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Luchi Loathes Losing

FC Dallas has incubated a remarkable streak under the management of their former Academy Director

MLS: FC Dallas at Houston Dynamo Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

For the second straight season, FC Dallas has finished the regular season in the playoffs but with the task to go on the road in the first round. Despite the justified sense among many fans that FCD has been a grindingly average team since Head Coach Luchi Gonzalez took over, there is at least one area where the team has excelled to a shocking degree.

I was looking through the MLS form guide recently and noticed something strange. Not only are there very few red boxes (losses) in the FC Dallas row, they are almost never next to one another. In professional soccer, on average, ~1/4th of games result in draws, with the other 3/4ths split between wins and losses. That means that the chance of any consecutive pair of games turning out to both be losses is a little less than 1/7th. In other words, the average team has consecutive losses once every 8 games or so.

How long has it been since FC Dallas lost consecutive games? I lined up every MLS game that counted toward winning MLS Cup (regular season, playoffs, and MLS Is Back group stages) since Luchi got the job. This is what I found.

The last and only time that FC Dallas has lost more than one game in a row under Luchi’s tenure was the three games at Houston, vs NYRB, and at LAFC right after the youth contingent left for the U20 World Cup early in 2019.

How has FC Dallas put together such an exceptional run without back-to-back losses?

  1. Broadly speaking, good teams tend to avoid defeats. Consistently scoring more than your opponent is an easy way to reduce the chances that in any given game they score more than you (or that they score more than you for two straight games). Under Luchi Gonzalez, FCD is 8th overall in MLS in cumulative goal differential per game in that timeframe with a mark of +0.2.
  2. Broadly speaking, teams good at defense tend to be good at avoiding defeats. There’s quite a bit of analysis about the relative merits of offense vs defense in soccer. The very basic takeaway is that, whereas goals scored and goals conceded equally affect a team’s chances of winning games, preventing goals is 1/3rd more impactful than scoring goals on a team’s ability to avoid defeat. On a per game basis, Luchi’s FC Dallas has allowed the 8th fewest goals (1.30) in the league since he took over.
  3. Luchi has been willing to go ultra-practical to halt a bad run of form before it happens. Last year, FCD went on the road to Chicago and got run over in the first half, eventually losing 4-0. On short rest, they went across the country to Seattle, where Luchi started the team in a low, three-in-the-back system and ground out a scoreless draw at the Sounders. This season, after a 3-0 loss at Nashville that captain Reto Ziegler described as a “cold shower” wake-up call, Luchi turned around on short rest on the road and ground out a scoreless draw at Real Salt Lake. Neither of those results were pretty, but it was effective wound management – in a difficult matchup after a painful loss, Luchi chose to focus on stopping the bleeding rather than dogmatically sticking to his preferred style of play.
  4. There’s some luck involved too. Through quirks of scheduling, many of FCD’s losses over the past two seasons have been followed by games at home, where FCD is notoriously good at getting results. In other cases, FCD surrounded losses with improbable results. After losing to the Galaxy in 2019, FCD traveled to Montreal and scored three second-half goals to come from behind for a draw. The loss at Minnesota earlier this season was preceded by a game where FCD was outshot by more than 4:1 in Kansas City and escaped with a draw on the strength of Bressan’s ribs and multiple last-ditch tackles from John Nelson.

Beyond these factors that are observable publicly, I also think the streak reflects well on Luchi’s abilities as a man-manager as well as the quality of characters and leadership in the locker room. So much of soccer (like all professional sports) is about thinking forward – not letting the failures or success of the past dictate or distract from the current or next action. In his short time coaching professional adults, Luchi has shown an admirable ability to keep his team loose and focused, to stop one loss from turning into two.

What does that mean for the game in Portland, a possible second straight loss for FCD? Because it’s a single elimination playoff game, factor #3 above may not apply, but maybe Luchi’s record after losses means FC Dallas has a better chance than you think. Relatedly, take heart: of the teams hosting games in the first round of the playoffs in the West, Portland has earned by far the lowest PPG at home this year; of the teams traveling in the first round, FCD has earned the second most PPG on the road. Again, FCD might have a better chance than you think.