There are many responsibilities for the head coach of a professional soccer team. For example, you must develop your players’ skills, knowledge, and abilities over time so they become more effective. On the shorter end of the spectrum, you are responsible between games for staging your practices, video sessions, recovery times, and other off-day activities so your players can play their best during competitive matches. You have to work to build chemistry among the roster so your team can function well as a unit.
Perhaps most crucially, however, you must consider the roster of players your sporting director or GM has assembled for you, and, weighing their strengths and weaknesses holistically, fit them together in a coherent set of on-field roles and responsibilities that maximizes their shared potential. This is the core of what we call “tactics” in soccer.
For Luchi Gonzalez and FC Dallas, next season will be defined by a single question of tactics, where the right answer could form the basis of the first true MLS Cup contender FCD has had in half a decade:
What is the best way to fit Paxton Pomykal into FC Dallas’ 2021 roster?
Obviously the injuries that have sidelined him for most of the past 18 months may have affected his quality, but let’s assume (and hope) he comes back without any lingering handicap. He’s scheduled to return from his early September surgery just in time for the start of the 2021 season.
Pomykal’s greatest strength is his ability to affect the game for his team in so many different ways. He’s footballing quicksilver. On his best day, he can get into as many duels as Thiago Santos, or dribble out of as many tight spots as Andres Ricaurte, or press and counter-press like Fafa Picault, or progress the ball like Ryan Hollingshead, or find space like Ferreira, or take guys on 1v1 like Michael Barrios, or cross like Bryan Reynolds, or pass over distance like Tanner Tessmann, or move the ball around midfield like Brandon Servania. He’s not completely bulletproof (he’s not too good at shooting; he’s short, but he’s got hops; I, personally, don’t rate his ability to play the killer final pass frequently), but he’s close.
When he hits on more of those skills than not, you get games like those last year against LA Galaxy, Toronto FC, and DC United where he played like an MVP. In that period, from the beginning of the 2019 season to his injury troubles that started in late July, he was used in nearly every game as the most attacking midfielder in the heyday of Luchi’s triple pivot. Since then, he’s been used almost exclusively as a winger – the degree to which that’s a result of his injuries as opposed to Luchi’s preference for Ferreira as a midfielder is a matter of open debate.
If you believe, like me, that Pomykal is perhaps the best, most effective player on the team, then it’s evident that he should start. But where? Because his skillset is so well-rounded, he could lineup anywhere in the field apart from CB and still be a difference maker. That said, it would take some acclimatization for him to be a real option at either outside-back spot or at striker, so maybe let’s focus on the few midfield options and the winger spots.
- Pomykal as a single pivot is unlikely despite the dreams of some USMNT fans projecting their needs upon him. It’s not that he couldn’t do it given the time. It’s that the single pivot 6 is a tricky-tricky role to learn on the defensive side and requires a restraint on offense that would blunt many of Pomykal’s most useful weapons.
- Pomykal as part of a double pivot depends on the player in the other half of the pair. A “Beauty and the Beast” combo with Pomykal and a destroyer puts most of the burden of progression onto Pomykal – at that point you’re just choosing between his tools in that spot and Ricaurte. Next to Acosta or Servania, though, in a true one-stays-one-goes double pivot, Pomykal could pick his spots to be aggressive.
- Pomykal as one of a pair of “free 8s” would be similar to a double-pivot, but instead of deciding between staying to cover or going forward, the pair decides who drops in during the buildout and who stays high, or who crashes the box and who gets into prevention shape. On the one hand, it gets him into the counterpress more, which is a positive. On the other, Pomykal hasn’t shown much production as the late arrival in the box – it would take plausible but as-yet-unforeseen skills for this role to sing.
- Pomykal as the most advanced midfielder would place him in a role similar to Jesus Ferreira’s late in the season: serving as the second runner in the box as well as posting up in pockets of space in front of the opposing defenders and slipping the ball along to the other attackers. The problem here is I think such a role would take Pomykal off the ball too much and emphasizes weaker pieces of his game – finishing and The Final Pass. He could be a hellion in the press from this spot, but I wouldn’t recommend putting him here.
- Pomykal as a winger intrigues because he offers something at those spots that none of the current starters can: left-foot-dominance. Because of the preferences of each of FCD’s starting outside-backs in getting forward (Reynolds wants to stay wide and cross; Hollingshead wants to attack from the left channel), a lefty winger who cuts in from the right and goes wide on the left would be a well-fitted match (which is why I strongly believe Dante Sealy should have gotten more playing time in 2020). Plus, Pomykal is a dangerous presser, maybe the best 1v1 dribbler on the team, and a great crosser. It would look different than the Pomykal we fell in love with in 2019, but he could still help FCD win from the wing.
In truth, many of these considerations will change this offseason. Depending on how FC Dallas handles Acosta and Mosquera’s contracts, they might have room for two more max-level players. Unless the new guys are at or above Barrios’ level in their respective roles, though (and finding such players has been a struggle for FCD in recent years), Pomykal would be a better option in the starting XI. Regardless, between those three best positions (winger, free 8, or double pivot), my proposal is that Pomykal starts at all three spots.
No, don’t clone him (though maybe the Hunts should look into that?). Start Pomykal in every game, but don’t tie him down to a particular position or role. Start him where he adds the most value given what you expect from the game. About to play LAFC and their press? Put him in as a free 8 alongside Ricaurte as a press-breaker and progression dynamo. Nashville and their low block coming to town? Put him on the wing to combo and 1v1 his way into the box or to pick out crosses. Going to Portland? Set him next to a destroyer in the double pivot to make sure the ball stays in the Portland end.
Just make sure #19 gets on the field.