Hiding Behind Possession: FC Dallas' Youth Experiment / by Cheuk Hei Ho & Jason Poon

by Cheuk Hei Ho & Jason Poon

Data: American Soccer Analysis
Video: Instat Scout

For years, FC Dallas has been lauded for having one of, if not the best, Academy programs in the United States. Dallas has signed the most Homegrown players in the league history (25), with no slowing down in sight. Despite having such a prolific Academy, it wasn’t until recent years that the club started taking full advantage of this system. And when former Academy Director Luchi Gonzalez took over as the head coach,  it was finally go-time for the entire “Play Your Kids” movement. Part of that was by design; who else would know the former Academy players better than Luchi? Part of it was also timing; most of the Academy graduates had spent a significant amount of their formative soccer development years in the Dallas Academy and were ready to make the jump. With Gonzalez at the reign, it only made sense to usher in a youth movement.

When Dallas decides to start five or six of its graduates in MLS this season, it showcases not just its Academy players, but the Academy program as a whole. It says that the FC Dallas Academy is so good, it may be the best way for them to compete. However, playing the kids in real games is different from growing them behind closed doors. It means experimentation. It also means trial and error. It means risk.

Risk doesn’t deter Gonzalez though. He doesn’t just let the the kids play. he wants them to dominate. Under him, FC Dallas average 537 passes per game this season, the 11th most in MLS since 2013. They had never attempted more than 480 passes per game previously and make ~14% more passes per game than they did last year. Gonzalez has revamped Dallas into a possession machine.   

The possession dominance hides Dallas’ true identity. Intentionally or not, Gonzalez’s team has relied on the counter-attack to create chances: 4.4% of their shots come from it, the fourth highest among MLS teams since 2016. Only Chicago (2016), Atlanta United (2018), and New York City FC (2019) create more shots from the counter-attack than FC Dallas do. Atlanta United last year were known to break the opponent with the counter while holding the possession at the same time. Michael Cox from ESPN recently characterized Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea as a different breed of the possession teams that uses it to bait the opponent out from the defensive block. Gonzalez may be operating the possession from the same manuel, or he is using it to mask some weaknesses. Either way, Dallas has been able to hide its risky youth experiment with this newfound possession dominance.

POSSESSION AS A LURE

Gonzalez’s basic idea for the build-up is similar even though Dallas has shuffled between a 433 and a 4231; the back-four switches to a back-three when they develop the offense from the back. The third partner of the back-three is either one of the full-backs or the central-midfielders, depending on the situation. The three midfielders have similar responsibilities in the first few games, but now Paxton Pomykal has taken a more advanced position compared to others, hence Dallas’ formation has looked like a 4-2-3-1.

When FC Dallas control the ball, they look to re-initiate the attack through the back line when they encounter any sort of resistance, or no resistance at all:

The goal is to keep passing the ball backward and luring the opponent out from its defensive block. Their keeper has taken up a new role for ball recirculation; he plays ~6.8% of all of Dallas’ passes, the seventh highest in MLS this season. That number amounts to an 11% increase from last season. Only Salt Lake, Vancouver, San Jose, and Minnesota United has increased their keeper’s passing more than Dallas has done from last year.

When the ball reaches the keeper the opponent should have already committed to pressuring Dallas’ build-up, signaling that its deep block is dissolved. There is now space to exploit, and Dallas looks to transition into the attack immediately with vertical long ball, usually hit by the full-back or Reto Ziegler:

For a team that dominates short passes (89% of total passes, the 4th most in MLS since 2016), Dallas uses a lot of long vertical direct passes (a pass than spans >40 yards with an angle <30 degrees) from the initial third to bypass the opponent’s midfield; 3.6% of all of their open-play’s passes reaching the final third come from this type of passes, the 13th highest since 2016.

Cox might have made this type of tactics seem sexier than it actually is; like parking-the-bus, it has the same goal of drawing the opponent into one’s own territory in order to create space on the other end. The differences comes in the means of the bait: one gives up the ball while the other doesn’t let go of it.

Dallas’ players still need time to grasp this tactic; Dallas sits within top 1st percentile in the number of shots created through the counter-attack, but it also lies in the bottom 15th percentile in the Expected Goal (xG) per shot from the same category. More works need to be done.

A FIXED GRID WITH FLEXIBLE PLAYERS

Possession dominance usually draws praise from critics. Bobby Warshaw from mlssoccer.com has branded the flexibility in Dallas’ midfield as a “the triple pivot”. He was spot-on, except Dallas’ system extends to most other players, not just the midfielders:

Imagine Dallas’ players have a set of fixed grid coordinates around the ball where the closest players have to fill. Every time the ball moves to a new position, multiple players will move close to the ball handler to offer multiple passing lanes. The positions left by these players will be filled by the closest teammates, resulting in a chain of positional exchanges.  Most players, from the full-back to the inverted winger, follow this rule. The system is easy to implement because the trigger is straightforward to grasp; as long as one player moves out of his position, the unfilled position becomes the trigger for the other player. It gives flexibility, and hence unpredictability, since every player can fill that position if he is close by.

OFFENSE IS A WORK IN PROGRESS

They may be able to play lots of quick one-twos, but Dallas’ offense lacks power; Gonzalez’s team averages fewer than 35% of their total passes in the opponent half. No team, not a single one in MLS since 2013, has attempted fewer than 37% of their passes in the opponent half. The constant backward passing/luring may have skewed the number, but Dallas isn’t creating enough from their possession dominance: after 9 games, its 1.24 xG created per game is the 6th fewest in MLS this season.

Various factors contribute to Dallas’ underwhelming offensive performance. The luring from the back requires a quick transition that features the inherently inaccurate long pass. The problem worsens with Jesus Ferreira now starting as the striker; having attempted only two headers per game. Among all qualified strikers, only Nemanja Nikolic in 2017 attempted fewer headers than Ferreira does in the past four seasons. They rely on the inaccurate long ball and they don’t have any aerial assurance.

Dallas’ focus on keeping the possession also hurts their ball progression. They constantly maintain a “covering pass receiver” behind the ball handler to allow for the ball recirculation:

Sometimes it seems that Dallas’ players have become over reliant on these backward passes, as only 55% of their passes in the opponent’s half move forward, which is the 7th fewest in the league since 2016. Dallas’ players are so used to these short, backward, and risk-free passes that they don’t attempt enough penetrative ones. Worse, they are not careful enough when they play from the back; Dallas concedes ~0.32 xG per game directly from its misplaced passes in the own half, the ninth highest in MLS this season. The huge number of passes, the carelessness with the ball, and the inability to penetrate the opponent make a self-harming combination. Dallas’ offense remains a work-in-progress.

A POROUS MIDFIELD

Just like the offense, Dallas’ defense also needs a lot of trials and errors. It concedes 1.48 xG per game, which puts them squarely in the middle of the pack. Ziegler has been a rock at the back, but their defense has significant structural issues; Dallas allows 23.8% of its opponent’s total passes playing in its defensive third, the 7th most in the league since 2016. A major problem is Dallas’ inability to prevent the opponent from passing into the final third through the midfield: this season, Dallas’ opponent is able to make ~71% of its passes from the mid-third to Dallas’ defensive third, again the 7th highest in the past four seasons.

Dallas’ defensive problem comes mainly from its first line. Whether they play in the 4-2-3-1 or the 4-3-3, Gonzalez prefers to defend in the 4-5-1 with two defensive lines (the “1” striker doesn’t make a line, but Paxton Pomykal occasionally moves out from the midfield). The wingers drop to the midfield to form the first line. Two issues combine to make this line function like a coarse strainer:

Dallas’ first defensive line has strong ball-orientation. The ball works like a magnet to them,  but while the players react so quickly to the ball, they rarely close down the opponent’s ball handler properly:

They will take a second or two to move toward the ball handler after he receives the pass, or they will stop a couple of yards away from him. When you approach the player these ways, you don’t close him down, because you apply zero defensive pressure. For example, even though the opponent averages only ~4 yards per carry (the 11th lowest this season), it also has ~2.8 seconds per carry (the seventh highest this season). Therefore, even the opponent’s ball handler doesn’t penetrate Dallas’ defense through carry, he also has enough time to pick the best possible pass. Ball orientation and ball watching make a bad press, and pressing badly is worse than not pressing at all.  Their players also often spread too far away from each other and don’t move synchronously. A disastrous defense is in the making. These systematic flaws have no easy fix. Only time, practice, and experiment will cure them.

MORE THAN JUST DALLAS

In many ways possession dominance gives you a chance to work through things. It buys you time with the ball and it takes away the risk from the opponent. But the opponent is not giving in to Dallas anymore; Dallas is making fewer and fewer passes per game as the season progresses:

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The opponent is also increasing its pressing against Dallas:

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The novelty has gone and the opponent can see through the possession mask. The most difficult part of the season has arrived. In the short term, there will be growing pains for FC Dallas, Gonzalez, and his young players as they navigate the trenches together. Dallas as an organization have shown to be very patient as a developmental club, but what is uncharted is that Dallas has a first time coach trying to handle this tricky part of the season with many first time professionals. Whether they have the mental fortitude to get over this hump is unclear, but this uncertainty would have been expected for such an ambitious project.

In the long term though, Dallas' youth experiment will be a big win. Many of their graduates have already shown that they are worthy of significant MLS minutes. Pomykal has potential to be a star. Reggie Cannon, Edwin Cerrillo, and Jesse Gonzalez could also grow into regular members of USMNT. Barring unexpected events, these players can only improve as they gain experience. The risky youth experiment will be good not only for Dallas but also the whole country.