If you’re like me, you probably felt like FC Dallas was having a better season than being on 26 points from 19 games. D.C. United is facing MLS’s preeminent #PlayYourKids club, and for once the narrative around a team is showing some respect. For a team fielding numerous teenagers in starting roles in the spine of their team, they’re doing really well! However, it has to be said that they’re on a 2W-4D-5L run at the moment, and their last game against Portland was typical: they did well enough to get a draw (or maybe even a win), but they didn’t quite have the guile to get the job done.
Let’s look at a team that combines an experienced defensive core with a front six mostly made up of academy products:
Goalkeeper: Jesse Gonzalez
Gonzalez is having a solid season, sitting 10th among regular GKs in American Soccer Analysis’s goals minus expected goals table (he’s listed as both Jesse and Jose Luis here, as the league site changed his name a little while ago, so you have to combine his numbers). Gonzalez is not quite elite in terms of overall ability at the moment, but he is still growing and is capable of the proverbial big save.
Right back: Bressan
Dallas very quietly acquired the Brazilian as a TAM signing during the offseason, and despite often using him out of position (he was mostly a center back with Gremio), they’ve gotten solid returns. Luchi Gonzalez has used Bressan as a utility defender, playing him everywhere across the back, and the results have been respectable. He’s not a major threat going forward, but he still sees plenty of touches in supporting possession and puts plenty of crosses in (albeit from deeper positions).
Center back: Matt Hedges
Hedges is basically in the Chad Marshall category of a domestic center back that, for one reason or another, never really got his USMNT shot. He’s among the best in the league, and one of the few rivals to Steven Birnbaum in the air. The combination between Hedges and Reto Ziegler is right up there with any center back duo in MLS.
Center back: Reto Ziegler
Ziegler was often a left back playing in England, but in Dallas he’s been a full-time center back. He’s their distributor, and is a major threat delivering set pieces. With his experience in the Premier League, it’s tough to out-fox the Swiss veteran, and the 33 year old hasn’t really shown a major decline in speed or lateral quickness.
Left back: Ryan Hollingshead
The versatile Hollingshead beat Marquinhos Pedroso for the job in the preseason, and looks to be a better player under Gonzalez than he was under Oscar Pareja. However, like Bressan on the other side, Hollingshead isn’t really bombing down the wing to put in a ton of crosses. In fact, Bressan attempts far more crosses per 90 (4.7) than Hollingshead (1.6). Gonzalez wants his fullbacks to provide width and be references in possession rather than being major overlapping threats.
Defensive midfield: Edwin Cerrillo
Dallas could afford to accept a club-record fee for Carlos Gruezo without batting an eye thanks to Cerrillo, an 18-year-old homegrown defensive midfielder who wasn’t supposed to be this good this early. The transition from Gruezo to Cerrillo has required a change: Gruezo attempted nearly 20 more passes per game than Cerrillo does, with the usage in those situations moving towards Ziegler. However, Cerrillo completes over 92% of his passes, and otherwise brings a no-frills, “little things” approach to the no. 6 role.
Defensive midfield: Brandon Servania
Servania, not Cerrillo, was thought of as the academy product that would be the story here. It’s not that he’s behind schedule or anything, but rather that Dallas has a logjam of options here (including Honduras international Bryan Acosta and Maryland native Jacori Hayes), and that Cerrillo has taken such a leap forward. Servania has broken through lately though, getting his first three MLS starts in FCD’s last three games. He already has 2 assists, and has fit into the box-to-box role alongside Cerrillo pretty well.
Right wing: Michael Barrios
The diminutive Colombian is ultimately the hub of FC Dallas’s attack. They’re one of the most right-sided teams in MLS (41% of their attacks are out there, behind only Montreal), and a lot of that has to do with Barrios offering a variety of threats. He’s obviously very fast, but Barrios also works endlessly, and has developed into a craftier player than he gets credit for being.
It’s always tough with Barrios, who can hang out on the touchline, or slash in, or run in behind. Shutting him down is going to be critical.
Attacking midfield: Paxton Pomykal
By now, most MLS/USYNT observers are well aware of Pomykal. He’s a very well-rounded, high-energy midfielder who can fit into several roles. The hype is deserved, especially in a high-pressing system. Pomykal isn’t really a traditional playmaker; he creates via activity rather than being extraordinarily skillful and creative. He leads Dallas in tackles per game and draws a lot of fouls, and is relentless without the ball. It’s a shift in the balance from quality to quantity, but that’s not to imply that Pomykal is lacking in ability with the ball.
Left wing: Dominique Badji
Badji came into the season as the presumptive starter up front, but after a month or so, he ended up on the outside looking in. Over time, though, he’s found a new role as a goal-threat from the left wing. Badji is the lone source of size in an otherwise very small Dallas attack, but they aren’t really worried too much about playing through the air. Badji’s new job is mostly about his speed and his willingness to get into the box and be a threat in the box. For United, with the slower half of their defense being the right half, Badji is a player that requires some special attention.
Striker: Jesus Ferreira
You don’t typically see teams play a single forward when that forward is 18 years old, 5’8” tall, and 140 lbs. Ferreira (the son of former FCD playmaker David Ferreira) has taken over the gig, though, because he’s mobile and clever. It’s interesting to see that Ferreira, who is on track for something like a 10 goal/10 assist season, is not necessarily getting a ton of attention despite being as young as he is. He’s legit, and his style of play is going to be tricky for Birnbaum and Frederic Brillant.
Surprise! More youngsters. If Gonzalez wants to bring in an out-and-out striker, his first choice is probably going to be Ricardo Pepi, a 16-year-old sensation who went from the academy to their USL affiliate to a homegrown deal in whirlwind fashion. Czech striker Zdenek Ondrasek was projected to eventually be a challenger to Badji up front in the preseason, and he’s still around, but right now it seems like Pepi is the first look (whether it’s for Ferreira, or moving Ferreira into the midfield).
Yet another academy player, playmaker Thomas Roberts, is being looked at as a potential no. 10 of the future, and Gonzalez has begun peppering him into the lineup off the bench of late. They’ve also got Acosta, who could well start or add some juice to the midfield off the bench.
Gonzalez has a clear view on how he wants to play, and apparently has organizational support to sink or swim that way, and with such a young team. What that means here is that Dallas is going to pretty much approach games looking to use a “short, short, long” approach: possession to draw teams out of their block, and then a switch or a long ball to penetrate. They also mix in plenty of high pressure, though we’re not talking about a peak Red Bulls press.
The major things Gonzalez will do to change things up are to add more attack-minded players if they need a goal, or more defensively oriented types if they’re protecting a lead. Their 4231 might become more 4141 in that latter case, but even then, they’re pretty secure in mostly staying within their principles rather than radically changing things.