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Building 2023: Re-Anchoring the Midfield

Should FC Dallas go all-in on the middle of the park?

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at FC Dallas Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

I do my best not to engage with the national media’s takes on FC Dallas. In their eyes, FCD is like that nice, quiet kid in math class who people ask for help with homework because it seems like she gets good grades, but she’s super introverted, so you can’t get to know her at all unless you give it a bunch of effort and why do that when it’s more fun to watch the school’s star quarterback (we’ll call him “Eli Aphsee”) inexplicably get 100s on every assignment while openly flirting with the teacher. Anyway, here’s one pundit’s take on where FC Dallas should spend its final DP spot.

I get the instinct here. Four of the last six MLS MVPs were #10s (attacking playmakers positioned at the peak of the midfield). This season the frontrunners for the award (Driussi and Mukhtar and Gazdag) were all #10s. If FC Dallas wants to contend, isn’t the straightest path via a midfield playmaker?

The glaring omission from the above analysis is the simple fact that FC Dallas already has two #10s signed to Designated Player contracts. Alan Velasco, a nominal left winger, swings under into central midfield all the time to find the ball. Jesus Ferreira, nominal ST, was an all-star level creator in the #10 spot in 2021 and famously likes to drop off the defensive line into that space to receive passes (with a bias to the right halfspace). Add another high-volume floor raiser into the mix, and you will quickly realize you have too many cooks in the kitchen and not enough guests in the dining room ready to eat.

Yes, you could compensate by asking Ferreira and Velasco to change their games and do more work off-the-ball (and Ferreira has already done this to some extent for Velasco), but at that point, you’re just like Barcelona circa ~2019/20, constipated in possession for the lack of outlets. There is no comfortable way to fit Ferreira, Velasco, and a new primary creative central midfielder in the same lineup.

If they want someone that will fit next to their best players, FCD does not need a #10. What do they need?

Building Back Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

FC Dallas went and made that question very easy to answer by bringing in USMNTer Sebastian Lletget to be a late-arriving box-crasher and giving him a “long-term” contract.

Crucially, FC Dallas did not pay his ~$1 million salary in 2022 (per reports) and maybe couldn’t have traded for him if that were not the situation. One possible implication: FCD needs to ditch a comparable salary this offseason and replace it with a cap-privileged one (a DP or a U22 player). Paul Arriola ain’t going anywhere, so the axe is likely going to either Jose Martinez, Matt Hedges or Facundo Quignon. Rarely will young players have the maturity to play either CB or DM for 25+ games, so we’re probably talking about a DP slot, and good teams rarely spend DP slots on CBs. Thus, the most likely scenario and the one we will be diving into here: FC Dallas is rolling with Paxton Pomykal and Lletget as its starting CMs, Quignon is getting sold back to South America for whatever price can be gotten, and his replacement is going to be a DP.

Yes, there is beauty in the soaring of the eagle and the strutting of the bird-of-paradise, but there is a brutal beauty in the butchery of the shrike too. We seek the latter here. A truly great defensive #6 in a single-pivot midfield unlocks the attacking abilities of his teammates like no other piece of the puzzle. By analogy, an exceptional free safety in football (like the Legion of Boom’s Earl Thomas) allows his fellow defenders to play more aggressively than they otherwise might, safe in the knowledge that if something gets behind them, it will be erased. FC Dallas’ FBs and #8s benefit in this scenario, getting forward and into the box more recklessly (and safely) than they could with Edwin Cerrillo or Quignon as their guardsman. We’re not investing at the #6 to make the defense better – we’re investing here because it makes the attack more dangerous without the usual tradeoff for defensive performance.

Two of the four most expensive transfers of the summer window globally were for #6s.

Although neither Cerrillo nor Quignon excelled in that screening aspect, they are both tidy on the ball, receiving and passing it along securely and prolifically (they receive the ball at 95%+, they rarely miscontrol the ball or are dispossessed, and they both complete more passes than the average player does hitting the same passes). However, it’s one thing to make it hard for the opposition to succeed in their press, and it’s another to make it dangerous for them even to try. The best #6s in MLS scare the defense when the ball is at their feet. FC Dallas needs that (the above pundit came to this same conclusion by the end of the year too).

StretchAliou Dieng, Al Ahly

He’s the best player on the best team in Africa, and he’s got two fistfuls of caps for Mali despite being, at 24, barely on the threshold of his prime (lots of high-pressure game experience for both club and country). In Dieng, we’ve found the Tyler-Adams-esque “two-thirds of the earth is covered by water, the other third is covered by Aliou Dieng” destroyer we’re looking for here. Who knows what FC Dallas’ internal budget is this summer, but Dieng would likely command a fee up there with the most expensive DMs ever sold to MLS.

Honorable Mentions: Thiago Maia (Flamengo), Gustavo Assuncao (Famalicao), Eddy Atuesta (Palmeiras), Marco Kana (RSC Anderlecht), Paul Akouokou (Real Betis), Pablo Maia (Sao Paulo)

TargetEder Balanta, Club Brugge

Look, I’ll be real with you: there are a LOT of guys in this tier that I like and would be happy with if FC Dallas brought them in, but 29-year-old Columbian Eder Balanta is my top pick. He’s been excellent in his career at big clubs in Argentina (River Plate), Switzerland (FC Basel), and Belgium (Brugge), never finishing lower than third in the league table since moving to Europe as a 22-year-old. Although he made his name as a ball-playing LCB (which we value highly since he can be the primary backup to Martinez in that spot), he’s been used mostly as a DM in recent years (including his recent start for the Columbian MNT). We love his experience (3,500+ career minutes across the UCL, Europa League, Copa Sudamericana, and the Libertadores), we love his versatility, we love his passing, we love that he’s an asset on set pieces, we love that it seems like Brugge would be happy to let him go, and we love that he’s not an age that he would bury Edwin Cerrillo for more than two or three years. Brugge’s UCL run may complicate things here.

Honorable Mentions: Jesus Castillo (Sporting Cristal), Jorge Morel (Estudiantes), Stiven Vega (Millonarios), Ignacio Saavedra (CD Universidad Catolica), Njabulo Blom (Kaizer Chiefs), Eboue Kouassi (KRC Genk), Maximo Perrone (Velez Sarsfield), Gustavo Cuellar (Al-Hilal SFC)

Safe – Saeid Ezatolahi, Vejle Boldklub

The Iranian Busquets. We’re zigging a little on this one – he’s not the defensive cover we identified as the main need at this position, but Ezatolahi is maybe the most gifted player with the ball at his feet on this list. Despite his enormous international experience, he’s had little success as a club player thus far as he enters his age-26 season. One great way to maximize that kind of skillset? Put him in a midfield with two willing water carriers like Pomykal and Lletget.

Honorable Mentions: Melvin Cartagena (Once Deportivo), Marcos Gomez (Olimpia), Sivert Mannsverk (Molde FK), Chris Cappis (Brondby IF), Artur (Columbus Crew), Andres Perea (Orlando City), Orlando Galo (CS Herediano), Joel Chima Fujita (Yokohama FM), Luckas Carreno (La Serena)

The other thing the Lletget trade does: for the second offseason in a row, I am advocating for moving on from Brandon Servania. Certainly, he adds to FCD’s depth in those advanced midfield roles, but he still hasn’t strung together more than a handful of healthy games at his best level. At his age and cap hit (and with a cheaper and, in-my-humble-opinion better alternative close at hand in the form of Tsiki Ntsabaleng), he is no longer a fit for this roster.

In his stead, FC Dallas’ front office should strongly consider investing in a U22 player for that spot. Let it be known that I think signing average, post-prime players to high-dollar, long-term contracts is bad team-building regardless of the locker room or tactical fit (I expect both are “excellent” in this case) – FCD should be looking for a succession plan behind Lletget ASAP. Maybe Tsiki takes a leap in year two? It’s possible, but we can’t bank on it. We need another high-upside body to compete for playing time and grow into a starting role.

Stretch – Anis Ben Slimane, Bröndby IF

Right at the very tippy top of the range of players possible via the U22 initiative, Slimane, the Tunisian Tower, might require financial shenanigans to count as a U22 player. The rock-solid midfielder will break 25 international caps for Tunisia at the World Cup this winter and 5,000 career minutes for Brondby, one of the biggest clubs in Denmark, next Spring.

Honorable Mentions: Cristian Medina (Boca Juniors), Cher Ndour (SL Benfica), Nicolas Raskin (Standard Liege), Diego Gomez (Libertad), Victor Hugo (Flamengo), Matthias Braunöder (Austria Wien)

Target – Giorgi Moistsrapishvili, Dinamo Tbilisi

The emergence of superstar Khvicha Kvaratskhelia at Napoli may have inflated the market for Georgian talents, but Moistsrapishvili would be worth the new premium. A technically brilliant midfielder with a great G/A tally for both club and country (for whom he recently put up strong performances against the U21s of England and Portugal), Giorgi’s the next big thing for Georgia. In this scenario, he’d have time to brush up on his defensive responsibilities before taking on a bigger role for FCD. It’s very likely he speaks some English.

Honorable Mentions: Alejandro Alvarado (Vizela, and might be the pick here if his agent didn’t have a history of steering kids away from MLS), Matthaus Taferner (Wolfsberger AC), Djordje Gordic (Mladost), Mateusz Legowski (Pogoń Szczecin), Matias Galarza (Coritiba, on loan from Vasco de Gama), Piero Quispe (Universitario)

Safe – Ibraheem Jabaar, Stellenbosch FC

Following a prolific career with the Nigeria U17s as a winger, the diminutive 19-year-old has built a large body of work in South Africa (2,500+ first team minutes) as a shifty central midfielder in the mold of Tsiki Ntsabeleng. The bet is upside here: lots still to add to his game, but there is a mighty terror of a pressing #8 to be unearthed.

Honorable Mentions: Aaron Suarez (Alajuelense), Christopher Pearson (FC Tulsa), Nahuel de Armas (CA Penarol), Fidel Brice Ambina (Cape Town City), Andre Vasquez (Piratas FC), Abdellah Haimoud (Wydad AC), Seydouba Cissé (CD Leganes)

Odds and Ends

As best I can tell, Edwin Cerrillo is out of contract after this year. Expect him and the club to get a new Ema Twumasi-esque (five years on $300k-$400k annually) deal done. He’s a perfectly serviceable MLS starter as a #6. As the primary backup for 2023, he would get 10-15 starts and 20-25 appearances as Balanta needs rest or fills in for Martinez at LCB. Keep Edwin developing and engaged.

The above constructions leave you one spot in the midfield to invest in a developmental prospect if you want to. Younger options like Santi Ferreira, Ale Urzua, Jared Aguilar, and Carl Santé are possibilities, as are external options like Cris Nava, Abdoulaye Diop, and Isaiah Johnston.

Let’s briefly talk Hope Avayevu, though. The Ghanaian AM/W was, for my money, just as good for NTSC in 2022 as Bernard Kamungo (and much better than Jose Mulato, who also seems likely to jump to the first team). The club invested heavily in Hope from the beginning, and he repaid them handsomely. His only issue? Without a green card (which he should be getting close to), he would require an international slot with the first team in 2023, a tough proposition from a roster-building perspective. NTSC has three more years of contractual control, so the club can afford to wait to promote him. Unless he gets that green card, I would seek a loan to the USL Championship for him (maybe to El Paso, maybe to the RGV Toros), where he can get reps as a CM (his long-term position in MLS, imo) and step up to FC Dallas in 2024.

If they wanted a little more midfield depth for 2023, the front office could also just spend the final spot on a cheap domestic vet on a short contract (Jacori Hayes, for example, or Dax McCarty or Roger Espinoza).