Last night, the Houston Dynamo took care of business at home to beat FC Dallas, 2-0. The first goal came off a bad pass while playing it out of the back and the second from an unfortunate penalty kick. FC Dallas generated 28 shots, playing the entire second half up a man, but few of those shots gave Houston any ulcers. At this point, we can safely say that our boys from Frisco are not playing well, having crashed down to earth after a scintillating three game win streak last month.
The season is far from over with eight more games coming in quick succession into November. Dallas still has a solid position in the standings to maintain a playoff spot. The sky is not falling, but these past couple of weeks have not been fun from an FCD fan perspective.
When should a fan punch the panic button on this season?
Though I know a loss like this one and the draw at home against Columbus and Orlando were gut punches (along with the many other gut punches in this season), I think we need to be realistic as fans here. It's a little too early to break the emergency glass and start playing Cure albums. There is a lot of soccer still to come, and Dallas regularly has these tough losses on the road.
Still, I think we know enough about this team to foresee three broad possibilities for the rest of the season and whether or not you should think about slamming that big red button.
Option One: FC Dallas just hasn’t had all the pieces come together yet, but it will click and the team will enter the playoffs in a strong position to compete.
In this scenario, as difficult as some of these games have been to watch, Dallas is experiencing the results of bad timing and unlucky bounces. Players have been injured. The team missed the opportunity to build fitness at the MLS Is Back tournament due to COVID-19. The team is integrating new faces and building trust and rhythm as a squad. All of these things have added to the pressure and challenge of being a good soccer team in 2020.
But the positive news is that the pieces are there. FC Dallas has a squad that should and will generate some wins, as long as things come together. This is not the time to panic, because Michael Barrios, Franco Jara, Fafa Picault, and others will figure it out. A strong end to the season is what matters for the playoffs anyway, so Dallas should do everything they can not to pressure themselves or throw out the kitchen sink. Luchi Gonzalez certainly has work to do as head coach to get everyone in a positive state of mind and find helpful tweaks, but maybe he is seeing the potential week in and week out and knows it will bear fruit.
As a fan who carves out time in my schedule to watch each match, I hate being told to be patient, but it does seem early to throw in the towel on this season being a failure. So, I can buy more patience. Don't press that panic button yet.
Option Two: FC Dallas isn’t actually a good team at all and will continue to struggle against higher quality opponents.
In this scenario, we are witnessing not just an erratic squad but a decline in talent over all. FC Dallas still has quality in key areas, but there are enough holes or misaligned pieces that the whole hasn’t come together and likely won’t come together without new faces. From this angle, we are witnessing in real time the decline of Michael Barrios, who has been active but overall not up to par in 2020. We might even acknowledge that Santiago Mosquera, despite a hat trick this year, has been a bust, especially since he can’t stay on the field. Fafa Picault appears to be a great leader and a helpful piece on this roster but also hasn’t been able to help FC Dallas take the next step. Bryan Acosta has been uneven and never has gelled with Thiago Santos.
FC Dallas, in this scenario, is just revealing their true level.
I can’t quite buy this scenario, because the team is still talented enough to compete with a solid defense, veteran midfield, and bevy of young players who have brought energy in spurts. I’m not saying the team is great, but they should be good enough to get points and win at home at the very least, despite the holes in the lineup or lack of performance from some guys. Yes, there are holes. Barrios alone has been frustrating, but he’s been a streaky player in the past.
But if this is what you think, then by all means, press that panic button. If the team just isn’t good, their results will follow suit, and Dallas may miss out on postseason play in 2020. Still, this also seems, if true, all the more reason to get youngsters minutes and try to move on from veterans who aren’t performing.
Option Three: FC Dallas’ problem isn’t the players - it’s the coach, and so the team will struggle until some sort of change is made.
I really enjoyed season one of Ted Lasso on Apple TV+. It’s a heartwarming fish out of water story of a classic good ol’ American ball coach set against a soccer backdrop. I wish it had more soccer, of course, and less time spent on the romantic lives of the characters, but Coach Lasso gets you in the end because he is a person who truly cares. His efforts to get a team playing better is less about tactics and more about getting people comfortable, helping them feel valued, and finding ways to encourage them to break out of their selfish or self-destructive ruts. Really, I think the great coaches always have to have some Lasso type mojo in them. Players are human beings, and they want to be heard, communicated with, and put in a position to succeed.
Of course, there are many coaches who are great human beings, but if you don’t win and don’t get your players in a position to win, having a harmonious locker room kind of doesn’t matter. Professional soccer players may think the world of you, but they want to win. (And so does management.)
I think in this scenario the challenge isn’t that this team lacks talent, but that head coach Luchi Gonzalez is in his second year and hasn’t quite figured out how to get this squad in a position to succeed. By all accounts, Luchi is an incredible, impressive human being who has a track record for helping academy players mature into potential stars. He brings energy, style, and passion to his work. I imagine FC Dallas players like him a lot.
But as we’ve watched these games, it has often seemed that Luchi is getting out coached with savvy tweaks from veteran tacticians. A great example was how Caleb Porter had his Columbus Crew side come out for the second half, take advantage of a few tactical mistakes by Dallas, and dominate the rest of that game in Frisco. Against Houston, Luchi didn’t have a lot of ideas to break down the bunker. It looked at times like every player was just trying to be a star on their own instead of working out a common idea for how to exploit a team that was missing key starters.
I want to be clear - this is all speculation. For all we know, Luchi has these ideas, and the team hasn’t quite put it all together. But in this scenario, the team is going to continue to struggle in fits and spurts, and we may even glimpse some internal frustration spill over as players demand more from their head coach. I have no clue when a head coach can turn the corner. Maybe it will happen at some point in these next few games, or maybe we are finding out if Luchi has the goods to succeed at this level in real time.
If you believe this is the case, then by all means, hit that panic button, because we may not see a lot of improvement in the coming weeks. We may not even see the improvement until the franchise as a whole moves in a different direction. As much as we have might have expected more from Luchi though, it seems a bit harsh to close the book on the young HC at this point in his career.
Look, I’m still in scenario one as painful as these past few games have been. The team just needs to be better than LAG, San Jose, Real Salt Lake, and Colorado to punch a ticket to postseason play. I am not ready to panic on this season, but I am looking for more - from players and from the head coach.
Where are you?