Well, it’s over. Yes, the USMNT is an FC Dallas alumni reunion, but 2022 is over for FC Dallas itself. Like last year, we will embark upon a journey to sketch out what the offseason might look like: the deep needs and the possible solutions. To start, we will briefly look back at 2022 and assess how FCD performed.
Mostly, we’ll focus on regular season performance. The MLS playoffs are a single-elimination randomness generator and rarely reflect who the best team is. In the end, however, you play to win the game, and MLS Cup is probably the biggest domestic prize FCD could win.
By that measure, only four FC Dallas seasons bettered 2022 – in ’97, ’99, and ’15 FCD came two playoff wins away from lifting the Cup, and of course 2010 FCD was scuppered in extratime by a George John own goal in frozen Toronto. Did 2022 feel like a top-five-ish season in club history? Maybe relative to the dreary 2021: FC Dallas booked the biggest year-on-year point total improvement in club history.
Check beneath the headlines (eg: FC Dallas finished with its best playoff seed since the height of the Oscar Pareja years) and the story is different. A few knife-edge moments separated FC Dallas from a much less comfortable chase for the playoffs. In 2022, this club was never an MLS Cup contender.
For context: 1.56 is the lowest PPG a Western Conference 3rd seed has earned since RSL in 2019. The 2022 Western Conference field was unusually tightly packed in the middle: had only two of FCD’s results flipped the other way (EG: the home game against HOU that required two goals at the end of the game or the away game at RSL that saw FC Dallas outshot 25 to 7), they would have been out of the playoffs. While the club’s goal differential looks like a 1.56 PPG team, the underlying metrics mostly don’t. All of xG, G+, and TSR suggest FCD played more like a fringe playoff team than a favorite.
Those points were mostly picked up in two phases. In the first ten or so games of the season, Paul Arriola seemed to score every time he shot, and Maarten Paes was on fire. In the final dozen or so games, Jesus Ferreira and Maarten Paes single-handedly dragged FCD to a few results they hardly deserved, notably the home game against LAFC.
Those herculean performances made all the difference. From the beginning of the season to the end, 538’s projection for the West barely changed. Like the advanced metrics above, 538’s Soccer Power Index consistently rated 2022 FCD as a playoff line team, not a home playoff game team. What changed? At first, they thought FCD would end with 47 points, but the performances of Arriola, Paes, and Ferreira in the spring and the late summer added six points to the total.
Let’s look at xG a little closer – it remains the most sustainable common predictor of performance we have. FC Dallas was bottom half in the league when it came to xG differential. That’s bad. Despite being top 10 in MLS for both open play xG for and against, FCD got carved up by set pieces (worst in the league for set piece xG differential – yay, FC Short!) and PKs (more on that below). Let’s start by looking at the offense.
The attack was hugely concentrated in FCD’s big-money front three. Even with Alan Velasco missing the beginning of the year, no team besides Cincy relied more on its three most productive players for goals and assists. Jesus Ferreira accounted for 30% of FCD’s goals and assists, second only to (rightful) league MVP Hany Mukhtar in Nashville. All of that’s despite being a below-average offense overall! How? In the aggregate, FCD’s midfielders and fullbacks weren’t goal dangerous compared to their peers.
Coaches always talk about how important being “two-footed” is for players. It allows you to be flexible, reacting to what the defense gives you. It also helps make you unpredictable since you have fewer natural tendencies. The same can be true at the team level, and FC Dallas was not very two-footed in possession. They relied on their left side when they wanted to get the ball forward out of defense and into the attacking third (Velasco, Paxton Pomykal, and Jose Martinez). Regarding the final few touches, the right-sided players – Sebastian Lletget and Paul Arriola late in the year – took them.
More underlying metrics suggest FCD was closer to “fine” than “great” in 2022. Estevez’s side kept about 50% of possession, which doesn’t mean much. What does mean is that they took far fewer touches and passes in the penalty area and (especially) the final third than their opponents. Translated: when the ball was near a goal, it was FCD’s goal more often than not. That’s bad because if something happens, you’d prefer it to happen in a place on the field where you can score, but your opponent can’t.
Unfortunately for FCD, the big stuff to happen in the penalty areas tended to go their opponent’s way for the second year in a row (really, it’s been the case for a while). The X-axis here is the same as the “Att Pen” column in the prior chart, but this time I’ve compared it to FCD’s share of the PKs in their games this year. No other club got a smaller share, which probably has something to do with the fact that (i) neither Arriola nor Ferreira draws many fouls and (ii) while Velasco does draw fouls, so does Jader Obrian. Still, we’re talking about a 4-5 point swing for FCD due to PK concession rates.
Again, more underlying metrics that don’t flatter FCD. This was a team that, like that 2020 COVID year squad which was a Decision Day result away from a home playoff team, generally gets outshot but tends to find better looks on average than their opponents. Maybe we’re striking a theme here? In the same way that FCD allows possession in the defensive third more than they let teams enter the 18-yard box, maybe they allow poorer shots to prevent great ones.
This is the most shocking chart of the bunch and will turn our analysis in a new direction. Do you know that Philly defense almost set the MLS GA/G record? When FC Dallas had both Hedges and Martinez on the field, FC Dallas’ defense was better. Yes, that includes the PKs. “Bend but don’t break” is not how the best teams in the world tend to play defense (they try to dominate possession far away from their own goal), but it’s how FC Dallas under Nico Estevez wants to play. When we got a Spanish coach, most expected we’d see free-flowing Barca-style tiki-taka. Instead, we’ve gotten mid-table sufferball.
A great example is what I call the “Miserable Index,” but what ASA calls something like “xPass Score Differential.” High level: teams that score highly complete more passes than expected and cause their opponents to complete fewer passes than expected. It’s highly correlated with PPG, and the best teams by this metric, true to name, are miserable to play against. They stifle you when you have the ball and are impossible to dispossess. FCD was not a miserable team to play against in 2022, yet they collected many points, sitting in the upper envelope of the plot. Again, you get a Spanish coach, and you think you’re getting Pep Guardiola, but instead, FCD got Gio Savarese (that red dot? FCD 2020, we meet again).
Let’s double-click on this passing piece. The usual idea behind being a high pressing team (the kind of team that tends to score high on the Miserable Index) is to lower the other team’s completion percentage for easy passes, forcing them into lower percentage situations (aggressive passes). FC Dallas uses a high press quite a bit – they were fourth in the league for pressures in the attacking third – but they use it for the opposite reason: the goal is to force the other team to take the easy, conservative option. Thus, although FCD allowed many more pass completions than the average team, the threat (measured above by G+) created by those passes was very low. That combination (high pressure, allow completions, but don’t allow danger) is vanishingly rare in MLS.
The result was that FC Dallas dominated the halfspaces in their half of the field in 2022. Despite playing almost exclusively a single-pivot 4-3-3, the textbook response is to target those areas on either side of the CDM. Soccer has evolved in the last few years such that those halfspaces are the most valuable creative real estate for the top teams in the world. FC Dallas protects those spots with their pressing, obscene demands on their CMs for ground-coverage and a pair of highly adept organizers at CB.
We’re getting close to the end here, I promise. Because of FCD’s success defensively, they rarely spent time chasing the game in 2022. It felt like they gave up leads every game in the summer, but I remind you that Hedges and Martinez were tag-teaming the injury report in that period.
Sometimes, analytics folks talk about “finishing luck”, which refers to variation in scored goals compared to xG. Teams skew heavily away from xG and struggle to continue their out(or under)performance. Less talked about but maybe more important is “injury luck” – teams benefit from having fewer injuries than peers but rarely manage to consistently outperform at keeping guys healthy. There’s no good centralized data source for games missed due to injury in MLS, but we can approximate it. Teams with many different players often have to do so because they face injury issues – FCD used the third-fewest players in the league in 2022. Teams whose minutes played are highly concentrated in a few players typically can do so because they don’t have many injuries to key players – FC Dallas’ HHI (a measure of concentration in a data set) for minutes played was fifth in MLS in 2022. Two measures, same result: FCD stayed healthy relative to the rest of the league this year. If PKs were a drag on FCD in 2022, injuries (or the lack thereof) would be a boost.
Let’s use this last chart to summarize the state of the roster for us going into the offseason. We know soccer players get better as they age until they don’t – in other words, that players “peak.” We know that players in different positions reach peak ages at different times, with CBs and GKs playing at their best levels at older than wingers and midfielders. Using that knowledge, we can assess where FCD relies on players they can expect to get better (or worse). See the above (circle size refers to salary).
This was a young team, the third youngest in MLS by minutes-weighted age. Still, four players – Lletget, Arriola, and the CBs – played starter’s minutes in 2022 and will be post-prime next year. If you want early storylines for the offseason, Jara’s massive dying star of a dot up there is probably the best place to start, but those four are next.
Oh, and I guess we want to know whether Ferreira will leave. More on that in part two.