. United, but a top-two seed and a bye to the Conference Semifinals looked relatively secure.
Then, the wheels fell off. FCD lost 1-0 at D.C., fell 3-0 at home to SKC on Oct. 21 and conceded twice in the final 10 minutes to lose 2-1 at Colorado on Decision Day presented by AT&T. The final capitulation against Portland followed a few days later.
The common thread throughout the losing skid? A dried-up attack. Dallas, who finished the regular season tied for the third-fewest goals in the West, scored just twice in their final four matches. Their forwards repeatedly failed to put away quality chances, they had difficulty building through the middle and their wingers struggled with the final ball. The problems proved fatal in the loss to Portland, when Dallas couldn’t break down a Timbers team that played down a man for the final 30 minutes.
“We’ve got to be cleaner in front of the net and we’ve also got to be cleaner on those entry passes into the box,” FCD owner and president Dan Hunt told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday.
Hunt knows Dallas needs to improve in the final third in 2019, but he isn’t yet set on how to best achieve that. The most obvious solution would be to upgrade at striker, where FCD got minimal production this season. Maxi Urruti was streaky at the position before moving into a deeper role after Mauro Diaz was sold in July; Dominique Badji scored just two goals in 10 games after he was acquired later in July as part of the deal that sent Kellyn Acosta the other way; Designated Player Cristian Colman played and scored sparingly before tearing his ACL in early October.
Despite all that, Hunt isn’t entirely convinced that Dallas need a dominant No. 9. Hunt and VP of soccer operations Luiz Muzzi, who is leading the technical staff while technical director Fernando Clavijo is on leave due to health reasons, are “interested in looking at the position,” but they’re also weighing alternative options. They’re considering moving nominal winger Michael Barrios into “more of a Josef Martinez-type” role in the middle, where they believe the Colombian could thrive.
Hunt also praised Colman’s ability to “create a lot of chaos” in the attacking end and pointed to his injury as a major reason for Dallas’ downfall. He still believes in Urruti as a striker. And he noted that SKC, Real Salt Lake and Portland don’t have a standout No. 9 and are yet all those teams are still in contention for the 2018 MLS Cup.
“We’ve spent a long time thinking about goalscoring and, at least from my statistics,  of the league’s top-25 goal scorers didn’t even make the playoffs; four were eliminated in the play-in game. So,  of the league’s top-25 didn’t even make it past the first round of the playoffs,” he said. “That leads you to sort of think about things maybe in a little bit of a different way.
“It’s the more balanced scoring approach that you see from teams like Kansas City, Salt Lake has a more balanced scoring approach, Portland. I think we’re frankly a little more balanced, although not with the volume that we’d had in past years. So, is that a more successful model? Or is the out and out 15-goal guy, of which there were only seven of those in the league this year? I think the jury’s still out on some of that.”
Hunt is right about SKC, RSL and the Timbers goals-by-committee approach working fine this season, but a quick glance at a list of recent MLS Cup winner belies the apparent need for a top striker. Toronto had Jozy Altidore in 2017; Portland had Fanendo Adi in 2015; LA had Robbie Keane in 2014, 2012 and 2011. A league champ emerging without a dead-eye No. 9 is more of the exception than the rule.
Dallas could still add at the position; they’re just not yet committed to the idea. They’re also not likely to spend huge amounts of money this winter. The club already have three DPs on the books for 2019 in Colman, Santiago Mosquera and Carlos Gruezo, and while all could be bought down using TAM to open space for a new DP, Hunt said he didn’t expect that would happen this offseason.
If they don’t sign a new striker – Badji and Urruti, like Colman, also have guaranteed deals for 2019 – Hunt said that they could add on the wing. He liked what he saw from Mosquera when he was healthy in 2018 and predicted that the 23-year-old would be a “double-digit goal scorer next season.” He also noted that the club got decent production from Barrios, who had six goals and six assists this season. Both are also guaranteed for next year.
The club have an option on fellow winger and team co-leading scorer Roland Lamah, who, according to the MLS Players Association, was FCD’s highest paid player in 2018 with a $818,500 salary. Another wide attacker, Tesho Akindele, is FCD’s lone out of contract player, though Hunt said Dallas are interested in bringing him back.
One position where FCD likely won’t make any new signings is No. 10, where 21-year-old summer acquisition Pablo Aranguiz and 18-year-old Homegrown Paxton Pomykal will compete for the 2019 starting role.
“We’re excited about Pablo. We spent a lot of time looking at him, scouting him, understanding him. He’s got a lot of similarities to Mauro Diaz, and when he was on the field we saw a lot of really great things,” said Hunt. “As his playing time lessened down the stretch, that, obviously, I don’t think that helped him in his development, but he’s a major piece for this next season. As is, I would tell you, Paxton Pomykal. I have big hopes for Paxton here. He’s having a very good Under-20 tournament [with the U.S.] and there’s a lot of belief in his ability, so I think you’ll see that playmaker role shared between those two for 2019.”
Pomykal isn’t the only Homegrown who Hunt expects to get more out of in 2019. He also name-checked Jesus Ferreira and Thomas Roberts as players who should see minutes next season. Even if they’re not first-team regulars, they’ll finally have an outlet for playing time with FCD’s newly-announced USL League One side.
Hunt said that the team, which will announce their name, home stadium, head coach and technical staff in the coming weeks, will be composed mainly of developing MLS players, first-teamers rehabbing injuries and academy players. It could be a vital step for Dallas, who Hunt admitted have lacked a bridge from their academy to the first team for far too long.
Another Homegrown, defender Chris Richards, might not be back in Dallas at all next season. The US youth international is on loan to Bayern Munich through the end of the calendar year. He’s impressed with the German giants to the point that Hunt indicated he could remain in Bavaria via permanent transfer after his loan expires at the end of December.
Of course, the defense isn’t the problem. Not with all four backline starters and the top-two goalkeepers from a stingy group guaranteed for next season. The attack is where the questions lie for FC Dallas. Hunt is still confident in his club’s model, staff and players and he doesn’t have any regrets about moving Diaz or Acosta this summer, but he knows that if Dallas don’t take a step forward in the final third, they could once again fall short in 2019.
“We’re not doing this for any other reason than to try to win a championship,” he said. “We’ve got to get better. Exiting the playoffs in this entry round is not where we want to be.”