FRISCO, Texas – The message from Luchi Gonzalez was clear all year, from the first frigid January practice through the interminable summer. FC Dallas’ young manager broadcasted it publicly and unambiguously to media, supporters and players: Playoff qualification was essential. “We must make the playoffs,” Gonzalez repeated passionately through the 2019 campaign.
All that urgency, never mind circumstances that probably provided FC Dallas some wiggle room in collective sentiment:
- FC Dallas’ roster was Major League Soccer’s youngest by average age.
- Gonzalez was a first-year professional manager, and also the league’s youngest manager for most of the season.
- FC Dallas was doubling down on its signature academy initiative; it would eventually finish second among 24 MLS clubs in minutes contributed by homegrown signings.
Most of us would see all that as legitimate justification to cut this team-in-transition a little slack. If post-season soccer wasn’t reached, well, so long as that stable of young talent made progress, we could “thumbs up emoji” the big picture.
Except that’s not how Gonzalez saw it. Where we saw pretext, he saw a bunch of lame excuses. He saw a cop-out, refused to abide it, and most certainly didn’t want his players hearing it.
“We must make the playoffs.”
And so they did. Make the playoffs. In his first season, the league’s youngest manager took FC Dallas to a place 10 MLS playoff wanna-bes couldn’t reach. The reward is a trip to Seattle, no easy assignment. The Sounders won MLS Cup as recently as 2016 and have yet to miss the MLS playoffs (having joined in 2009).
While it’s true that in most MLS seasons it has been mathematically easier to make the playoffs than to miss, post-season qualification has become tougher through the years.
It’s also true that plenty of first-year managers have qualified for the playoffs. For instance, Brian Schmetzer guided the Sounders to an MLS Cup Final in his first year in charge at CenturyLink Field. One big difference, however: Seattle has always been among league leaders in spending on pricey stars.
Even around FC Dallas, Mike Jeffries (in 2001) and Steve Morrow (in 2007) qualified in their first year of professional management. Then again, those were pretty different times. In Jeffries’ first year, 8 of 12 MLS clubs qualified. And when Morrow did it, FCD was on the very front end of developing its soon-to-be prodigious youth academy system. As yet unblessed with all that Homegrown talent, Morrow had an older, more veteran roster.
All of that is to say: other MLS rookie managers have gotten teams to the playoffs. But when you start adding the context around FCD in 2019 – a reconfigured technical staff, that young roster, regularly starting five Homegrown players, etc. – then it becomes something to stop and tell the neighbors about.
Across other sports, some terrific coaches en route to spectacular accomplishment couldn’t get past the playoff finish line in their initial sprint. Locally, Jimmy Johnson won two Super Bowls with the Cowboys but didn’t get to the post-season in his first professional season.
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle did (at Detroit in 2001). Then again, he had the benefit of being an NBA assistant for 12 previous seasons. Gonzalez, by contrast, had done his previous coaching in FC Dallas’ youth academy system.
In baseball, Ron Washington was arguably the Texas Rangers’ most accomplished manager, steering the team into two World Series. But in Washington’s first season with the club (also his initial go as a professional manager) the Rangers finished 75-87, last in the AL West.
In the week between FC Dallas’ playoff-clinching moment – a 6-0 “statement” win over Sporting Kansas City – and the tough postseason clash ahead, Gonzalez was caught between emotions. Obviously, he’s proud of his team and encouraged by rounding a milepost of his own career development. Then again, he’s guarded of anything that looks or feels like “satisfaction.” That is, he doesn’t want anyone around the club hanging any “Mission Accomplished” banners just because the first hard target has been locked down.
There are games ahead, after all, and there will be better times for reflection and any sentimentality about his first season in charge.
“I have to definitely recognize the positive step in making playoffs,” Gonzalez said. “It was one of our goals, and it’s very important to our fans, to our players and to our staff.
“But by no means does that mean we can slow down. We cannot relax. We have to continue to be hungry for more.”