Matt Hedges' Quiet New Role in Dallas / by Harrison Crow

Matt Hedges Passing By Season
Season Team xPassPct Per100 Distance Vertical Touch%
2015 FCD 81.2% 2.7 22.6 7.7 9.2%
2016 FCD 79.3% 1.9 22.8 7.9 10.2%
2017 FCD 79.3% 5 23 8.8 10.0%
2018 FCD 80.4% 4.4 23.1 7.1 10.1%
2019 FCD 83.8% 5.2 21.9 6.1 12.2%
xPassPct: Expected pass completion percentage based on xPass model. Per100: Additional passes completed over expected per 100 passes: Score*100/Passes. Distance: Average distance of all completed passes (yds). Vertical: Average distance of all completed passes (up the field, yds). Touch%: Player touches divided by team touches (pro-rated by minutes played). Find the full glossary of terms here.

By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)

This past offseason Dallas hired Academy Director Luchi Gonzalez as the teams new head coach and Oscar Pareja’s replacement. Gonzalez was commissioned with the task of integrating the organization’s youth with the first team. This is a rather fitting assignment since over the last three years Gonzalez was, as mentioned, the Academy Director.

Obviously Gonzalez is going to be the one who best knows what Dallas has in terms of young talent, and how to find a tactical style that best fits their pieces. He’s brought with him fresh tactics to incorporate the young talented players, and he comes at a time when Dallas needed a twist to their first team’s style. The departure of Mauro Diaz, the little unicorn, has caused consternation in how the attack operated after his transfer and lead to issues of its own last summer.

I’m sure there are a lot of little intricacies within these new tactics which are interesting in their own right and I would love to break it all down for you, but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to talk about centerback Matt Hedges because his role within those tactics have changed, and probably for the better.

Matt Hedges Passing By Season
Season Team Apps Mins Total Passes Long Balls p90
2013 FCD 33 2798 979 4.99
2014 FCD 35 3017 1118 4.74
2015 FCD 35 3035 1125 5.16
2016 FCD 28 2514 1270 8.02
2017 FCD 27 2425 1166 7.94
2018 FCD 34 3016 1579 7.97
2019 FCD 5 450 415 9.20

Hedges seems to be getting lost in all the (well deserved) ink spilled about both Paxton Pomykal and Jesus Ferriera. And why not? They’re both amazing teenagers who have helped usher in this new era. But while they’re doing their flash and dance helping Dallas become a really good soccer team again, Hedges has been a vital piece in the team’s possession chain with his passing.

Hedges’ time on the ball is about changing the point of attack and cycling possession to either Reto Ziegler or Carlos Gruezo for build-up. They’re largely high percentage passes (meaning they are likely to be successful) with less danger to them compared to previous years, when it was mostly about getting the ball forward for the midfield to progress the ball towards the attack on a counter. So how exactly is his involvement this season different?

Matt Hedges Passing By Season
Year Team Chains P96 TeamChain% ChainShot% PlayerKP% xB xB% (0)
2015 FCD 21.1 14.1% 14.4% 0.8% 8.6 88.5%
2016 FCD 26.2 16.6% 14.1% 0.9% 10.6 79.4%
2017 FCD 26.3 18.8% 17.4% 0.1% 12.7 92.3%
2018 FCD 27.3 18.5% 15.9% 0.3% 14.2 74.4%
2019 FCD 37.8 23.4% 9.3% 0.7% 1.4 72.9%
Chains P96: Number of team's possessions per 96 minutes in which the player was involved with a successful pass attempt or dribble. TeamChain%: Percentage of team's total possessions in which the player was involved with a successful pass attempt or dribble. ChainShot%: Percentage of chains in which the player participates where the team earns a shot. PlayerKP%: Percentage of chains in which the player participates where he makes the final pass before the shot. xB Expected Buildup. Total team-adjusted xGoals earned by the team on possessions in which the player participated but did not make the final pass or shot. xB% (0): Ratio of xB/xGChain in even gamestates. Find the full glossary of terms here.

Despite attempting a higher volume of safer passes overall, we’re also seeing him empowered to play long balls more frequently, breaking midfield lines, picking out Pomykal going into the attack, and setting up opportunities. These aren’t passes that are yielding direct shots but they are dangerous passes all the same that enable Pomykal, Michael Barrios and Reggie Cannon to get in dangerous positions.

Instead of a hurried forward pass to help his team get in transition and break down the field on a counter; Hedges has more time to pick up his head and find that right pass when the opportunity presents itself. As a result he’s become much more important to building out of the back and has greatly increased the number of expected goal passing chains leading to a shot.

Considering how important ball playing centerbacks have become in today’s tactics, we have seen how and where his involvement steadily changed over the first three games of the season.

Against New England Hedges dropped further back, nearly on the sideline, and frequently connected with Gruezo (who, as pointed out by Jason Poon, is dropping between the CB while in possession to help both Hedges and Ziegler). He also gave way for Cannon to get forward. In the next game against the Galaxy, he played a few shorter passes but mainly focused on that connection with Cannon and Pomykal. Finally, when his transformation was complete, against Columbus his passes were more spread out and he got forward multiple times.

I’m not saying any of this should automatically earn him a spot with the national team but his movement and style of passing would fit very nicely into Gregg Berhalter’s expressed idea of his system. Still only 28, it’s a bit surprising he hasn’t been called up since the 2017 Gold Cup. While you could never accuse Hedges of being a BAD passer over the years, a new centerback partnership that relies less on him to scramble and allows him to be more meticulous with his passes has helped show just how effective he can be. Hedges is quietly showing himself to be one of the better centerbacks in Major League Soccer this season, and adding a new tool to help showcase his ability to contribute to the attack makes Dallas even more dangerous.