FRISCO, Texas — FC Dallas Head Coach Luchi Gonzalez was never set on wanting to become a professional coach. In fact, coaching didn’t cross his mind until the opportunity was right in front of him.
While playing for the Colorado Rapids in 2005, his fourth club in as many years, he ran into a father, who coached a small amateur club nearby. He was looking for a coaching replacement for his son’s soccer team. Gonzalez, at the time, was making a modest living, but he was open to supplemental income. He was still in the middle of the MLS season, and the only coaching he had ever done up to that point were clinics and camps he would help run — and he enjoyed it.
So, he accepted the offer.
By the end of the season, Gonzalez loved working with the kids. Since he was still an active player at the same time, he would participate in the drills he taught them. The coaching gig took up one day of each week as he played for the Rapids simultaneously, but having an impact on children’s lives gave him a purpose for something more than himself.
“I wasn’t just a player, I actually had an influence on these little minds and these little human beings about the game values,” Gonzalez said. “I gave them energy and they responded to the energy. I was still in a player mindset, so I was demonstrating the drills myself. I learned over time to get out of the player mentality and to just be a teacher. I didn’t ask a lot of questions then, but that was the moment where I was like: ‘Hey, you know what? I like this. This is cool.’”
During his career, Gonzalez played in three different countries — the United States, Sweden and Peru. By the end of the 2006 season, Gonzalez was prepared to leave the Rapids to go back to Peru, but a hernia injury prevented the move from happening because he needed surgery. So, he ended up signing with Miami FC (currently, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers), which played in the North American Soccer League — America’s second division.
Being from the area, Gonzalez decided to get involved with the community while he played for Miami FC. He picked up another coaching gig — this time, coaching a U-11 girls team. It was at this time when he knew he wanted to coach at any level once his playing career was over. During the offseason, one of his life-long best friends, Matias Asorey, was the boys soccer coach at Felix Varela High School, and the latter invited Gonzalez to come out and watch the team. Gonzalez helped out here and there, and he ended up on the coaching staff while teaching at the high school.
Gonzalez would go on to coach Varela from November of 2007 to February of 2008 all the way to a 30-0, state championship finish. After the high school season concluded, Gonzalez realized he could have an impact on young players’ minds while also winning consistently. By the time he left Varela, another private school had contacted him for a coaching job. Gonzalez was playing for the Minnesota Thunder at that point, formerly a USL-1 team, and he was getting first-team minutes, playing every single game of the 2008 season. Minnesota General Manager Djorn Buchholz offered Gonzalez another contract for the following year, leaving a spot open for him.
When the team offered him the opportunity to play in the following season, it let him know he wouldn’t get paid for another five months. Even though Gonzalez was still in good shape, he knew his playing days were numbered, so he retired — ending a seven-year career.
“I could’ve kept playing, but I said screw this — I knew what my next step was,” Gonzalez said. “It’s coaching, it’s teaching. I got certified to be an Algebra teacher, and I coached the high school program at Columbus High School, which is an all-boys private school in Miami. While I did that, I was coaching a U-12 boys team, and a year later I became the director at Kendall soccer, the academy in Miami, Florida.”
It was at Kendall where he became a director for the first time, and from there, he kept taking small steps up the coaching totem pole. By 2012, FC Dallas entered the fold, and Gonzalez became a U-16 coach and Academy Director in Frisco, Texas. In November of 2018, Oscar Pareja announced that he wouldn’t return as head coach for FC Dallas, and from there, the search started for a new leader. The position was awarded to Gonzalez, a person who already knew what it meant to represent FC Dallas.
“We’re about to go into the Christmas break, and that’s when Dan [Hunt] asked me to interview for the head coaching position in early December,” Gonzalez said. “So, you never know. I worked harder to earn the opportunity. I had to step up. If you run into something tomorrow that you’re not ready to do, you need to force yourself to do it and get out of your comfort zone. I’m always on my toes.”
Luchi’s Leadership Style and Role Models
Prior to every match, many hours before kickoff time, Luchi Gonzalez will sit at his desk, put some headphones on, and listen to music while writing his notes for the night.
It’s imperative to him that he’s in the zone, focused on the opposition his squad will face that day. His music picks are endless on game days. If he goes with hip-hop, Drake, Travis Scott and Kendrick Lamar are his go-to's. If he chooses throwback music, A Tribe Called Quest is always a good pick for him. His love for rock music will always be there, but sometimes, a song from 2010 or so will play — taking him back to that U-11 girls team in Miami, where he was still trying to learn who he was as a coach.
As Little Dragon, Atlas Sound, Deerhunter or Radiohead rings through his ears, it takes him back to the days where he was still learning not to coach with a player's mentality — learning to listen to his players, something that is important for him and his coaching style today.
The transition from player-to-coach was a relatively smooth one for Gonzalez, but he loved messing up.
“You’ve got to make mistakes,” Gonzalez said. “You have to fall to know how to get up. You can’t just never fall and know how to get up. It’s hard.”
He learned to be more flexible with his players, and, over time, he understood the process of how to teach players with ease. He needed to read them as people and create an environment that had time, space and controlled variables.
Tactics came later because he didn’t need much help with them. He learned to delegate different aspects of the game across the coaching staff that he now has at FC Dallas.
Gonzalez brought on Mikey Varas and Peter Luccin as assistants and kept experienced goalkeeping coach Drew Keeshan on staff when he was hired earlier this year. He’s implemented a new tactical style at FC Dallas, and he’s brought his own coaching style as well in practice.
Listening and getting feedback is important to Gonzalez, even if he’s a head coach of an MLS club. He knows the importance of receiving different opinions — both from the coaching staff and his players.
He learned the importance of listening and teaching from one of his role models — Jerry Zank, who was the principal of Gulliver Academy when Gonzalez was hired to be the Dean of Students and an Algebra teacher along with being the Director of the soccer program. Gonzalez taught at Gulliver before he moved to Frisco to join the FC Dallas Academy.
“[Jerry] was just amazing,” Gonzalez said. “He was so optimistic. He threw me out to an assembly with 1,000 teenagers. I had to give a talk about discipline as the Dean of Students, and that wasn’t easy. I had to engage them, I had to talk and convince and persuade. And I had to do that routinely. That taught me a lot in terms of speaking to groups and trying to get their attention in order to understand the topic.”
Zank had a huge impact on Gonzalez, especially since the two worked together when the latter was still trying to find his way in coaching and teaching.
“He passed away a few years ago,” Gonzalez said. “He was a big mentor for me because he was all about education and teaching. I really relate to that because my style of coaching is more teaching. It’s very inquisitive, question-based. That’s my philosophy of teaching and coaching the game.”
The two other mentors of Gonzalez’s that he looks up to are Pareja and Chris Hayden, who is the current Academy director at FC Dallas.
“Oscar taught me about a lot of instinctual things and soccer common sense,” Gonzalez said. “He taught me about connection and having an emotional sense in people around you.”
Hunt was the other mentor that had a huge impact in Gonzalez’s life. Hunt hired Gonzalez as the FCD head coach, and he’s been with him every step of the way during a hectic first season at the helm.
“Dan, since I got here at FC Dallas, just supporting me and believing in me, mentoring me,” Gonzalez said. “I need to show why Dan and Clark need to keep fighting for me.”
Gonzalez brought Varas and Luccin on his staff because they’ve both been head coaches at the Academy level for FCD. Both have known Gonzalez for a significant period of time. Varas met Gonzalez when the two were getting their U.S. Soccer Federation “A” Licenses, and they’ve been good friends ever since. Luccin joined the FCD coaching staff at the Academy level, coaching the U-12 team following his two-year stint as a FCD player in 2013 and 2014.
Gonzalez said it was important for him to hire former academy head coaches who knew what it meant to represent FC Dallas. The two took that responsibility in stride, giving feedback to Gonzalez, which is what he enjoys, and teaching and connecting with the players in training. The open-mindedness goes a long way for a team with such young talent.
“I really think that he’s an open-minded coach,” Luccin said. “He’s open for feedback, he’s open for conversation and debate, and that’s a great quality that he has. It’s not easy to find a coach like that, and, for me, it’s his best quality.”
FC Dallas in 2019 and Beyond
Being able to create chances through fluid passing, keeping possession and, simply, dominating teams is FC Dallas’ eventual goal to reach. It’s a work in progress, but it’s something Luchi Gonzalez and the rest of the team are aiming high for.
Gonzalez knows it won’t come easily nor quickly, but he’s confident and hopeful it will one day be evident for the rest of MLS to see. For now, he just wants FC Dallas fans to know it will pay off for the club one day — in the long-term.
“If someone asks what the identity of FC Dallas is, it’s community, it’s a renovated stadium — one of the first soccer-specific stadiums,” Gonzalez said. “The youth, the academy is the heartbeat of the club. We promote from within, and I think the next step of that is we want to dominate games. We want to play a football that’s attractive, that’s aggressive, has domination of the ball.”
A transition between two philosophies within a few months is not easy for a coach or his players, but Gonzalez being the former Academy Director of the club and already knowing the players on the squad helped immensely with the quick turnaround of getting prepared for the 2019 season.
FC Dallas midfielder Paxton Pomykal, who has become a key player in Gonzalez’s system, has known his coach since he was 14 years old — back when he was switching clubs from the Dallas Texans to FC Dallas. Pomykal joined Gonzalez’s U-16 side until the former signed a Homegrown deal and was called up to the first-team.
“For me, it was a very easy transition because I had already played for him, and I know the way he likes to play, the way he likes his teams to play, the formation, the tactics, the mentality,” Pomykal said. “It came fairly easy for me, and I think it did with the rest of the team as well. We’re only six, seven months in, and we’re already doing exactly what we’re supposed to be doing.”
Gonzalez is building a foundation for FC Dallas, and the goal is for the club to be built to last for a long time. He’s been focused on his first year as an MLS head coach, but he’s already preparing his team to make adjustments that will pay off for the next few years.
It started with creating a USL League One team, which allows the best FCD Academy players to get professional experience before they even touch the field as an FC Dallas player. Gonzalez was one of the many people involved with creating the squad for North Texas SC, and he already sees the investment paying off for players’ development.
The next step is not only winning, but winning the right way — with consistency and dominance.
“We’re investing in what we think is best for our philosophy and allows us to compete today and allows us to compete in the long-term,” Gonzalez said. “We don’t want these huge, big volatile seasons or experiences. We want to maintain a competitive level and have the realistic opportunity to compete for trophies every year. We need a foundation for that, and that’s what we’re committed to.”
Gonzalez said if the club keeps believing, keeps training, and keeps pushing, he knows it can reach greatness one day. He’s a big believer in the process — his process — and it’s what he fights for every day in training, meetings and on the pitch when it matters most.
“He’s a winner, and he’s not afraid,” Varas said. “Not afraid of challenge, not afraid of tough times, and you need that personality when you go into such tough challenges. We knew this was not going to be easy, we came in with eyes wide open, fully respecting the process knowing that things were always going to get tough.”