There is no player on the FC Dallas roster that is more of a mystery to fans of the first team than Dante Sealy. He still has to make his competitive first team debut, his appearances in friendlies have been confined to the un-televised portion of games, and yet the junior statesman of FC Dallas holds tremendous promise as a player. Who is he? How does he play? And what impact will he make on FC Dallas and the wider world of soccer in the coming years?
With malady-sponsored house arrest giving me an unprecedented amount of time to twiddle my thumbs, I’ve all of a sudden got the resources to finally do this project: an exhaustive, tape-driven investigation of the game of this kid who might be the future of my favorite club and my country’s national team. Below, you’ll find an analysis of Sealy the player that is more fine-grained than any to date (and maybe for a long time).
The word “portrait” in the title was chosen on purpose. This will (hopefully) be an honest, in-depth, detailed look at the player Sealy is today (or was at the end of 2019). However, he is still young, still developing rapidly, and this post will not age with him perfectly. But I think there is value in recording a moment in time, and there’s no point in time like the present.
Context and Impetus
Signed as FC Dallas’ second youngest player ever in early 2019, Sealy was at that moment thrust into the forefront of soccer prospects in the US. When a club of FC Dallas’ stature, widely considered to be the best talent developers north of Mexico, decides to invest a professional contract in a player so early, it speaks volumes to his potential. The timing of his signature lined up almost perfectly with the next stage of FC Dallas’ growth as a talent pipeline: the launch of the club’s second team, North Texas SC, as a platform for high-performing young players to get professional minutes against adults without needing to make the (sometimes perilous) jump from the U19 DA to MLS. Sealy was immediately loaned to NTSC for the duration of the 2019 season.
His first season as a professional came with mixed reviews. For NTSC, he racked up nearly 1,000 minutes, flashed the ability to more than hold his own against adults, but just as often displayed a mental, technical, and physical immaturity that ended up keeping him mostly on the bench for the club’s stretch run to a league championship. He finished the year with just one goal and three assists, leaving a slew of chances on the pitch. Part of the ’03 cohort many consider to be the best the US has ever produced, Sealy attended a handful of USYNT camps throughout the year and finished the U16s’ two-year cycle as the US’ top scorer in the age group (I’m pretty sure – that info has all but disappeared from the internet). He also spent some time in Paris in late summer training with super-club PSG, but he was never rostered by the FC Dallas first team in any competitive match. All-in-all, a positive year, but not the explosion you hope for when a player like Sealy makes the jump to the professional ranks.
The explosion came the following winter. Instead of joining FCD peers on their trip to Bayern Munich, Sealy stayed behind and competed with the US U16s in their last event of the cycle – the Nike Friendlies in Florida. There, he played more minutes than any other US player (again, I’m pretty sure but not 100%), captained the team twice in three games, scored twice and assisted another, and generally looked like the most dangerous attacking player for a team that won the tournament by going undefeated. Weeks later, he played for the FC Dallas U19s, scoring six goals and adding at least one assist as they went undefeated in three games in the DA Winter Cup. A month later, he was invited to the USYNT U20 camp in January as the youngest player on the roster, and apparently impressed enough executing the coaches’ concepts that he was one of two players invited to train with the senior USMNT. Just after pre-season started with FC Dallas, he left again to train with Dutch heavyweights PSV. Upon returning, he went through FC Dallas’ pre-season and then started working heavily with NTSC again, scoring goals and looking highly effective in their scrimmages against USL-Championship opponents – a good sign considering his struggles last season. At that point, the pandemic hit and his rise was put on hold.
Name: Dante Sealy, son of former FC Dallas and Trinidad and Tobago striker Scott Sealy, who now operates a soccer training program and facility in Frisco with clients at all levels of the FC Dallas pyramid.
Height: FCD lists him at 5’10”, but I would be shocked if he was less than 6’ based on clips of him standing next to tall players like Tanner Tessmann, Nico Carrera, and Jonathan Tomkinson.
Weight: FCD lists him at 135 lbs, but, again, I would be shocked if he weighed less than 150 lbs – Dante’s not a skinny kid.
Age: Turned 17 in mid-April. He’s an ’03, which makes him eligible for the next two U20 World Cups.
Position: Forward. Both FIFA and Football Manager list him as a striker and I know there are members of USYNT twitter that think he projects best there as well. To date, though, he’s played almost exclusively as a wide forward for FC Dallas and the national teams. If he’s a winger, he’s a winger in the same way that Mo Salah is a winger for Liverpool or Samuel Eto’o was a winger for Guardiola’s Barcelona teams or Jordan Morris is a winger for the Seattle Sounders. He’s not there primarily to get to the end line and cross or otherwise feed the center forward – he’s there to stress the backline with runs at goal, to cut inside and create havoc, to score as much as or more than he assists.
Scope, Methods, and a Disclaimer
For the purposes of this article, I reviewed four of Sealy’s games from late last year: his three games playing for the U16 USYNT at the Nike Friendlies last November against the Netherlands, Turkey, and the U17 USYNT (composed of players that were not on the US roster for the U17 World Cup just before), and his game with the FC Dallas U19s against the LA Galaxy at the DA Winter Cup in December. All of the clips in this article come from the videos at those links which were all streamed by US Soccer. In terms of competition, all three opponents for the Nike Friendlies could be considered average or better teams for the U16 age group globally (the US U17s were a B-squad in a sense, but one year can make a ton of difference at this age). All three opponents at the Winter Cup went through a qualifying process and therefore should be top-half U19 DA teams for the season – the Galaxy in particular can be relied upon to field a top-10 team.
I watched each game for Sealy’s involvement (touches, runs, pressing, etc.) as well as his play style (where is he positioned off the ball, how does his body language change during the game). I took notes and time stamps for each of those occurrences. I then cut the full matches down to just the relevant clips with video editing software, sorted by subject, and reorganized them to match the outline of this article. You will see some clips multiple times: a handful were good or bad plays in more ways than one.
So you’re aware when you’re watching the clips trying to find him, Sealy is the tall, wiry African-American kid playing on the frontline for the U16s and FC Dallas, and he’ll be on the ball most of the time. He wore #7 for the U16 USYNT and #31 for FC Dallas, and his boots were either bright orange or black with highlighter yellow tips.
Be warned. What follows is 3,000+ words of analysis and about 30 minutes of video clips. If you find that you aren’t committed enough to go through that, here’s seven minutes of highlights and my permission for you to skip to the summary and takeaways at the end.
Strengths as a Player
BRAIN FOR SOCCER MARRIED TO AN ULTRA-AGGRESSIVE MENTALITY
“Unrelenting aggressiveness” has to be the first trait we talk about here. The main, characteristic visual of this attribute is Sealy lurking amidst the defensive line, a defender taking a step off the line, and Sealy attacking the resulting gap fanatically, screaming for the ball. Even on a casual viewing, you’ll find yourself saying “get the ball to Sealy” over and over because he’s constantly making runs into dangerous spots. We’ll talk more about this below, but the mental toll this takes on defenders must be tremendous – the knowledge that if you step out of line at the wrong time, Sealy will punish you for it.
The other part is Sealy on the ball, seeing a teammate entering dangerous space anywhere on the field, and betting on himself to get the ball there by finesse or sheer determination. His success rate on those is about what you’d expect for a set of radically progressive passes – he misses more than he makes – but the vision needed to see these opportunities and the bravery needed to try them are both already there in spades.
Underlying all of this is Sealy’s point-guard-esque understanding of spacing and movement. His vision to process where the defense is weak and, more importantly, where they will be weak in three to five seconds, is unbelievable. Pairing it with the mindset to try to exploit that weakness again and again makes Sealy a dangerous player every minute of the game.
Another mental trait that pops off the screen when you study Sealy is the combination of his reaction time to transition into attack, his awareness of the state of play in such situations so he can move with deadly efficiency, and his seemingly permanently disabled “off” switch. When the ball turns over or a play switches phase or direction, Sealy is always the first to move and react. His run is always to the worst area for the defense – to space, to a seam, or to goal. During corner kicks, throw-ins, injured players, fouls, etc., he always has his head up and is looking to play as quickly as possible to exploit the defense’s pause. He spends every second of the 90 minutes thinking about how to make a chance.
The best chance Sealy had to score this preseason with FC Dallas came on just such a play, where it looked like he was just faster to react than his defender and got in behind. Lest you say “Wait a second, does this really matter?” Let me remind you that Liverpool won CCL last year on the back of a goal scored because of superior awareness.
When Eric Quill, head coach of NTSC, reviewed Sealy’s game six months earlier, he commented that the next step for Sealy would be transitioning quicker on the defensive side (see 22:58-27:35). That is a fair critique based on what I reviewed, but you do see Sealy committing himself to recovering quickly when needed. I included one such clip here, and you’ll see more (both positive and negative) in the defense section below. However, the offensive half of this trait is already top, top level.
Even before he makes those runs, his positioning off-the-ball is intentional and devious. As an example, when the play is on the far side of the field, Sealy likes to sit ultra-wide over the shoulder of the opposing outside back, sometimes in an offside position. He stays wide even when the defense pinches inside to keep the play in front of himself and allow himself time on the ball. The tendency shows up most when he is at LW. This accomplishes several things:
- The opposing outside back has to look over his shoulder to see Sealy, meaning any time he’s looking at the ball, he doesn’t know what Sealy is doing behind him. As we’ve already seen, if Sealy is making a run, you want to know about it ASAP as a defender because it’s going to be a problem.
- It forces the opposition outside back to make a choice and a concession with his own positioning: he can move out to Sealy and stretch the backline horizontally, making it more susceptible to interior vertical runs, or he can slide inside, leaving Sealy alone on the wing and open for a pass. The attacking team can then play to the opening.
- It might be a ruse to conserve energy because Sealy’s so far from the play he can just stand and catch his breath.
More than those tactical benefits, however, I contend that the greatest toll it puts on the defense is psychological. When combined with his attacking mindset, Sealy’s positioning amps up the danger so that it is constant, cranking up the emotional/mental strain on the defense to 11, similar to how horror movies use infrasound to manipulate their audiences. You’re a defender, you think you’ve got everything covered, but there’s still Sealy lurking way out on the left wing, his threat dangling over you like the Sword of Damocles.
There are other good cases of him moving well in attack (finding pockets of space in between the lines, for example, or making runs to pull defenders away from teammates, or finding space in the box), but I chose to stick with just his weak-side positioning for the sake of brevity.
Nowhere else in this post will I do more tenuous work to infer a trait from the tape. If you, like me (usually), don’t think personality can be accurately assessed from video analysis, feel free to skip to the next section.
I have now watched ~1,750 minutes of Dante Sealy playing soccer - about 330 of those at an obsessive degree of detail. Having done so, I feel confident saying that Sealy has a part of the mental make-up that we see in soccer players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Josef Martinez, and Clint Dempsey; basketball players like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Russell Westbrook; American football players like Darrelle Revis, Tom Brady, and Randy Moss; and pretty much all professional tennis players, golfers, auto-racing drivers, wrestlers, sprinters, etc.
Sealy wants the ball.
His play overflows with the self-confidence, the arrogance, to believe in himself and his ability 100%. The way he walks on the field, the choices he makes in the game, his body language, the way he celebrates goals, all of it screams that Sealy’s the type of kid to back himself against anybody and anything. He’s convinced he’s going to score every time he goes down the field, and he’s desperate for that to happen. Quill said basically the same thing in the interview linked above.
That mentality is neither necessary nor sufficient for a player to become great, but it makes me more willing to bet on him.
MAGIC LEFT FOOT
Although Sealy’s mentality and intelligence are the first things that stand out about his game when doing an in-depth study like the present one, the first thing that the average viewer of one of his games is likely to notice is his skill with the ball. He’s got a Christy Brown of a left foot. Regularly, he’ll pull off (or attempt to pull off) something that anyone with experience playing the game can recognize as very high-level technique. It might be the weight of a pass, the power and bend of a shot, or executing a normal play while falling down or moving in the wrong direction mechanically. He’s a player with the audacity, confidence, vision, and ability to play an arcing chip over 25 yards into a pocket of space first time on the run. Equally likely to blast a PK into the low side netting or go for a Panenka.
He can’t always pull it off. Indeed, his bravado has a tendency to put his teams in bad spots too often. However, for both sheer entertainment value and the potential to turn an attack into a chance and a chance into a goal, the handful of magic moments he performs each game are worth their weight in gold.
In addition to manipulating the ball as a means of shooting or passing, Sealy is also top notch manipulating the ball at speed. He’s a nightmare to defend in the open field because he’s so effective at controlling the ball and his own body on the dribble. Unlike most players at this age, he dribbles to space instead of defenders, buying himself time to make a play and forcing those defending him into running at him to get the ball. At that point, he can body fake to alter the defender’s path, change direction and accelerate to use the defender’s momentum against him, or place his body effectively to deny the defender access to the ball. It’s a cruel combination of traits that means defenders have to commit to the low-percentage proposition of taking the ball away from him, opening themselves to bigger problems if they fail.
In all of the games I watched, Sealy stood out for simply how big he is: the biggest player on the field in who wasn’t Tessmann, a GK, or a CB. Thankfully, this makes him easier to spot on film. There’s a whole separate article to write about how the top prospects developed by FC Dallas’ Academy in the last three-to-four years have overwhelmingly been big relative to their position and age group, but suffice it to say Sealy continues in this lineage.
The irony of soccer is it’s played on one of the largest fields in major sports, but the core of the athleticism of its best athletes is basically the same as is needed to play tag in a boxing ring. Yes, “pace and power” can elevate a player, but the table stakes soccer demands are more subtle: the ability to accelerate and decelerate rapidly, change direction without losing speed, maintain balance in quick turns or when bumped, and to keep up all of that over 90 minutes. I undertook this project in an effort to let the volume of Sealy’s work dictate my view of him as a player, so I would prefer not to use a single clip to illustrate any given trait. However, the clip at the bottom of the next paragraph is such a clear example of Sealy’s genuinely elite-level soccer athleticism that I’ll spend a little time on it alone.
Notice how, after 6-7 total straight-line steps and two hard right angle turns, Sealy goes from a full stop to screaming around the second corner and upfield – he goes about 6 yards when tripped, indicating his speed. Although Sealy starts wider than the Dutch CM, by the time he makes the second turn, the CM has to lunge forward to barely clip his back leg, meaning that in two touches and about five steps, Sealy has gained something like two yards of ground. Would I have preferred if he had slipped the ball into US #23’s path instead of taking the second turn? Sure, but the ability to move like that at his size is frankly shocking. It’s ultra-high-level acceleration, balance, and change-of-direction all while controlling a soccer ball. Unreal.
There is a well-documented tendency to describe black players differently than players of other races in some sports, and it’s not difficult to notice similar biases in soccer: black players tend to have “pace” and “power”, Hispanic players are “flashy”, “crafty”, or “technical”, white players are “reliable” or “disciplined”, etc. These words (“vertical” is another one I’ve heard used as a blanket descriptor of black FC Dallas players) reflect stereotypes we carry about the traits of players of certain races. While it is no secret that the athletes with the best combinations of speed and explosiveness are generally black (look at the racial makeup of the NBA, NFL, or Olympic 100M final), it’s a lazy and usually inaccurate method of player evaluation to then turn and assume black players are set apart by their speed and strength.
To return to the matter at hand, a large part of the reason I took on this project was because I heard that kind of characterization of Sealy’s game and it didn’t mesh at all with what I saw when he played. You see flashes of Sealy having very good straight-line speed while maintaining more strength than peers, but I argue it’s not a driving force in his game today. If we take the change in height/weight described above as due to Dante’s physical growth since he signed in early 2019, it’s easy to think that he only recently went from a good to a great athlete and he’s learning how best to use that new tool. He’s fast in a straight line, but except for one or two examples I didn’t see him hit top gear outside of his work pressing. He’s strong, but he does not use his strength consistently, sometimes getting pushed around by smaller players or bumped off the ball when he’s in good position. His leaping ability is similar and is addressed below. I do think the tools are there for his athleticism to be a weapon, but for now they are more latent traits than defining characteristics.
Weaknesses as a Player
DOWNSIDES OF HAVING AN ALPHA ON THE TEAM
Relentlessly backing your own ability and status as The Best is only endearing if you actually are something close to the best. When MJ or Kobe or Ronaldo call their own number despite all coaching and analytics suggesting that there are better options elsewhere, you put up with it because they really are good enough that possessions that end up in someone else’s hands or on someone else’s foot might not ever be the better idea.
In Sealy’s case, he performed like one of the two or three best players in each of these games, so, in that context, when he bet on himself in a good situation rather than a teammate in a great situation, he may have made the best choice. I think that’s unlikely, but it’s more muddled in this case than in the case of the average player for the average team. The issue is that choice will become more and more foolish as he advances upwards (to the FC Dallas first team, to Europe, to the USMNT). The margins are so thin at the highest levels of the game that decision-making of this type can make the difference between great players and benched ones. Certainly, in the clips below, it meant the difference between however many chances Sealy generated and four or five more than that.
Perhaps as a buffer against his preference for the highly aggressive choice, Sealy otherwise defaults to the conservative choice too often. If he were an investor, we might categorize him as a barbell trader, investing some of his portfolio in ultra-high-risk products (leveraged funds, naked options, CDS, etc.) and the rest in extremely safe assets (treasury bills, municipal bonds, savings accounts, etc.). In Sealy’s case, by going straight to the safe play when the aggressive play isn’t there, he passes over plenty of good options that can be very helpful in the aggregate.
As a study in this behavior, I’ve pulled a series of clips where Sealy receives the ball on the right wing near the substitution spot in the first half of the game against the US U17s. There were plenty of other examples, but a time series may help illustrate the point. We will see the options he chose as well as the options he forewent in a short period of game time in nearly identical scenarios. While it may seem nit-picky to second-guess him like this, I think Sealy was excessively conservative in some cases where the choice of intermediate risk wasn’t actually all that risky. Put another way, Sealy left money on the table.
STILL WORKING ON ONE-V-ONES
While Sealy’s dribbling ability, especially at pace, is top notch, there is a unique subset of dribbles where he is at best average. I will call them one-v-ones: those moments, especially on the wing, where Sealy has the ball moving at a defender that is squared up, and he needs to use his dribble to go past the defender or otherwise create space for a shot, a cross, a pass. Part of his struggle here is decision-making. Because, Sealy wants to bet on his own ability, he sometimes (1) chooses to attempt to dribble past defenders when a pass is available, and (2) seems to slow down his pace to allow the defender to set himself and Sealy to execute his move. This puts Sealy into these situations more than he should be and likely lowers his success rate once he gets there. Giving the defender more time to prepare his defense is almost never a good idea.
INCONSISTENT FIRST TOUCH
If you watched Sealy’s play for NTSC last season, the issues with his first touch will be no surprise. Seemingly three to four times per game he receives the ball under minimal pressure where a simple touch will do, and the ball rockets off his foot and bounces to an opponent – an unnecessary turnover. It’s not a question of technical ability – he’s equally capable of playing a sublime first touch. I’m pretty sure it’s usually some combination of lapses in concentration (“running before you catch the ball” in the parlance of American football) and poor decision-making that needlessly muddies his task. I’m not sure this type of issue can ever completely go away.
INCONSISTENT EFFORT ON DEFENSE COMBINED WITH UNREFINED TECHNIQUE
Like many young forwards, Sealy exhibits highs and lows as a defender. You will see times where he sprints back 40 yards to turn an attack or block a shot, and you will see times where he stands and lets a pass go past him. You will see times where he presses a CB or a GK at a smart angle and with good speed, causing a turnover, and you will see times where he jogs and leaves passing lanes wide open. You will see him go into tackles with aggression and precision, and you will see him going into a tackle off-balance and out-of-control, leaving him ineffective and sometimes embarrassed by the attacker that went right by.
My guess is this trait is a key obstacle between Sealy and playing time with FC Dallas, and the truth is it can be worked on and improved. The major question is whether Sealy is one of those willing to devote himself to working at it, because there are plenty of hotshot youth attackers that never learn to defend within a team and in doing so hold themselves back.
Sealy does his best to use his left foot for everything. You can’t really blame him, because it’s a very good left foot, but it does make him predictable and cuts him off from a large chunk of the choices available to him on the ball and off. The best defenders he faced just waited for him to go left and pounced on him when he did. I’ve done my best below to compile all the especially positive and negative plays he had with his right foot as well as those times where he chose to use the left in a situation where the right was clearly more convenient. However, the real story is implied by how short the video is: Sealy works very hard to avoid situations where his left foot isn’t optimal.
WEIRDLY BAD IN THE AIR
For someone that is as big and springy as Sealy is, he’s pretty ineffective challenging for headers. More often than not, the problem was he misjudged the ball in the air and ended up missing it completely. Part of that might be experience or mentality, but I think this is actually another piece of evidence that Sealy hasn’t yet adjusted to the growth spurt he went through over the last 18 months. When he leaps for these things, he looks like Spiderman learning to jump across buildings for the first time – he underestimates how fast and how far he can go, and consequently throws himself out of the play. The clips of him losing aerials to players much smaller than himself are more troubling, but the sample size there is even smaller – I’m not willing to call it a trend based on what I saw.
Unfortunately, I didn’t really notice this pattern until about halfway through the second game I watched, so the video is missing three-to-four instances I saw but didn’t think to notate at the time.
Summary and Looking Forward
Sealy totaled three goals and two assists across these four games, but the number of near-misses that he (and his teammates) couldn’t convert are even more encouraging to me. If there’s anything that soccer analytics have taught us, it’s that truly exceptional finishing ability is a rare, rare trait. Outside of those few, chance generation is the name of the game. As a rule, I trust players that stand out because they participate in a lot of chances more than I trust finishers. It’s the chance creators that tend to endure. Sealy is a half-chance generating machine. His vision for runs and passes, technique, aggressiveness, athleticism, and awareness don’t let him leave stones unturned in the effort to find dangerous spots for his team to attack from. He needs to get better at turning those half-chances into full chances, but it’s not a bad place to start.
A few parting thoughts for the go-forward:
- Sealy’s still learning as an attacking player – one evidence of this is how often he gets caught offside and has his shots blocked – and he’s definitely still learning as a defender. However, the highs he produces today are on par with any player you can watch in the FC Dallas organization or the USYNT structure. The next evolution in his game probably has more to do with improving his middling actions so they’re more impactful (EG: learning to play progressively even when the shot to the jugular isn’t open) and reducing the volume of plays that outright harm the team (EG: getting it down to just one turnover off a bad first touch per game).
- He’s a wide forward, not a striker, and not really a traditional winger. His strengths are maximized in space on the run, not in close quarters. Out wide, he has more room to uncork Sputniks from his left foot, play at pace, see the field, and run to space. The best type of 9 to pair him with is someone somewhere between Ricardo Pepi and Jesus Ferreira, and not someone like The Kobra. A striker who just sits on the shoulder of the last defender and tries to be a reference for service minimizes Sealy’s runs through the gaps in the defense and likely couldn’t find those runs anyway.
- For these games, Sealy fit the mold of a high-volume, high-output player. He was an alpha for the U16s: he wore the captain’s armband, his teammates deferred to him when he wanted the ball, and he created a lot of havoc playing that role. For the FCD U19s, his usage rate went up as the game wore on, and the team relied on him in the second half. Does he need to be The Guy in order to be effective? Because he wasn’t that player for NTSC last season, wasn’t that effective, and clearly didn’t like not seeing the ball. That’s not too worrying for a player that was probably the best player on every team his played on until last season with NTSC, but he will have to learn to play without the leading role if he wants to earn professional minutes.
- While he was certainly in the middle of a phenomenal run of form before the shutdown, I don’t necessarily think that Sealy was knocking on the door of first team minutes with FC Dallas. The weaknesses identified above are in large part improvable, but do need to improve. Luchi said this in pre-season: “He has a long way to go to adjust to game concepts, you know, because he hasn’t had that many reps with the first team.” It may be motivation, but that doesn’t really sound like a coach talking about a player that’s 19th on his teamsheet. The good news is Sealy seems like a good bet to make the US U20 roster for next year since the U20 World Cup now coincides with the Olympics, and North Texas SC isn’t going away. Unlike prior generations of FCD prospects, Sealy will not starve for competitive minutes.
- Sealy’s long-term ceiling is stratospheric. There isn’t a club in the world he can’t play a key role for if he maxes himself out. As I said just above, however, there is a long way to go for him to reach that level. He’s got the mentality to score goals, to set up goals, to be a constant threat, but the big question is if he has that mentality on the training ground, in the locker room, in the film room, in the gym. There’s a lot of hard work ahead of Dante Sealy. I hope he’s up for it and plays a long, long time, even just for my own sake. He is so much fun to watch.