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What we learned about FC Dallas from the 2023 Leagues Cup
Despite the disappointing ending, FC Dallas showed a lot of new things in this tournament.
The 2023 Leagues Cup experience for FC Dallas was undoubtedly a unique one. Four games at home against some tough competition from Major League Soccer and Liga MX should have given the club everything they need to push toward the MLS Cup Playoffs when league play resumes later this month.
There were some good things, some bad things, and of course, some weird things to take away from this experience. So let’s dive into that here today.
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The attack gains some life
In the four Leagues Cup games that FC Dallas played over the last two weeks, the offense came alive by scoring 11 goals. Think about that for a second when you consider that in the two-ish months before this tournament, FC Dallas scored 11 goals in 12 games.
We’ve discussed the transition from the wide area to the middle of the field for Alan Velasco. That has been the biggest key in all of this for FC Dallas. Velasco can pull the strings a bit more, making the speed on the wings for guys like Jader Obrian and Bernard Kamungo more significant in the transition play (look at the second goal against Miami on Sunday night for that evidence).
It wasn’t just Velasco pulling the strings in the attack that improved during this time. Sebastian Lletget became Leagues Cup Lletget, scoring two goals and helping assist with some others. Newcomer Eugene Ansah appears to be a solid addition to this group, with two goals off the bench.
The crazy thing in all of this is that Jesus Ferreira, who was dominating league play before he left for the Gold Cup in June, only scored once in the Leagues Cup. He had some assists and contributed in different ways, but he was not the focal point of the attack. That may be a good thing as we head back into league play.
Lastly, being at home for this stretch was probably a massive bonus for this team. They had the home crowd, in some ways, the weather on their side.
But I would argue that this break from league play benefited this group. Not having the routine of league play for a moment broke this team out of the funk we saw in May, June and part of July. They needed this stretch of games that tested them differently against teams they wouldn’t usually see in the regular season. The intensity of games against Liga MX teams and Sunday’s Miami game helped bring a new level of play from this group that I don’t think we’ve seen in 2023.
The bench is finally full again
The main story of the 2023 season up until the Leagues Cup was about the injury situation that head coach Nico Estevez had to deal with. For several weeks on his weekly media calls, I would ask about the health of the team and if there were any improvements. At times, Estevez would laugh about the situation because, at one point, when nine players were on the ‘out’ list, that was about all you could do was laugh. Other times, you could sense his frustration about the situation.
Thankfully, that all appears to be a thing of the past, as the team is finally healthy again. From Paxton Pomykal to Paul Arriola and Jesus Jimenez to other guys like Ema Twumasi and Tsiki Ntsabeleng. They’re all fit again. This tournament allowed Estevez to slowly re-introduce those players into the games from the bench (except for Jimenez, who didn’t see a second in this tournament).
This will be a big deal when the league resumes play later this month. Estevez will likely stick to the lineups we saw in the Leagues Cup and find ways to ensure that Arriola and Pomykal get more minutes from the bench or as a starter. He’ll also be able to add in the newcomers Liam Fraser and Asier Illarramendi.
I still think he’ll continue his rotation that we’ve seen in some areas of the field, too, with these final 11 regular season games. I know it can be jarring sometimes for fans to see a different defensive group out on the field from game to game, but it is working for the most part. You don’t want to burn out guys like Marco Farfan or Nkosi Tafari before the playoffs, so why not let Sam Junqua or Jose Martinez get minutes instead occasionally? The same will be said about Facundo Quignon now that Fraser and Illarramendi are on the roster.
The need for finishing out games is still there
Okay, now for the real downer of this entire thing.
In two of the four Leagues Cup games, FC Dallas had leads over Charlotte and Miami and then ultimately lost on penalties to each club. These games will go down as a draw on paper, but in reality, they were big-time losses.
Suppose there is any lesson Estevez and his staff can take away from this tournament. In that case, it isn’t just that they need to figure out their penalty kick takers way before the playoffs begin, but that they need to find a way to get this team to not drop their level of play with a lead in the last 15-20 minutes of a match.
I know that is far more simplified than it is for this group. Take Sunday’s game, for instance. FC Dallas goes up 4-2, then gives up a weird own goal to make it 4-3. Estevez then subs off Velasco, the guy pulling the strings for the team on the night, and you see the level of play immediately drop off. Look, I get the need to sub Velasco at that moment. He was knocked a minute before that sub and then took a shot on goal that saw him land awkwardly. FC Dallas is very injury cautious this season, and taking a guy off the field after those two moments made sense with the team still in the lead.
But we have seen this kind of situation play out several times already this season. FC Dallas has a lead late, makes some slightly questionable but necessary subs and then gives up a goal late for a draw (or a loss).
I don’t think the subs are really to blame in these moments, either. I think it comes down to how this team fails to fully finish a game. We know they can do it too. They did it in Austin and in Miami earlier this season. They’ve done it at home against LA and Kansas City too. It can be done, but the moments that they fail to hold on to a lead seem to stick out far more than those times that they do hold on and win.
There are 11 games left before the MLS Cup Playoffs. This is the time they have to figure this part out, or else we will be looking at a very early exit in the Playoffs. Or worse, no playoffs at all.
This does not include the St. Louis game that began at the beginning of May and concluded at the beginning of June. Still, if you add it to the mix, that is 13 goals in 13 games. Not great.
Again, keep an eye out for Philadelphia in the Leagues Cup. If they win their next game, the match with the Union on August 20 must be moved to a later date.
For those curious, Fraser is already in town since he didn’t require a green card. Illarramendi is not in Frisco yet, as they are still sorting out his Visa situation.