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Building 2023: The Defense’s Weakness was its Strength

FC Dallas had a banner year keeping the ball out of their own net, and maybe that was a bad thing.

MLS: FC Dallas at Chicago Fire Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

Hard to say it wasn’t a successful defensive season for FCD: they posted the second-best defensive record in the league and tied for the best FCD defensive record of the last decade (after 2021, their worst season). The biggest difference year-on-year (besides getting to about-average GK play from Paes after Jimmy Maurer’s awful 2021)? Going all-in on defense at the fullback position. Out went legendary baller Ryan Hollingshead and in came defensive specialist Marco Farfan. Out went the rampaging pseudo-wingers of Luchi-ball, and a much more cautious approach was built to protect FCD’s languid CB duo from having to cover too much ground laterally. The defensive results were hard to argue, but did Estevez take it too far?

Finding a Final Fullback

Two years ago, FC Dallas boasted an almost fullback-centric attack with Bryan Reynolds and Ryan Hollingshead going down either wing. Between them, they were involved in almost a goal every other game and ~35 touches in the final third per 90. Fast forward to 2022, and FC Dallas got closer to one goal per five games and ~25 touches in the final third from their fullbacks. Part of that is schematic, as discussed above, but part too is personnel – Twumasi is adequate at getting the ball safely to halfway but offers little past that; Farfan has never been that incisive player in MLS (despite the Timbers’ broadcasters’ puzzling comments otherwise).

Additionally, although Ema Twumasi continues to make strides as a defender (let’s not forget he was a forward until 2021), there are still enough games where he looks shaky (eg: both in 2022 against Justin Meram and RSL) that I would categorize him as “inconsistent.” Honestly, this is probably exactly what the front office was thinking when they picked up the phone and dialed Nanu’s agent nine months ago. He was the right idea but the wrong player (not active or reliable defensively, poor crosser, loose in possession, etc.). I say try again. FC Dallas needs a “third starter.”

The first name on the whiteboard should be 31-year-old Anton Tinnerholm, the Swedish soon-to-be free agent who was close to the consensus best fullback in MLS for two-and-a-half years from 2019 to his Achilles injury in 2021. For a less-than-Nanu salary and a relatively short contract, you get a high-level, green-card-holding, two-way RB that would probably welcome a situation where he (i) can compete for an MLS Cup and (ii) need not start 34 games (because he probably can’t give his age and recent injury history). Seriously, this guy is the best passing fullback of the last decade in MLS. Different gravy. Want more possession balance on the right side? Tinnerholm has to be the club’s #1 target in the free agent market.

The Rocks on Which Nico’s Church is Built

We’re dusting off this chart again because it’s bonkers.

They’re good. When they’re together, they’re elite. But are they good at the expense of the team?

Most of the world’s very best teams succeed by asking their CBs and DMs to cover huge swaths of ground so the rest of the team can be ultra-aggressive: Man City needs Kyle Walker, Liverpool needs Van Dijk, Bayern needs Upamecano and de Ligt, etc. As described above, FCD can’t play that way with Martinez and Hedges, and it sure seems like management is putting the “for sale” sign up in the shop window for Hedges.

Hedges is a close-to-borderline roster decision for us, but not because he’s somehow holding the team back. To wit, FC Dallas can’t play Guardiola soccer with Farfan (bad in possession) or Paes (not a sweeper-keeper, not great with his feet) either. In fact, very little of the roster is built to play that way. The good news is plenty of top teams play a more reserved style and succeed: Lille 20-21, Atletico Madrid most years, Conte’s Inter, etc. You don’t have to be Man City to win.

The real question: can you get similar defensive results in 2023 with Jose Martinez and Matt Hedges by upgrading at the #6 and freeing the right back and the #8s from some of their defensive responsibilities? We think the answer is “yes” – that there is enough wood to chop at DM to make a real difference in the attack.

We’re not naïve, though. Relying on those two to play 30+ games each seems like folly at this point in their careers – both have spent long stretches as walking wounded in the last two seasons. Combine that with the fact that neither is likely to be a full-time solution for far beyond 2023, given their ages, and FC Dallas has to find another CB this offseason with plenty of career runway to whom they are comfortable giving high-leverage starts (mostly in place of Martinez since Tafari can spell Hedges).

This is a spot where you want to go reasonably cheap, early-prime or younger, domestic, and left-footed if you can (though the introduction of Eder Balanta lessens the need for a lefty). The two options that popped up time and again as I screened here were San Jose’s Tanner Beason and LA Galaxy’s Nick Depuy. Beason’s a 25-year-old Stanford grad who has been one of San Jose’s brighter spots in their terrible last few seasons but could be pried away, considering they brought in pedigreed South Americans Rodrigues and Trauco to compete for his spot. Depuy is a hulking 27-year-old promotion from LAG2 that always seems to get supplanted by more expensive options despite his completely above-average play (as an active defender and ball-carrying righty at LCB), and LAG will want to open up playing time for their two USYNT U20 options, Neal and Ferkranus. If Depuy can be gotten for a reasonable price, I think he’s the better fit for 2023 and the future.

Some other options for this spot are worth considering for one reason or another: Erik Holt (Real Salt Lake), George Campbell (Atlanta United), Marco Burch (FC Luzern), Robin Tihi (AIK), Andres Ferro (Metropolitanos), Valentin Gomez (Velez), Neraysho Kasanwirjo (FC Groningen), Ramon Juarez (Club America), Jose Caldera (Deportivo Cali), Eric Kinzner (Seattle Sounders), Josh Ramsey (Notre Dame, Homegrown), Slade Starnes (Furman, Homegrown).

One very important note: U20 international Justin Che will probably be back in the summer from TSG Hoffenheim, where he hasn’t gotten closer to first-team minutes than nibbling at the fringes of the gameday roster in early 2022. If the play-to-play inconsistency that has been an issue since he became a pro in 2020 has not improved, he won’t see the field for this iteration of FC Dallas. If he has ironed that stuff out, he could easily challenge for Twumasi’s or Tafari’s minutes in 2023. For our purposes here, I assume he comes back in the summer and gets spot minutes thereafter.

Hypothetically, what would a trade of Hedges or Martinez look like if FCD wanted to address the generational change issue immediately? Well, probably something like the trades that sent Barrios, Hollingshead and Picault to Colorado, California, and Houston (note that FC Dallas is willing to sell inside the Western Conference). Unlikely to involve a lot of GAM. Maybe it’s for an international spot or a rotational starter. What type of deal might make sense? How about shipping Martinez to DC (or Houston) for some GAM and their first-round draft pick (which you could turn around and spend on the best CB available)? Would the Revolution be willing to part with one of their great right-footed fullbacks to get “Mr. Instant Top 10 Defense” Matt Hedges?

In truth, Martinez is more likely than Hedges to be dangled in this manner, and if they do trade the Spaniard, I expect they would go and find another lefty international closer to his mid-20s. A few possibilities: Alexis Gamboa (Alajuelense), Luis Segovia (Independiente del Valle), Enzo Martinez (Querétaro), Aleksandre Kalandadze (Dinamo Tbilisi), Juan Pablo Vargas (Millonarios), etc.

Stick with the Status Quo in Goal

We’ll be brief here.

Maarten Paes is a fine starter – hopefully, he can get a green card quickly.

Jimmy Maurer has one year left on his deal. At ~$300k next season, his salary is probably more than you would ideally like to pay a backup, but I don’t think it’s onerous enough that FCD will actively look to shop him this window. He’s someone that Luchi talked about as a coach on the field, and, considering the players below, FCD would benefit from having his veteran presence and pedigree in training for another year.

Antonio Carrera did well in his first season as a professional starter, ending up as an above-average shot-stopper and distributor while struggling with crosses into his area. With an outside shot to make the U20 World Cup team next summer, he will be focused on getting minutes early in 2023, which probably means sticking with North Texas for at least the first part of next season. Maybe they can line up a loan for him to some USL-C club in need of a starter next summer.

Lastly, let’s talk about Julian Eyestone. The giant U17 shot-stopper has been tabbed as an ultra-high-potential prospect for years now, getting various college recruiting accolades and USYNT callups. It seems like FC Dallas agrees. Just like Antonio Carrera’s stints training with the first team were a strong indicator that a homegrown deal was on the way, there are signs with Eyestone. He, too, seems like he’s always training up with the pro teams and even dresses for some FC Dallas home games to do warmups with the first-teamers. Pushed to predict how it will happen, I’d say the most likely outcome this offseason is that Eyestone signs a deal like the one Carrera had last winter before a great preseason: one year signed to NTSC while Maurer’s contract is still on the books, and then a bump to the first team in 2024. For now, he’s starting games in the Academy and should get time with NTSC next year.

Looking around the league, rostering more than one “developmental” goalkeeper at a time is not common. The Chicago Fire knocked it out of the park with their legendary 2004 class of Gaga Slonina and Chris Brady (what are the odds the two best US GK prospects since Tim Howard both pop up in the same birth year at the same club?) and RSL is doing it too with 2004 Jeff Dewsnup and 2005 Gavin Beavers (who may be an exception here as he has only signed a two-year contract), but to my knowledge, those are the only two teams in MLS history to roster multiple U20 GKs at once. In short, doing so sinks roster spots into players all-but-guaranteed to ride the bench for years. For it to be worth it, one or both of those kids has to be fully ready to compete for a starting spot way ahead of schedule (like both Slonina and Brady in Chicago), or you have to be reasonably assured that at least one is going to bring in transfer cash quickly. My bet is that Carrera will fulfill the former by 2024, and Eyestone will fulfill the latter (cf Chituru Odunze).

Some Final Thoughts

We’ve made it to the end. When you tally the ins-and-outs, we have only parted ways with only one starter (or zero, depending on how you answer the Quignon/Cerrillo question). In the other direction, we’ve found significant starter upgrades at two of FCD’s biggest 2022 problem areas (RB and DM) and massively improved the quality of depth elsewhere. That’s despite spending less in both cash and cap on salaries with the option to add another U22 player at a position of need in the summer.

The squad is built to play a little asymmetric, with Tinnerholm pushing up on the right (to mirror Pomykal on the left) and Farfan mostly staying home. Between Martinez, Pomykal, Balanta, and Tinnerholm, you’ve got a team that’s very capable of playing out of the back and into the feet of your premium attackers. Balanta’s presence then allows guys like Paxton Pomykal and Tinnerholm to be more aggressive in the future than they could be in 2022. Alan Velasco, Jesus Ferreira, and Paul Arriola won’t end up on islands as much (Lletget’s introduction helped this a bit later in the year).

I feel confident this team is better than the 2022 version of FC Dallas. Whether that means they finish higher in the standings is down to unpredictable factors like finishing and injury luck, but also better/deeper teams can navigate that stuff more smoothly than their counterparts.

That’s the problem for the roster-builders, the problem with this whole series. The ball is round and kicked on a massive rectangle covered by living organisms. You can work and work to be better on average or to improve in the aggregate, but sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce your way, for whatever reason, and the better team loses. All the club can do is strive to be the better team and hope that the dice are kind a few times in a row when it matters.