FRISCO, Texas — After playing two years of collegiate soccer at the University of North Carolina, defender John Nelson decided it was time to take the leap and enter into the 2019 MLS SuperDraft. In just 10 picks of the first round, Nelson’s name was called by FC Dallas.
But Nelson’s experience in MLS from day one was different from any normal draft pick. He was joining a brand-new coaching staff with a head coach who had yet to have any MLS experience at the helm. It was Head Coach Luchi Gonzalez’s message to him, though, which made him buy in to the future of FC Dallas.
“Coming in the first day, I remember Luchi and the staff talking to us, and he said we’re all going to go through this together. He’s learning, we’re all learning, and it was good to have."
Nelson impressed during the first half of the 2019 season. The left back made nine appearances and even started in four games as a rookie through the first 15 games. Gonzalez was putting his faith in young players who were earning the chance to play more minutes, and Nelson was taking advantage of the opportunity in training.
In three of his four starts, Nelson played all 90 minutes against New York Red Bulls, Vancouver Whitecaps and the Seattle Sounders. He was beginning to contribute at a consistent level, and he was becoming positionally versatile — playing at both full back spots. In training, Gonzalez was even experimenting at putting Nelson in the midfield.
Then, the injury bug hit.
Nelson went down with an abdominal strain, which kept him out of action for over a month. A promising rookie season was suddenly put on hold.
Dealing with the injury was tough on Nelson, who was hundreds of miles away from his hometown of Medina, Ohio and his second home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
“It was definitely tough, not going to lie about that,” Nelson said. “It was definitely difficult, but I have good friends on the team — Callum [Montgomery], Reggie [Cannon], Paxton [Pomykal] and the young guys on the team. They really made me feel like I’m at home, even when it was difficult. I wasn’t outside with the coaches every day. You do feel like you get a little lonely, but the team and staff still made sure I was doing well.”
Montgomery, fellow FC Dallas draftee, is roommates with Nelson, and the two are great friends off the pitch. He was there for Nelson while the latter was recovering from injury. Montgomery isn’t from Texas either, and coming from Charlotte by way of Canada, the two clicked from day one while they were adapting to a new home and culture.
“We both have each other, which is nice,” Nelson said. “Me and him, coming into something very new, I think living together was very helpful. We experienced a lot of new things on and off the field. With all the change we went through, it helped a lot.”
Montgomery featured for USL League One side North Texas SC throughout the season, a team which helps develop young FC Dallas talent. When Nelson was coming back from injury in August, he started and played significant minutes alongside Montgomery on the back line for North Texas.
He helped the team to a League One Championship, starting in the semifinal in which it kept a clean sheet against Forward Madison FC.
“North Texas helped me out a lot,” Nelson said. “Of course, it’s a different level, but North Texas still has a lot of good players who play at a high level. When I was coming back from my injury, I got a few games there, and I just worked my way back to the first team. North Texas helped me a lot.”
Dealing with the abdominal injury and earning his way back into the traveling roster for the FC Dallas playoff match against Seattle has made Nelson stronger as a player and person. Add that to the physical style in which he played before he even step foot on the Toyota Soccer Complex, and it looks like FC Dallas drafted a player for the present and future.
Coming from the ACC, one of the best conferences in college soccer, Nelson had already played at a high level before he came to MLS. Gonzalez said the staff knows they have a special player for now and years to come. Nelson has learned how to play out of the back, something that was new to him coming in, and he’s been able to stand out in trainings when healthy.
“We’re very happy with his progress,” Gonzalez said. “Obviously it was tough with the injury, where he was getting opportunities and competing well. That’s not easy to go through, but that adversity has made him stronger. He’s learned a lot, and he got healthy by the end making rosters and helping the team be ready. The next step is next season in 2020.”