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What we’ve learned from FC Dallas halfway through the 2021 season

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Things are improving but you do worry if it will be enough to reach the post season.

MLS: FC Dallas at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

We’re at the midway point in our season. How crazy is that? It does seem like yesterday that the season was just getting underway for FC Dallas as they hosted the Colorado Rapids back in April.

Since then, we’ve seen a lot of ups and downs for this group. They may have more losses in the standings at the moment, but the last couple of weeks have shown some growth in this group that makes you feel things are turning a corner as we head into the stretch run of the season. With that, here are some things we’ve learned along the way as we glance back at the first half of this wild season.

Youth is still serving the best

There was a ton of talk going into this season that we’d see fewer Homegrown-focused lineups than in previous years. Out of the gate, that was certainly the case with injuries to Jesus Ferreira and Paxton Pomykal still getting back into full fitness following his surgeries last season. But after Wednesday night’s game in Seattle, FC Dallas Homegrowns have played 4,203 minutes during the 2021 season. That is only a few hundred less than all of a shortened 2020 season.

It remains super important to the success of this club that the Homegrown players do well and are given the chance to do well. It felt at times early on this season that we’d see them struggle to make the lineup or even get playing time off the bench. Some were sent on loans (looking at you Thomas Roberts and Brandon Servania), while the rest were just in a wait-and-see mode until injuries, call-ups and poor form took over.

The “Play Your Kids” mantra continues to shine for the club as Pomykal and Ferreira look like their 2019 selves again, Ricardo Pepi is emerging as a goal-scoring machine, Justin Che is showing us at times why Bayern Munich wanted to sign him and guys like Edwin Cerrillo and Dante Sealy are getting the minutes they need. I’d imagine had Beni Redzic not picked up an injury we’d be talking about an appearance or two from him by now as well.

MLS: FC Dallas at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Has Luchi found his go-to lineup?

You could nearly break down this half-season in three different lineups. The start season saw Luchi Gonzalez try a 3-5-2 look (or a 5-3-2 depending on who they were facing). That look struggled to put together positive results as we saw draws at home to looking flat-footed on the road. It felt at the time that Luchi was trying to be too cute with his selections or that he was being forced in some way to lean on Franco Jara to score. Following that Luchi shifted back into a 4-3-3 type formation as he was working through injuries to key players like Matt Hedges and Jose Martinez and through struggles for attackers like Jara, Freddy Vargas, and Jader Obrian.

Lately, we’ve seen a variation of a 4-2-3-1 with a young core up top. That group struggled at first but in the last couple of weeks, they’ve found a breakthrough that is giving us all hope. Part of this is due to the defense finally finding their footing with Nkosi Tafari settling into a center back role thanks to those injuries to Martinez and Hedges. Ryan Hollingshead once again became the utility guy that could be plugged in anywhere and we’ve seen the likes of Edwin Cerrillo get minutes in the midfield with Bryan Acosta on Gold Cup duty.

What has worked over the last few weeks has been that combo of the defense finally figuring things out without the veteran leadership (though Jimmy Maurer, Bressan, and Hollingshead have something to say about that comment) and the youth up top shining like we expected them to do. In some ways, Luchi has gotten out of his head with his roster selection these last few weeks and has allowed the youth to do their thing. The results are finally coming in his favor as he leans on the right guys and doesn’t try to overdo it with those struggling to find their form.

MLS: FC Dallas at Sporting Kansas City Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Still a lot of work to do

With all the talk above about the Homegrown players doing well, the work for the rest of the roster still needs to happen. Jara has been largely a disappointment this season outside of a couple of appearances off the bench (please let that be his new role), Obrian looks like a guy that struggles to stay on his feet more than anything, Vargas hasn’t shown the same shine that we saw in preseason play, and other veterans like Hedges and Martinez need to be at their best (and healthy) in order for this team to get back to a defensive stance that we’re used to seeing.

You look at the unbeaten run at home and think it is great but those five draws at Toyota Stadium are a lot of points left on the board that will come back to bite this club if they aren’t careful. Those seven straight road losses could have easily done a number to the mental state of this group had it not been for this past week in Kansas City and Seattle.

There are 17 games left with nine of those being at home, including our next three games. This group has always done well at looking at things one game at a time under Luchi, and they’ll have to continue to do that here this season. At some point, the pieces have to come together for multiple games. The HGPs and the veterans have to be on the same page when they’re at home to get wins and not draws. The veterans have to continue to set a good tone away from home (like these last two games) in order to keep pace in what is already a crowded Western Conference playoff race.

Quick thoughts:

  • I have to give some props to both Ema Twumasi and Tafari for the way they’ve both stepped up here lately in the defense. We’ve seen some growing pains out of both at times but I do like seeing that there is proper depth in the back with them as Martinez, Che and Hedges get healthy.
  • Szabolcs Schon continues to impress me as well on the wings. I’ll say it again, he feels more like an HGP for FC Dallas than a foreign signing. There is something so familiar about the way he plays compared to the likes of Obrian and Vargas.
  • Is there a log-jam again in the midfield with Facundo Quignon, Acosta, Cerrillo, Brandon Servania and Andres Ricuarte? I do appreciate the role Ricaurte is taking on off the bench, similar to Jara, but how long is that sustainable? I do hope we’ll see more of Cerrillo, Servania and Quignon in the final run of the season.
  • Fortress Frisco - FC Dallas has lost only one of their last 30 home MLS matches (17-1-13) dating back to May 19, 2019. FC Dallas has a 9-0-8 unbeaten record dating back to August 16, 2020. So it isn’t all that bad under Luchi, is it?
  • Gotta learn to battle from behind - FC Dallas has yet to earn its first win of the season after conceding first.

What are your biggest takeaways so far this season for FC Dallas? Let us know below.