DALLAS, Texas - For Nico Estévez and his staff 2023 became an exercise in injury-related problem solving. Rather than aggressively moving their second-year project forward, it was all about holding the line, so to speak, and waiting for healthy reinforcements.
Players and staff will reconvene in January, launching preparations for the club’s 29th MLS season. Here are five pathways that could get the needle pointed upward once again for 2024:
Further roster improvement
Two things can be true in the big picture of FCD roster construction: it was better in 2023 – but it’s always a work in progress.
Estévez and technical director Andre Zanotta did good work in improving the bottom half of the roster in 2023. A sizable band of departures from 2022 generally fell into this camp: good guys and likable teammates, but perhaps more suited for USL careers.
That back-half roster renovation became critical as a summer of insufferable heat and even more insufferable injury hardship threatened to crater the season. That improved depth meant that losing eight starters to injuries at various points didn’t completely crush the (ultimately successful) playoff chase.
Going forward, a few specific needs could augment a solid cast of building blocks.
For instance, FCD could use a left-sided center back that would allow Nkosi Tafari a return to his more natural right-sided center back position. (Right-footers playing on the left creates difficulties in safely, smoothly playing out of the back.)
In front of those center backs, FCD hasn’t had a Top 10 MLS holding midfielder since Carlos Gruezo. Facundo Quignón is a stable presence, but there’s probably a ceiling on his performance level. A rangy, defensive destroyer (think João Paulo or a decade-plus of dealing with Diego Chara) would allow advanced midfielders (Paxton Pomykal, Sebastian Lletget and, depending on where he’s deployed, perhaps Asier Illarramendi) to safely push farther up the field, making more of the runs into the 18 that Estévez encourages.
Addressing the wing position is tricky due to Alan Velasco’s uncertain 2024 status. The Paul Arriola-Bernie Kamungo duo is a great place to start. From there, the plans largely depend on Velasco’s timetable for return (and how coaches intend to use him tactically: centrally or back on the wing while he resettles).
Finally, there are plenty of reasons to pursue another backup striker to Jesus Ferreira: removing some of the pressure on him to score; pushing him in practice; for mobility in his tactical usage, and; a productive place holder for times of his injury or international call-up.
Back to identity
Sometime in late summer, after the team finally began unstacking some of the injuries – so bad at one point FCD couldn’t field a full bench of reserves – Estévez talked about getting back to the team’s 4-3-3 identity. But the reality proved different, as further challenges and a whatever-it-takes push for late-season points meant further adjustment in tactics and personnel.
Everyone around Toyota Stadium will keep fingers crossed that 2024 comes and goes without such an abnormally high injury recurrence. Controlling space is a central tenet of Estévez’s system and, simply put, it’s easier to do when players are comfortable and familiar with roles and responsibilities, acting and reacting instinctively.
Progress in the “youngs”
FCD builds through its prodigious academy. Players progress to points where they can be sold (ideally for profit that can be pushed back into the academy system) or they can assist the senior team’s competitive pursuits.
In all of that, “progress” is the centerpiece of the setup.
Things get back on track if Ferreira – sure he’s a record setter, but the guy is just 22 years old – and Kamungo can stay on an upward trajectory, adding tactical and technical elements and greater consistency to their games. Same for Geovane Jesus and Velasco, once they return from major injury, even if that needs to happen on a conservative timetable.
Goalkeeper Maarten Paes has less room for improvement; he was nothing short of outstanding in 2023. Still, at 25 years old, he can make incremental progress before reaching a goalkeeper’s peak years.
More from the vets
Talented youngsters are sometimes awesome, sometimes not so much. But players in their “are what they are” years need to be dependably consistent. And sometimes, they just need to contribute just a little more.
Arriola, Lletget, Pomykal and Marco Farfan weren’t bad in 2023, but probably would admit they can find a slightly higher level in ‘24.
Consistency is the key for Arriola and Lletget. There were times in 2023 when Arriola was the dynamic workhorse that made him a U.S. international, capable in attack and dogged in defense. And there were times in 2023 with Lletget was silky smooth on the ball and unimpeachable in positioning, doing all the hard-to-notice little things that make the game easier for teammates. But simply put, there were times in 2023 these two weren’t at tip-top form.
Pomykal was almost always a one-man wrecking crew of midfield disruption on defense, and a reliable connector in possession. What the team needs from him is a few more goals and assists. He doesn’t need to lead the team, but 2-3 goals and 4-5 assists would probably push him back into the national team conversation.
Farfan appeared in 38 of FCD’s 42 matches (all competitions). Like 2022, wear and tear became apparent. With Sam Junqua’s arrival and the high value utility he provided in 2023, perhaps Farfan can get a few more games off.
Do they need a “bad cop?”
Estévez generally takes a congenial approach, preferring calm encouragement and education over harsh reproach. Which is fine. But perhaps a little balance might help?
You wonder if FCD sometimes needs a “bad cop” to balance the manager’s “good cop” disposition? Someone on the field who isn’t afraid to call out indiscipline, deficient effort or broken focus (the way U.S. internationals Tim Ream and Matt Turner did after Sergino Dest’s silliness). Arriola is a dedicated, veteran captain. But he’s also a nice guy. Sometimes, teams need a guy in the locker room they like - but also fear a little.