DALLAS, Texas - Progress will not always be linear.
Of course it would be nice if things worked that way, with tidy straight lines that point incontrovertibly north. But the pesky peaks and valleys will generally line the course toward significant accomplishment – and that applies over two planes of progress: individually and in the collective.
That’s the best way to see FC Dallas in 2023: A small measure of regression in the team and in some places individually, but redeeming elements revealed within a group that proved stubbornly tough to beat, even in the face of debilitating injury absences.
The most essential data point in sports, the all telling win-loss record, reveals some bottom line decline in Nico Estévez’s team from 2022, with three fewer wins and a four-place fall in the final standings.
But the unprecedented injury accumulation makes any small backpedal more palatable, easier to label as something like “disappointing but not devastating.”
Along the way some building blocks were identified and growth shown in persistence and tactical versatility. Here’s a quick 2023 review:
(In Part 2, we can dive further into the “hows” and “wheres” the club might improve in 2024):
Start with individual progress in some key places, with goalkeeper Maarten Paes topping that group.
In 2022 the Dutchman established himself as one of the league’s top shot-stoppers, but still on the front end of an MLS learning curve. Under the ongoing tutelage of well respected goalkeeper coach Drew Keeshan, Paes parried and punched his way into the Top 5 of league ‘keepers in 2023. (As with everything here, this is one person’s opinion.)
There was an impressive, meaningful Paes moment (or several of them) attached to every positive result this year; we said this over and over on our FCD radio post-game shows.
(Also, when asked about his “personal highlights” for 2023, Paes leaned directly into team accomplishment rather than his trove of splashy individual moments, and that speaks well of where his mind is on this stuff.)
In front of him, Nkosi Tafari took that leap forward that all of us suspected he had in him. The ability was always there; Tafari in ‘23 seemed to more fully embrace the next-level professionalism and dedication to craft that pushes players further toward elite performance. Tafari, 26, entering his prime career years, is a rock solid cornerstone to build defenses around.
And then there’s Bernie Kamungo, and only the coldest, darkest heart wouldn’t love his story (so well told here). Thing is, it’s not just a great story. The guy was remarkably productive with eight goals and three assists in all competitions. Plus, he found other ways to be opportunistic and productive, like drawing a red card against Necaxa in Leagues Cup, or drawing an important penalty kick against Seattle in a meaningful playoff win.
As a team, the injuries presented the most obvious challenges. Depending on how you count them, eight starters lost significant chunks of time to injury (or international call-ups in Jesus Ferreira’s case). That list includes all three of FCD’s Designated Players, the team’s critical-use, highest salary earners.
That’s obviously a bummer, but it did teach us things. Because while wins were sometimes hard to come by, this team proved almost comically difficult to beat. At one point FCD went 16 matches with just one loss – and that one defeat came after a Paes red card meant playing a man down for 78 minutes at Western Conference champion St. Louis.
“I think we learned that this team is very resilient,” veteran midfielder Paxton Pomykal said. “We were hit with a lot of adversity. That’s going to happen to any group; now we’ll be better prepared for it. I think this group dealt with the adversity very well. We definitely had our moments of quality, which we showed.”
Finally, the attack got a little stuck at times, a big reason FCD couldn’t get over the hump in that late run of disappointing home draws. But FC Dallas found its way into the playoffs and remained stubbornly competitive, mostly through defensive planning and purpose; the team’s 1.12 goals allowed average was 3rd best in MLS this year and tied for 4th best in club history.
No one likes regression. But let’s not forget that part about progress not being dependably linear.
Ferreira’s drop from 18 goals to 12 this year is not egregious, especially considering he played about 4 fewer games (and yet still matched his 2023 total of 6 assists). Still, a concerning drop in production (and perhaps in confidence) over the second half of the season makes this a trend line that everyone around Toyota Stadium will want to see reversed.
Plus, the drop in production will reignite discussion over his best use. (True striker? Or better utility as something more recessed in the formation?)
Then there’s Alan Velasco, who saw his production, 6 goals and 7 assists in MLS matches in 2023, fall to 4 and 4 despite playing more games and minutes. With the timing on a 2024 return from major knee surgery so uncertain, it’s reasonable to conclude that Dallas’ most dynamic playmaker’s best version might not reappear until 2025.
When Ferreira found himself at something less than his best, and with Velasco on the injury shelf, FCD was hard pressed for chance creation at the most important (playoff) time.
Quick hitting the things in between
- Pomykal still needs to improve his bottom line production, and some of the advanced numbers show he could make more runs and passes into advanced positions. But his overall numbers (especially the defensive data) still compare well to similar veteran box-to-box midfielders, such as St. Louis’ Eduard Löwen, Seattle’s Albert Rusnak, Columbus’ Darlington Nagbe and LAFC’s Kellyn Acosta.
- It’s hard not to look at Asier Illarramendi, at his uncanny ability to see line breaking passes and at analytics that suggest he is elite at chance creation from deeper lying midfield areas, and not wish he wasn’t going to turn 34 next year. We’ll see what happens there.
Up next: Part 2 – Five avenues available (and attainable) to get the FCD needle pointed north for 2024.