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Building 2023: Fuego on the Forward Line

2022 was the first year of the “FAV” front three – can FCD improve what is already a success?

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MLS: FC Dallas at LA Galaxy Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s think about Luka Doncic for a second – he’s on the far end of a spectrum that is broadly accepted in basketball but often gets overlooked in soccer. On the one end, you have the one-man-offenses, the floor-raisers; any offense with Doncic can only be so bad. On the other end, you have the “3&D” players, the ceiling-raisers, rarely touching the ball outside of high-value situations to make the floor-raisers’ jobs easier by spacing the floor, stretching the defense, setting screens, etc.

The best teams have either:

  1. a bunch of players that can do both to create a more flexible, less predictable offense (like the 16-17 Warriors or the 21-22 Celtics). A corollary: the trend in both the NFL and college football towards running whole offenses from single personnel groups so defenses can’t predict where the ball will go or how.
  2. One (or two) unbelievably good ceiling-raiser(s) surrounded by an army of industrious pawns (like the current Nuggets, Mavericks, or the best of LeBron’s teams down the years).

The math is slightly different for soccer (more players, bigger field, constrained subs, etc.), but the principle is the same.

In Jesus Ferreira, FC Dallas has maybe the premier floor-raising striker in the league and someone who has developed mightily as an off-ball presence in the last year. In Alan Velasco, FC Dallas has someone who performed as a respectable high-volume progressor/creator in 2022 but struggled mightily to do any of the stuff needed to elevate either Ferreira’s or Paul Arriola’s on-ball abilities (he gives up the ball all the time and struggles to make himself a target for high-value passes). Because of that, Arriola did less and less work with the ball throughout the season, effectively turning into a premium-price Jader Obrian (as he does for the USMNT).

Don’t turn your nose up at that comparison! Obrian is one of the best in the league at his limited but crucial “3&D” role: he works hard on defense (more pressures, tackles, and blocks than the average winger) and finds the ball in dangerous spots (~90th %ile among wingers for xG+xA and for touches in the opposition box despite being ~10th %ile for total touches and total passes). I think the fanbase’s general disgust for him stems from the fact that he has zero ability to do anything but that limited (and misunderstood) role, but as long as he’s playing alongside players like Velasco and Ferreira, he doesn’t need to.

The forwards were fine in 2022, but the key to unlocking FC Dallas’ attacking hyperdrive in 2023 will be Velasco. If he makes a jump to be an elite ball-dominant creator (like Carles Gil or Lucho Acosta), Sebastian Lletget, Ferreira, Arriola, and Obrian will be the beneficiaries of a more heliocentric model. If he makes a jump doing the off-the-ball complementary stuff, Ferreira and Arriola can settle into their more comfortable tweener roles, and FC Dallas will have a more balanced and effective attack. If he doesn’t really improve? Likely about average, once again.

The biggest question for us roster-builders is balance and depth. No one established themselves in the rotation outside of the first five (the four above and Franco Jara). Because Ferreira, Velasco, and Arriola combined to miss five games through injury in 2022, there was little opportunity to do so. FC Dallas can’t bet on a sterling injury record again in 2023 – a more competitive, resilient group should be the goal.

Jesus Ferreira Needs Help

Like any other position on the team, the goal at striker should be finding a backup who could bench the starter if their performances slip below standard (or a spot start every fourth or fifth game – Ferreira shouldn’t have to do nine months without a break again). Franco Jara could maybe give you 45 minutes at that level, but his full-game performances haven’t been threatening for years. In the scenario of these articles, Jara’s gone, and FC Dallas should be aggressive in bringing in a replacement.

Ideally, we can find a cap-friendly player in their early prime or younger. Given Jesus’ level, that will be expensive, which would imply the use of a U22 spot (or a DP spot, but I don’t think FCD wants to spend one of those on a backup again). The model for this in MLS is LA Galaxy, who brought in a superstar on serious wages (Chicharito) and then went big enough on the U22 backup (Dejan Joveljic) that the starter couldn’t be comfortable because there’s a second all-star-ish ST on the squad. With all of the U22 options here and that will follow, it’s important to remember that to be eligible for this mechanism, the player must take a lower salary than the max budget charge ($612,500 in 2022) – the Stretch/Target/Safe designations below are as much about whether FCD can convince these players to come to Dallas for that wage as it is about whether FCD could pry them from their current clubs.

Stretch – Ivan Azón Monzón, Real Zaragoza

In his age 17/18 season, Azón emerged for La Liga 2’s Real Zaragoza to the tune of six goals, assists, or won PKs in a little over 1,000 minutes. The next year, he bumped up to ten such events in about 1,400 minutes. Injuries have limited him in 22/23 so far, but Azón is a Spanish YNT-level talent with a Pepi-esque skillset and a rare amount of experience in a tactically demanding league at his age. A recently signed contract extension raises his price somewhat, but I think it’s possible to get him under the U22 cap regardless.

Honorable Mentions: Dion Drena Beljo (NK Osijek), David Datro Fofana (Molde FK), Manfred Ugalde (Twente on loan from Lommel SK), Matheus Nascimento (Botafogo)

Target – Nikola Jojic, Mladost Lucani

A youth league phenom in Serbia, the 19-year-old two-footed attacker saved Mladost from the relegation playoffs last season with a final-day brace in his second-ever senior start (see below). This fall, wearing the #10, he’s been one of the best attackers in the Serbian league (which is about as good as MLS and WAY better than Hungary, in case you were wondering), putting up about two goals or assists every three games and playing almost every available minute. Although listed as a winger, Jojic pops up all across the attack for Mladost, doing striker and attacking mid-things as much as winger things. I doubt he speaks either Spanish or English, which could be a problem.

Honorable Mentions: Alex Aravena (CD Nublense, on loan from CD UC), Oliver Antman (FC Nordsjaelland), Merouane Zerrouki (Paradou AC), Ozziel Herrera (Atlas), Jovan Markovic (Universitatea Craiova), Andras Nemeth (KRC Genk)

Safe – Agon Sadiku, FC Honka

A long-time Finnish youth international, the teenager Sadiku has anchored Honka to the best goal differential in the league and a spot in the championship round in Finland (which he has started hot). This breakout season for the versatile Finn is happening as his contract runs into its final year, which may make him cheaper than otherwise.

Honorable Mentions: Steevenson Jeudy (Violette AC), Manu Monzeglio (Nacional), Abdoul Tapsoba (Standard Liege), Lucas Roman (Club Ferro), Sunusi Ibrahim (CF Montreal), Kwame Peprah (Orlando Pirates)

So that’s the backup settled. Next is the third.

For two years now, FCD has rolled with only two dedicated options at #9. Because the soccer gods have blessed them with abundant availability in that position, they haven’t really felt the biggest pinch, but it’s not some wild theory that being one injury away from having no depth is bad. Maybe FCD could get away with it because their ST archetype can be filled by different types of players (IE: it sure seems like Coach Estevez thinks Beni Redzic can play any of the spots on the forward line), but considering the possibility that both Ferreira and his U22 backup are medium-term sale risks, getting a third body in for post-sale continuity seems wise. That player could be younger and more developmentally focused, with a preference towards cheap and domestic.

Dallas has a few internal candidates, and one of them may already have been chosen.

19-year-old Jose Mulato, the Bayern World Squad player and Deportivo Cali loanee, took over the starting job for NTSC and bullied opposing CBs to the tune of 0.76 goals and assists per game, earning call-ups to the Colombia U20s. The wide lefty stretches the defense vertically and knows how to use defenders’ momentum against them, but he would take up an international spot. Still, someone that shows up as a teenager and impresses immediately in both Bavaria and Texas may have the mindset that the front office craves. Pablo Torre and Tarik Scott are two other younger options who got spot minutes for NTSC this season and are imposing in their own rights. Most likely, I think they will compete for starter’s minutes in the developmental squad next season.

Domestically, former FCD Academy and NTSC standout Gibran Rayo is barely 21 and would be cheap after a year burning up the MLS Next Pro Eastern Conference with independent Rochester – he’s very similar in style to Ferreira. LA Galaxy’s Preston Judd has been tremendous in USL Championship, but his path to first-team minutes in LA is probably non-existent for now – a low-GAM trade target. Internationally, Haiti’s Steevenson Jeudy is a stud.

If development happens, they don’t need to fix the wings

As discussed above, Velasco’s development is the biggest need this offseason. Even if he goes supernova, FCD would still only have three playoff-quality wingers. That’s not enough. One injury, and you’re out of juice off the bench. FC Dallas needs to find a fourth, and they already have a clutch of high-potential youngsters in-house.

Maybe the fourth is young Homegrown Beni Redzic? The 20-year-old beat out college star Kalil ElMedkhar and Hungarian international Szabolcs Schön for playing time in 2022. Obviously, there’s something there the coaches like. He burst onto the scene in 2020 as the type of winger we thought Velasco would be, creating chance after chance for NTSC because defenders just couldn’t stay in front of him: his age-18 season remains the best single season G+/90 mark in American Soccer Analysis’ USL League One database (>500 minutes played). Through injury (and a lack of injuries to others), we haven’t seen much more of Redzic, but it seems like the coaching staff considers him a possible backup at a few spots among the forwards.

Maybe it’s Bernard Kamungo? The Tanzanian-American’s story has been told elsewhere. For FCD’s purposes, he is a productive (third in MLS Next Pro in non-penalty goals and second in G+), cheap, domestic, left-footed option for wing depth who pops up on the end of crosses into the six-yard box and balls over the top as well as anyone in the organization and thrives in the transitional moments that Estévez has focused on. Add in that he was NTSC’s de facto captain in 2022 and has unlockable upside as a 1v1 dribbler, and it’s clear why he was prioritized for a step up in the organization (and maybe a recallable loan to FC Tulsa or somewhere for playing time in 2023).

Maybe it’s Dante Sealy? The 19-year-old is still out on loan to Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven at a time when it is tough to break through there if you aren’t a world-class attacking talent. Between Gakpo, Saibari, Bakayoko, Fofana, Simons, Madueke, Vertessen, Antonisse, and Savio, that club is not hurting at all for young forwards, and besides that, Sealy’s own performances for the second team have been uninspiring. Can FCD accurately assess his level right now? And is it high enough to push for starts at a club like FCD, where you don’t have to be world-class to make a difference? And could they end the loan early to get Sealy back to Texas for the beginning of the season?

If there’s any need on the roster that could see a more patient approach this offseason, it’s here. “Arriola and Velasco plus Obrian and some depth” is exactly the rotation FC Dallas rolled with in 2022 to good effect. No, it’s not super resilient to injury, but “FC Dallas is one bad injury away from giving a meaningful role to a homegrown” is not a situation the club is unfamiliar with. For now, I think you roll with the setup as-is, assess your options, see if one of the young guns pops, and wait until the summer to bring in a body if needed.

As mentioned above, if you wanted an external solution here, you’re probably talking about a U22 Initiative signing – it’s expensive to find a player that could push Velasco and Arriola, and FCD is unlikely to spend a DP slot when they already have those two taking up so many cap assets. Here are some options along those lines: Bastian Yanez (Union Espanola), Isaac Lihadji (Lille), Antonio Marin (Dinamo Zagreb), Oscar Uddenas (BK Häcken), Ibrahim Adel (Pyramids FC), Dario Osorio (U. de Chile), Osame Sahraoui (Valerenga), Carlos Gomez (Millonarios), Cam Dunbar (LA Galaxy).