2023 Season

A Blossoming Leader: How Nkosi Tafari stepped out of his comfort zone

9.15 Nkosi Leader DL

FRISCO, Texas – There was a general sense of surprise when FC Dallas allowed club captain and legend Matt Hedges leave for free agency at the end of the 2022 season. Hedges had anchored the club’s backline for a decade and helped it earn the best defensive record in the Western Conference during his final season.

How would Dallas cope without its defensive talisman, its leader? There were no big-money center back signings. Instead, head coach Nico Estévez and his staff looked within for Hedges’ heir.

Nkosi Tafari wasn’t an unknown quantity. The 2020 draft pick had already shown Hedges-like defensive instincts, athleticism and ball-playing ability over the previous two seasons. What Tafari lacked, though, was the consistency and leadership that made Hedges a premier MLS defender for so long.

For Estévez, the first step of Project Tafari was a conversation.

“I talked with him and asked him to be more vocal, more of a leader,” Estévez explained. “As he's getting more responsibility within the team, and being one of the voices and the leaders, it’s helping him be more focused, more vocal and more committed to the project.”

The next step was some assigned reading. Estévez gave Tafari a book on group leadership and, although it pushed him out of his comfort zone, Tafari began to ease into the role.

“There was a void in leadership amongst the team but it's always tough for an individual to just step in organically and take that on," he said. "I kind of prefer to just be myself, I never want to put myself in a position of power. But I realized I am one of the older guys on the team, even though I'm only 26. I accepted it and I try to be the best that I can be on a day-to-day basis."

9.15 Tafari Story
Nkosi Tafari defending against Inter Miami's Lionel Messi at Toyota Stadium

For center backs, communication is an essential part of the job. A good center back leader can be an on-field conduit for the coach’s game plan. That was another of Estévez’s mandates that Tafari worked to improve.

“It definitely doesn't come naturally, at least in terms of gameplay,” Tafari admitted. “I can talk off the field a lot, but that’s just because I say a lot about nothing—a lot of jokes and hoopla. But on the field, it’s got to be all business and all tactics. When I was really quiet, it was just because I felt I didn't have the answers to give. So, I'd rather give no information than misinformation.

“I just turned the tides and started speaking. And then if there was anything that was wrong, (the coaches) could correct it. And if it wasn't, we kept going forward. But it actually turned out that I know a lot more than I thought I did.”

Tafari’s increasing leadership role has coincided with a more obvious improvement: his goal scoring. The defender has three goals and two assists this year, with his most recent strike being a last-minute winner against rivals Austin FC. That aspect of his maturation wasn’t planned by his coach, though.

“It’s been an intentional improvement,” Tafari said. “I realized that center backs that can add goals and assists to their game is definitely going to make their stock to go up. I felt that I could do more, getting in the box and scoring goals on set pieces or corners, whatever it may be. It's just a matter of mindset to be in that position.”

Tafari isn’t done developing. He says his next step is to become more two-footed, to be as comfortable playing passes with his left foot as he is with his right. It’s rare but valuable quality for center backs and he thinks it'll take him to the next level: “It changes the game entirely."

Estévez agrees. And he believes Tafari can reach even higher.

“I think we have to keep growing and progressing with him. He still needs to improve things in those areas, the leadership area and also in soccer. But I think this year he’s made the biggest step in his career.”