Tuesday, February 7, 2023 Feb 7, 2023
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What Does Life After ‘Luchi Gang’ Look Like for FC Dallas?

The third-year head coach was fired Sunday. Whether it signals a genuine change of direction is anyone's guess.
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Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Luchi Gonzalez’s last game in charge of FC Dallas was not one to remember: a sweaty Saturday night in a mostly empty BBVA stadium in Houston between two bottom-dwelling teams in MLS’ Western Conference. 

The final 3-2 scoreline wasn’t an accurate reflection of the game. For 85 minutes, FC Dallas looked lethargic, disconnected, like they didn’t want to be there. The team eventually found itself down 3-0. In the final minutes, two brilliant flashes from forward Jáder Obrian made things nervy for Houston, who sit below Dallas in the standings. But the result was never really in doubt.

On Sunday, Luchi Gang, the group of homegrown players and the academy director who brought them to the first team, was officially no more, as FC Dallas relieved Gonzalez of his duties after managing the team since 2018. He is replaced by director of football operations Marco Ferruzzi. This is his second stint as interim manager.

Gonzalez was universally well-liked and a low-key fashion icon in Dallas. He’d come a long way from when he was appointed manager in 2018, back when he wasn’t a name many outside of the organization knew. The Florida native played at SMU and in MLS for a few years before rising through the coaching ranks of FC Dallas’ youth program, eventually leading the club’s heralded academy team that has produced numerous professionals and members of the US National Team. Team president Dan Hunt claimed that Gonzalez beat out other candidates with UEFA Champions League, English Premier League, and La Liga experience at the time largely due to that familiarity with how FC Dallas operated, especially its acclaimed youth system.  

Gonzalez’s coaching career started well enough. His first season finished with a first-round playoff exit to the eventual MLS champion Seattle Sounders, after a seventh-place finish in the regular season. The 2020 season had bright spots of its own. A sixth-place finish in the West resulted in a playoff berth, where they won in the first round against Portland and then lost a close game to eventual Western Conference champions Seattle. 

But FC Dallas backslid in his third season in charge. The team has managed just six wins this year, two of which came against expansion team Austin FC, which is currently in last place (the Texas MLS clubs are the three worst teams in the conference). But two of the wins — against Sporting KC and the New England Revolution, the two best teams in MLS — paradoxically may have hurt his case, too. 

In a league with more parity than its European counterparts, anyone can beat anyone, especially in one-game playoff scenarios. Performances like this were just enough to give fans a glimmer of hope throughout the season, but consistency was always lacking. For Hunt, the performances against the top clubs this year and the close playoff losses in past years were evidence that FC Dallas has the talent to be a contender, despite a payroll that ranks 17th of 27 teams.

Make no mistake. There were extenuating circumstances beyond Gonzalez’s control. Captain and central defender Matt Hedges was out much of the year, and his return has often seen him paired with three first-year starters along the backline given the absence of Bressan, Hedges’ usual center-back partner. Goalkeeper Jimmie Maurer has been out for several games. Without that level of leadership and communication along the back, it is no surprise that FC Dallas have given up the third-most goals in the league.

But while Ricardo Pepi has had a breakout year for FC Dallas and the US National Team up top, other attacking signings who were expected to contribute have fallen short. Obrian has scored four times in the last two games, but he’d only bagged four all year before that. Designated players Franco Jara and Bryan Acosta have also underperformed, with Jara starting just nine games and scoring only four goals. That’s a lot of payroll tied up in minimal performance, and there’s no avoiding some of that blame getting placed on the coach’s shoulders.

A young core of homegrown players, including Pepi, Jesus Ferreira, Paxton Pomykal, Brandon Servania, Edwin Cerrillo, and Justin Che, gives fans hope going forward. Still, they also know how wealthy the Hunt family is, watch them in the Kansas City Chief owners’ suite during NFL broadcasts, and ask for more investment in quality players. Years of middling soccer without the spending seen by other MLS clubs and the constant selling of the team’s best young talent — including Tanner Tessman to Venezia FC, Bryan Reynolds to AS Roma, and Reggie Cannon to Boavista lately — have frustrated supporters. Hunt has noted that the team needs to make changes and find players in their prime to integrate alongside the core of youngsters. “We’re going to have to make additions, and we’re going to have to spend money to help make those players better,” he said at a press conference this week. But the fanbase will likely be reluctant to take him at his word until such players arrive.

For now, they’ll set their sights on seeing FC Dallas reach the playoffs for a third consecutive season. Not yet mathematically eliminated, FC Dallas are seven points out of playoff position with eight games to go, something Hunt says was a factor in Gonzalez’s dismissal. “We needed to take action now,” Hunt said. “Because it’s not just about these eight games, but also about what we’re going to go do in 2022 and beyond. It was really important for us to take this step and put a plan in place because we want to be successful, and we want to be a perennial winner here.”

Ferruzzi will look at locking down the manager spot permanently, and his familiarity with the system would match the pattern set by previous coaches. Still, FC Dallas leadership didn’t rule out looking outside of MLS for potential candidates. (Buzz Carrick at 3rd Degree has a great rundown of potential managers if it isn’t an internal choice.)

Gonzalez, ever the class act, thanked the Hunt family via Twitter for giving him a chance. Between his likability and his player-development pedigree, he probably won’t be unemployed for long. The U.S. Under-23 team hasn’t qualified for an Olympics since 2008, and some are already suggesting that he coach the U-20 youth team. That team feeds the U-23s program, which is currently coached by former FC Dallas player Jason Kreis. 

Wherever he ends up, his farewell tweet says it all. “I knew I could not be there forever, though I would have loved that,” he wrote. “I will always have FC Dallas in my heart, no matter my next endeavor.”