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The Ryan Hollingshead trade can be both justified and heartbreaking

FC Dallas parts ways with its talismanic left back in the latest sign of the club’s new age.

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SOCCER: SEP 29 MLS - Sporting Kansas City at FC Dallas Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Crying is an okay thing for adults to do, and yet I came what I’ll call “embarrassingly” close to tears when I saw that FC Dallas announced they traded leftback Ryan Hollingshead to Western Conference rival LAFC in a straight swap for LB Marco Farfan*.

Before we get to his play on the field, it’s worth noting Hollingshead was a multi-time Humanitarian of the Year for the club, was commonly cited by young players as a great mentor, and basically served as unofficial vice-captain / team cheerleader for years. He was the second-longest tenured player on the roster and finished fourth in club history for appearances behind Bobby Rhine, Jason Kreis, and Matt Hedges. Personally, his work as a foster parent meant a lot to me. Clubs should want those types of guys to stick around.

On the field, he’s been easily a top five LB in MLS since becoming the full-time starter at that position in 2019, Luchi Gonzalez’ first year as coach. At times, he was the best, and that rested onbeing far and away the best attacking LB in the league over those seasons. His 13 goals and six assists in that timeframe nearly double the next-best’s (Ronald Matarrita’s 3 and 7). Beyond that, as recently profiled by MLS’ media team, he’s been a skeleton key in ball progression for FC Dallas. In the away game at Seattle last season, it seemed like the plan every possession was “get the ball to Ryan and he’ll get it across halfway” and that WORKED.

If you’re touting him as the no-doubt best LB of this era in MLS, you’re probably overlooking some real defensive inconsistencies to which Hollingshead is liable. It seems like two or three times a year he had some lapse of concentration that led directly to a concession, but focusing too much on that feels like harping on Trent Alexander-Arnold for his 1v1 defending. At some point, being far-and-away the best in the league at what you do when your team has the ball has to matter, and Hollingshead would probably be an upgrade for 24+ MLS teams.

So how do you justify trading away this guy, a club legend? I see a few reasons.

Hollingshead may have wanted to be back on the West Coast

Before any questions of the trade’s sporting merit come up, it’s important to remember that players are people and that FCD has been willing (even to a fault sometimes) to sell players when they want to go. Hollingshead is from CA and has family all over the state – it makes perfect sense he’d want to get closer to home as his kids get older. I’m glad FCD helped make that happen.

Hollingshead may not be the right player for FCD’s new scheme / roster

Despite his form in MLS, Hollingshead never got a shot with Berhalter’s national team, for which Estevez served as a key assistant. His age might have had something to do with that, but more likely he just wasn’t a comfortable positional fit for the side.

On any given possession, Berhalter/Estevez want certain positions filled, but the players that take those positions can rotate. In particular, they want three players stretching the opposing backline, two players in front of the backline, and another three one line further back with the CBs playing prevent near half-field. I’ve illustrated one really common rotation below: fullback overlaps wide, winger pinches into the pocket in front of the defense, and the midfielder pulls back to fill space on the right of the DM.

Hollingshead can absolutely work in this system. So many of his goals the last three seasons have come by attacking the box from that #8 spot as a target for crosses or a late-arriving shooter. The issue is that if he takes that spot then others can’t be there, and FCD just dropped ~$7 million on a hotshot, teenaged, Argentinian LW who wants to be in that space. They also just gave Jesus Ferreira a huge contract to be the type of ST that rotates back in front of the defense to pull players out. If I had my druthers, Paxton Pomykal would alternate into the #8 spot too. Rostering a premium attacking LB to either (a) stop your premium LW, ST, and LCM from taking up their best spots or (b) play outside of his best role/position is a bad use of resources.

Reports suggest Hollingshead didn’t start either of FCD’s first two friendlies of 2022. Rookie Isaiah Parker was preferred in both the game against the USA U20s and the game against Orlando City. Now, preseason matters very little, and the club wouldn’t want to invest their best developmental minutes in a player that was likely to leave. But still, a LB that wants to attack from high and wide is a much easier fit next to Pomykal and Alan Velasco on the left. It’s partly why Antonee Robinson is so valuable for the national team right now: he can cover the ground and hit the crosses needed to provide a credible threat down the left sideline while Pulisic slips inside. Farfan is a downgrade offensively from Hollingshead overall, but he may be just as good at doing the things that will help Velasco and Pomykal to flourish.

Hollingshead was in the last year of his deal and passing age 30

2022 will be the final year of the three-year contract Hollingshead signed in late 2019. He was making $350k annually as part of that contract, a little more than double Farfan’s number. Considering he would be eligible for free agency after that deal expired and might have expressed an interest in absconding to CA from Dallas, trading him now was likely the path to the highest return.

As mentioned above, Hollingshead was awesome playing for Luchi, but probably would have had to adapt to a new, less optimal role under Estevez. Fullbacks peak as early as any other position and only wingers struggle more to maintain their level as they age. Those two factors probably meant that Hollingshead had already played his best soccer for FCD, maybe by some margin. In many ways, this feels like the Barrios trade from last winter: sell a still-starter-level player for what you can before their first contract of their 30s comes up. Err on the side of getting out too early rather than too late.**

Barrios made FCD fans miss him last year, and I expect Hollingshead will do the same this year. Still, it’s probably the right move as a club to do these deals.

FC Dallas aren’t building for 2022 – they’re building for 2023

Sometime early in the 2021 season, it became clear that Franco Jara wasn’t going to come close to justifying his DP tag and salary. As long as Jara is on his deal (which expires after the 2022 season), it may be tough for FCD to put together a roster that can seriously challenge for a title. It’s not completely prohibitive, but spending ~15% of your club’s (already modest) salary budget on a backup ST is a real handicap.

At about the same time, it became clear that FCD was going to have a transformative amount of money available to bring in new players this offseason. It’s doubly tough to compete when some of the most important members of your roster are new to the club or the league. If we assume FCD planned to put the DP tag on Ferreira going into this offseason, then they had three premium roster designations to use: one DP slot and two U22 Initiative slots. If you want players that can help you immediately, you should go get mid-20s domestic veterans.

FCD can’t do that with their U22 spots, and they spent their DP slot on a 19-year-old who will be playing outside his home country for the first time in his life. That’s not the action of a club that wants to maximize their chances of winning silverware in 2022. Most likely, FCD wants to add two new U22 Initiative players somewhere between now and the end of the summer window and go into 2023 with a DP slot open but the rest of a young playoff team intact.

FCD will probably be worse in 2022 without Ryan Hollingshead, but look forward to 2023 and that’s far from clear(see above). If performance in 2023 has increased in importance for FCD relative to performance in 2022, then getting Hollingshead’s just-entering-his-career prime replacement in the door a year early can make sense all of a sudden.

*If you want to know more about Farfan, here’s a piece on his first full season as a starter in MLS: he’s highly active defensively but, in an LAFC team that otherwise moved the ball sinuously, he did basically nothing when his team had the ball. Honestly, he’s like John Nelson except he doesn’t have a meaningful injury history and he defends on the front foot a little more often, which may make him a better fit in a higher pressing team. He’s probably the 15th-25th best LB in the league.

**If the pattern here is selling high-salary, productive vets going into the last season of their contracts, then prepare yourself for FCD to trade Matt Hedges next offseason to someone who’s desperate to stop leaking goals. Maybe Charlotte.