FRISCO - Fans in Dallas have known for quite some time there’s something special about #24.
A quiet presence off the field and outside the locker room, he lets his play on the field do the talking for him - taking charge of the FCD back line.
At 26 years old, Matt Hedges has been a local favorite since he first stepped onto the field at Toyota Stadium in his 2012 rookie campaign. Now, his peers and people around MLS are taking note of his irreplaceable quality. After finishing third in MLS Defender of the Year voting just a year ago, the defensive leader for FC Dallas has been named the best at his position after a historic 2016 season.
“It's a huge honor to be associated with some of the best defenders in the league and I just can't say enough about how cool it is,” Hedges said earlier this week. “It's a great credit to my teammates because you don't get nominated for these awards unless you have a great season and as a team we had a fantastic season, so credit to them as well.”
The first round SuperDraft pick by FC Dallas in 2012 has played at least 2,000 minutes in each of his first five seasons. Until this year, he had not missed consecutive starts since his first MLS start in May of his inaugural year. This season, the North Carolina-product was on the field for 11 of Dallas’ 12 shutouts - one shy of the team-record 13 matched by last year’s team, also with Hedges in charge of the back line.
While he humbly says it’s a team effort, Hedges’ individual impact on the defensive collective is undeniable. In the 26 games he started this year, the team averaged just 0.88 goals against per game. Without him for eight games in total during the 2016 season, FC Dallas’ goals against average ballooned to 2.25 per game.
“Matt embraces the idea and the model that we want defensively,” said head coach Oscar Pareja, who’s had Hedges as his defensive rock in each of his three seasons at FCD’s helm. “Having Matt in the game guarantees you that consistency. You have someone there who knows what we want and knows what the unit wants. The numbers are a reflection of what he represents and I'm not surprised to see that.”
“I think obviously vocally organizing is a big one,” Hedges said about biggest strengths as a center back. “[But also] the thing I feel like I do a lot is covering the guys because you want to try to make everyone on your team better, so I try to cover them and play to their strengths. If they're good at something, I'll try to help them out to do that and make a difference.”
Being able to play your position so well you can take on responsibility of another’s as well is admirable. Doing so proactively to allow a fellow defender to play a unique role of their own and get up into the attack, like center back partner Walker Zimmerman so often does, is nothing short of impressive.
In 2014, Hedges became the youngest captain in club history upon Pareja’s return to Dallas, and even though he and Mauro Diaz split time wearing the captain’s armband in 2016, the veteran presence in the youngest locker room in MLS is felt the same, official armband or not.
“He's growing, growing, growing and there has not been a time where I don't see him in that willingness to get better,” Pareja added. “Matt has grown into the group as a leader, as a person who understands more the chemistry of the collective, the unit. [He] has done a great job and we're very proud to have him.”