You’d be forgiven if you got a little whiplash when you saw the lineup for the USMNT last night for their friendly against T&T.
Wait, what? Jesus Ferreira? FC Dallas’ Jesus Ferreira? Starting at ST over rookie sensation and media darling Daryl Dike? Kept in the roster over highly productive Timbers forward Jeremy Ebobisse? Was Gregg Berhalter watching the same games last year?
Jesus Ferreira was not good in 2020. He was benched at various points in the year, was only 13th on the team in minutes played, had just a goal and an assist for the season, and was universally considered poor by the fanbase. It’s the stats too: he was easily the least productive player of FC Dallas’ usual attackers in terms of xG and xA; he completed about four fewer passes per 100 than expected in the middle and final thirds, a bottom decile rate among players with real playing time; he averaged 0.67 shot assists per 96 minutes, per ASA, 3rd lowest among attacking midfielders in MLS; FbRef data illustrates that he was woefully unhelpful to FCD in getting the ball into the final 3rd and the opposing penalty area; he was ranked 340th out of 392 qualifying players for his performances last season per Whoscored (which, it’s not a great source, but I’m firmly in the Bayesian camp that says all data is useful data if you put the right amount of weight on it).
I don’t say any of this to tell you Ferreira cannot or will not be a game-changer in MLS or at higher levels in his career. He just turned 20 a few weeks ago and was a historically productive 18-year-old two seasons ago. Minutes played is the most predictive stat for gauging young player potential, and Ferreira has ~5,000 pro minutes already. 2020 was a year where he was learning a new position and role underneath Zdenek Ondrasek and Franco Jara. All of this happened in the middle of a pandemic. Etc. The point of all the negatives was just to establish that, yes, Ferreira really was a below-average MLS player in 2020.
Yet despite that, he put together a starting performance last year for the United States men’s national team that was pretty universally acclaimed. Then last night, he grabbed two goals and three assists and got on the ball a ton (whereas for FC Dallas he usually drifts in and out of the game) and looked dangerous throughout.
So what’s the difference for Ferreira with the USMNT? I have a few theories (these aren’t exhaustive).
- Jesus grew up in an aggressive pressing system in the FCD Academy teams and is a willing and crafty defender from the front, which may help him get on the field relative to other options for the USMNT.
- By all accounts, he trains well and hard and is a very smart player who learns quickly. Again, that might help him relative to other options.
- The teams he’s played against for the USMNT are lower quality than the teams he faces in MLS (which is why it’s really a bigger deal that he started last night than that he got a bunch of goals and assists).
- Berhalter has played him as the highest central attacker, whereas Luchi has preferred him almost exclusively as a second attacker since the summer of 2019. I buy less into this as a reason for the performance differential than others, mainly because in either case he gets the ball in basically the same spots – in front of the CBs and periodically dropping into a cleared-out midfield. Really, the main thing is FCD asked him to run in behind less than the USMNT, which is not his strength anyway. That said, I’m one of many that thinks Jara is not the type of forward to play in front of him (*cough*PEPI*cough*), which constricts the spaces Ferreira likes to find.
- The bigger factor, in my humble opinion, is that, with the USMNT, Ferreira seems so much surer of where he’s supposed to go with the ball when he gets it. The players around him seem to know where they’re supposed to be going to a much greater degree too. When with FC Dallas in those moments, Ferreira hesitates and his teammates stand still. A few weeks ago, the guys on Extratime basically identified movement and combination play in the final third as FC Dallas’ greatest need. Teams like LAFC and Man City tear their opponents apart by using heavily drilled and coordinated whole-team movements to create chances around goal. The emphasis is much more on execution than raw creativity. The USMNT is trying to do likewise. FCD, on the other hand, have not looked like that at basically any point during Luchi’s tenure. With more structure from the coaching staff, which is obviously easier said than done, Ferreira and the rest of this attack could thrive.
It’s important to remember that Ferreira is not the usual homegrown where his work for the club is largely lagniappe from a salary cap perspective. After his breakout year in 2019, he signed a big money extension with FC Dallas, which means that when he underperforms it’s just as ruinous as FCD getting less than needed from guys like Mosquera, Acosta, or Jara. Yes, there are offsetting factors like his age, marketability, and resale value, but the truth is for FCD to contend they need Ferreira to be a real contributor. For Luchi and his staff, the question is clear: how do we get the USMNT version of Ferreira to show up for FC Dallas?