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I haven’t given up on FC Dallas’ Freddy Vargas (yet), and neither should you

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FCD’s young Venezuelan winger is down bad, but don’t make the mistake of thinking he’s down and out.

MLS: FC Dallas at Colorado Rapids Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Freddy Vargas Story

Just to refresh your memory, Freddy “Pico” Vargas is something of a young veteran in his home country of Venezuela, logging four different seasons with more than 1,000 played minutes for his home-state club of Deportivo Lara at ages 17 to 21. That kind of experience is impressive, but Vargas didn’t stand out enough during that time to earn more than a single U20 cap for his troubles. However, in his final season in Venezuela, the shortened 2020 campaign, Vargas led a young DL squad to a second-place finish in its group, collected five goals and three assists, and was runner up in Player of the Year voting. Almost every positive attack for DL went through Vargas’ feet.

On the back of that season, FC Dallas swooped in and picked up Pico on a one-year loan with an option to buy (for an unknown price), despite reported interest from other MLS clubs. From the very beginning of preseason, Vargas earned rave reviews from the coaching staff and created many, many, many highlights. Once the season began, however, he struggled, starting six of FC Dallas’ first seven games, collecting zero goals or assists, and generally looking toothless. As much as we gripe about Obrian now, it’s easy to forget he was the newly imported winger that was getting better grades from the fanbase early in the season.

MLS: Houston Dynamo at FC Dallas Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Despite those issues, Pico earned his first callup to the senior Venezuelan men’s national team in the international break, presumably on the strength of his domestic season the prior fall. In a bizarre window for the vino tinto marred by a COVID outbreak, Vargas didn’t make the bench in either game. Since coming back, he’s been a peripheral figure for FCD – Luchi Gonzalez left him out of the squad for both the Minnesota game at home and the game against the Revs, and Pico cameoed at LAFC. With Szabolcs Schoen returning soon and Ryan Hollingshead making his annual walkabout in the forward positions, is it possible Vargas’ time as a contributor to FCD is over?

Honestly, my eye test said “yes”, definitively. Pico just didn’t seem to add much at all to the attack, and, when he did have chances, his technique always seemed to let him down. How is this the case? Wasn’t he great in preseason and in Venezuela? Were my eyes lying to me? I decided to take a second look, this time through statistics (a common pastime of mine). The result is below.

The stats paint a very mixed picture, but there’s a lot there to like

G+, ASA’s all-touches metric, hates him, reckoning that Vargas has reduced FCD’s goal differential by about 0.16 goals per 96 minutes compared to the average MLS player, near the bottom of the league (that stat, as with the rest of this section, refers to numbers through July 2). In about five full matches worth of minutes, he has only 1.7 xG+xA, which works out to about a third of a goal or assist per game, firmly in that typical zone of mediocrity we’ve come to expect from FCD’s non-Barrios wingers. Among forwards with more than 450 minutes of play this season, Vargas ranks in the bottom quintile for xG-per-shot, indicating that he’s taking speculative shots that might not be the best use of precious possessions deep in enemy territory.

Both in passing and carrying, Pico loses the ball too much. Per ASA, he’s completing 65% of his passes when the average MLS player, taking the same passes, would on average complete 70%, putting Vargas in the bottom decile of the league (nearby Paxton Pomykal, it turns out) for relative accuracy.

Per FBRef, 13% of the time he gets onto the ball, he either mis-controls it or is dispossessed, placing him, again, among the most profligate players in the league. Those above Pico in the list are a whole bunch of strikers (including both Jara and Pepi) and one Jader Obrian. Combine this with his “oof”-level passing accuracy, and Vargas is a turnover machine.

His work rate on defense, while about average for the league, is a deep cut below the FCD homegrown attackers, and significantly tails off the closer the opposition gets to FCD’s goal. Pressure rates are not a measure of defensive effectiveness, but they are a measure of defensive activity, and Vargas may not be working hard enough to support his fullback when FCD are settled in to defend after the initial counter-press.

BUT!

Pico, to a greater extent than anyone else on the team, manages to get the ball into dangerous zones on the field, especially the enemy’s penalty area. On a per-game basis, he’s near the top of the league at completing open play passes and dribbles that end up in the 18, per FBRef. Much of that has to do with his courage (rashness?) in trying difficult stuff. Among the 298 players in MLS to have attempted at least 30 passes in the final third in 2021, ASA ranks Vargas 6th lowest with respect to the expected completion percentage of the passes he plays, 56%, suggesting that he is being extraordinarily aggressive in his pass selection. He doesn’t complete many passes, but, when he does, they are usually into good spots.

(Notice, as an aside, the extent to which FCD asks its fullbacks to do this work relative to its central midfielders)

More than just getting the ball into those spots, Vargas also ends up on the ball there too. Per FBref, he leads the team in the number of touches on the ball he gets in the final third per game and is third in the number of touches in the penalty area. Part of that, I’m sure, is gameplan-related (the coaches asking the players to get the ball to Vargas), but getting open in those crowded areas is a certified skill. Pico’s position in this metric relative to the rest of the league is especially impressive considering that FCD is average or worse overall at playing in the opponent’s end.

(Notice, as an aside, that Pepi is not flattered by this metric - gotta find the ball near the goal if you want to score, kid!)

The end result of the above is that Vargas creates a ton of shots. FBRef tracks what it calls “shot-creating actions”, on-ball involvements of all types that lead directly to shots. If there were any single piece of this post I’d use to try to convince you to rethink Vargas’ contributions before the international break, it’d be the below – Vargas was up there with the pre-eminent one-man-offenses in the league. From a more standard perspective, Pico’s effectively tied with Ferreira and Ricaurte for tops among FCD players with meaningful minutes in shot assists per game. Pretty much however you slice it, Vargas appears to be one of the best if not the best chance creator for FC Dallas.

Perhaps the #1 trait Vargas flashed in his breakout campaign in Venezuela was his dribbling. If the stats are to be believed, he put up about six successful dribbles per 90 in 2020, a rate that would lead MLS by more than 50% in most years and approximates Brazilian superstar Neymar’s output at PSG. Since coming to the US, Vargas has been less prolific but is still the most effective dribbler on FCD and a top-25-ish player in that category league-wide.

As a final comment on his stat profile, Pico is a true asset to FCD in the effort to move the ball up the field as a target for progressive passes, again landing in the top-25 in MLS. His large frame lets him successfully take passes, even under aggressive pressure, at an above-average rate. As with the touches conversation above, part of this could be that FCD was force-feeding their shiny new Venezuelan, but making oneself available for penetrative passes is a skill that not everyone has. It appears Pico’s got it.

How can Pico fit into this team?

Vargas is a floor raiser – if he had his druthers, most possessions would be made or broken on his foot (Sealy’s the same way, and Ricaurte is the build-up version). The problem is he’s just not efficient enough to get away with his druthers – he’s too turnover-prone, especially. If he can be a little more clinical, though, and work a bit more on defense, there’s a strong case to be made that Vargas should be given another look now that Jara and Ricaurte, two players that want their lion’s share of the creative burden in the final third, are less favored.

Hand to heaven, I think a front four of Vargas, Pepi, Ferreira, and Sealy (or more likely Schoen, but I haven’t seen him much) will prove to be FCD’s best this season. I’m not arguing Pico’s name should be written in pen in the starting XI henceforth – I’m arguing that, if Ferreira’s going to keep playing like he has over the last few games, then Pepi has to be the starting ST, and if Ferreira and Pepi are starting in the middle, then Vargas may be the best fit FCD has to start on the left (with a runner at RW). Don’t be shocked if, by the end of the season, when FCD needs wins, Vargas is once again playing a significant part.

Looking ahead past the end of the season, both Ricaurte’s and Vargas’ loans will expire with FCD holding options to purchase permanently. Given the overlap between them mentioned above, FCD will probably need to make a choice between purchasing Pico or purchasing Ricaurte after this season (or neither). Of note for that decision, Vargas makes about 40% of what Ricaurte does, is seven years younger, and plays a position that FCD hasn’t found a solution for in half a decade (looks wistfully in the direction of Alex Zendejas). It’s definitely not a sure thing, but, despite his early struggles, there’s still a real chance Freddy Vargas is the answer on the left wing. Don’t give up on him yet.