Whatever comes next, FC Dallas’ 2022 season has been an undeniable success. Rising from a bottom-five team last season to a high-end playoff team is a sign of monumental growth.
Perhaps we’ll see more of it as soon as this postseason. Because when the playoffs begin on Oct. 15, this squad shouldn’t be taken lightly. Quite the opposite. Of the 14 teams who will play in MLS’s second season, FC Dallas should scare opponents the most.
Why? Start with the talent on hand, beginning with Jesús Ferreira. The likely starting striker for the U.S. in this winter’s World Cup is having a tremendous season. With three games left, he already has tied the single-season club record with 18 goals. As has been said many times on the FC Dallas Post Game Show, this team will go as far as Ferreira takes it. His superior athleticism combined with a remarkably high soccer IQ–did you see the rce win over LAFC?–at the young age of 21 make Ferreira the most dangerous man in the MLS playoffs.
On the other end of the pitch, Maarten Paes is also critical to a potential playoff run. His 73.3 save percentage ranks sixth in the league. Dallas has allowed the third-fewest goals, and Paes has the third-best goals against average per 90 minutes. He also has been more vocal with his squad and taking control of more balls outside the 6-yard box of late. Bottom line: he has turned into the kind of keeper you can ride in hard times. It’s been a long time since Dallas has had one of those in net.
A critical part of playoff success for any squad is veteran leadership. Dallas has two such players in captain Matt Hedges and midfielder Sebastian Lletget. An 11-year veteran defender, Hedges is looking to finally get his hands on the trophy. His calm demeanor and his ability to scuttle an opponent’s attacks in the 18-yard box make him a key piece in Dallas’ postseason ambitions. Despite a knee knock that kept him out of recent games, he’s expected to be ready.
Lletget’s addition to the lineup has been a smashing success. He has been a passing dynamo since arriving from New England in early August, with four assists in six starts. More than that, his ability to link the attack and pick out passes has been crucial for Dallas’ run of strong form. Consider his contribution to a recent 3-0 win over Minnesota United: a pair of assists and a 100 percent accurate passing rate. Plus, Lletget’s creativity and talent are evident to even a novice observer.
Then there’s Alan Velasco, the club’s record signing. He has been sidelined with a thigh issue, but odds are good he’ll be back for the postseason. Velasco’s evolution has been remarkable. Some of it is the result of having learned the ways of the MLS world, which features a more physical style than the one he is accustomed to in his native Argentina. Also, first-year coach Nico Estevèz and his staff are better understanding the abilities of the 20-year-old. He has become more of a false winger, rotating between the left and center channels to cause chaos and score goals. He’s the sort of player who will win matches when his talent matches his experience.
Put it all together, and you have a team equally proficient in attack and in defense. Allowing a goal to this squad can lead to an avalanche of scoring. The games against Minnesota and LAFC are prime examples. Against Minnesota, Dallas scored its three goals in a four-minute span, and against LA, it went from trailing to leading in three minutes.
That said, Dallas has developed into a team known for its defense. Upon being hired, Estevèz made it his first order of business to repair a defense that tied for most goals allowed in the Western Conference last season (56 in 34 games). This season Dallas has allowed 34 goals in 31 games, second-fewest in the league behind only Philadelphia’s 22. Two of FCD’s most important wins were 1-0 results, against Philadelphia and fellow West playoff team Real Salt Lake. Considering the playoffs often come down to who plays better defense in crunch time, this is an invaluable asset.
While the players deserve a lot of credit for the turnaround, plenty goes to the man at the helm. The architect of it all, Estevèz has emerged as a contender for the league’s coach of the year. His case is simple: none of what has unfolded in Frisco happens without him, from the tactics to the transfers and everything in between. He has changed almost everything about the club, and what he hasn’t been able to change he has largely improved.
Estevèz is a dutiful tactician, who along with his coaching staff identifies an opponent’s weaknesses and exploits them. His substitution patterns, which he calls solutions, might seem unconventional to the average viewer. But they are working.
A good example happened recently against LAFC. Down a goal in the 63rd minute, Estevèz took off winger Jáder Obrian for striker Franco Jara. That move prompted a shift from the team’s 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 on attack and a 4-4-2 on defense. The desired effect was seen immediately: Jara got physical with LAFC star defender Giorgio Chiellini. As a result, it gave Ferreira and Co. more space to operate in the attacking third as the 38-year-old Chiellini lost some juice. It also created more frustration among the Italian’s teammates. That led in part to LAFC midfielder Franco Escobar’s tantrum to the referee, which enabled Dallas’ tying goal 15 minutes after Jara’s insertion. Three minutes later, Ferreira booted home the winner.
FC Dallas has beaten the top team in each conference, gotten results in four of its last five, including three wins, and faces three of the bottom five teams in the West to conclude the regular season. It has impact players on every level of the pitch plus a creative, flexible coach willing to deploy them in whatever way yields results. That is a nightmare to play against. It’s why no team in their right mind will want to once the second season begins.