Gonzalez eyes ambitious future for FC Dallas in 2020 and beyond
February 06, 2020
WHEN LOOKING at the current landscape of the U.S. national team and U.S youth national teams at all age groups, on of the most noticeable aspects is the number of players that are either with or have come out of FC Dallas or its academy.
While also being a hub of development, the organization has had success on the field with FC Dallas having qualified for the playoffs in 2019 and its second team, North Texas SC having won USL League One in its inaugural season.
One of the key figures behind this rise has been Luchi Gonzalez who is entering into his second season as FC Dallas head coach in 2020 after previously serving as the club’s academy director – where he oversaw the development of many of the players who now feature for the U.S. national teams.
ASN recently spoke at length with Gonzalez about the team and its philosophy of developing young players.
BRIAN SCIARETTA FOR ASN: And how do you feel where the team stands at this point in pre-season? Are you liking what you're seeing as us?
LUCHI GONZALEZ: Preseason is to try things and to push the group to the next step and to try new things. We kept the good majority of the core group, obviously. I think we were smart about adding areas where we need depth, maturity, some experience. But we're still a young team. We still have a lot of fire and a point to prove this year. Losing to Seattle was hard. But I'm proud of the effort but now I think it's up to us now to have a higher standard of each other to push for more. We want to earn a playoff game at home. That's our objective: can we make a playoff run at home?
ASN: And I know that last year making the playoffs was a close call. How important was that for the team to make it? What did it mean in terms of giving young players confidence and momentum heading into this season? Could things have been vastly different if you didn't make the playoffs?
GONZALEZ: I think we were above the playoff line most the season. We could have clinched against Colorado. We didn't and learned the hard lesson there. Then we were able to take care of business at home. Some ups and downs emotionally but we have to just keep believing in ourselves and believing in our philosophy of how we want to play the game. The foundation is there of us having the ball. Possession is important for us. And I think we got better as the season went on - to be more efficient in the last third with service and runs in the box, putting away chances.
Cobra really stepped it up for us at the end of the season. Having that from the beginning, Cobra already this preseason has been that. We just got our guys back from the national team duty. We just had our session with them in training and the quality of the training was one of our best so far in the preseason. We want to have a high level of training, whether or not we're missing guys.
ASN: Last year was your first as a first team head coach. What did you learn about yourself and your approach to the game? How are you personally and as a coach different now than you were twelve months ago?
GONZALEZ: The seasons helped me. I had my foundation from the academy. I had my mentors with Oscar, Schllas [Hyndman], ownership, mentored me and our philosophy of development and building from within. But winning and losing games is going to teach you the most lessons at the highest level. My ultimate responsibility is to lead this team to championships. This season is an opportunity to take last season and find areas that we need improve. We need to be better earning points away, not just at home. So that needs to be a clear adjustment.
ASN: And how critical was the was the progress of North Texas SC in 2019 to the overall growth of Dallas. And finally, to build off that, what are the remaining challenges you think the organization needs to make to help you get to where you want to be and helping improve on your developmental pipeline?
GONZALEZ: The second team addition was an internal project that started four or five years ago where we did analysis and found that it is a really hard job for academy players to make it to the first team. We're not afraid to play young players, but sometimes they need another step between the academy and first team. The addition of the second team has been very successful in a short amount of time. We believe in steps. We didn't go into the [USL] Championship. We went into [USL] League One. The ultimate responsibility of our second team is not to win the USL championship. We always play to win. But the ultimate goal of the second team is to get guys into the first team.
Players like Edwin Cerrillo, like Brandon Servania, John Nelson - fthese are guys that got valuable, valuable minutes with our second team that helped them maintain fitness, build confidence, build motivation, stay in rhythm to be more first-team ready. I would say the reason Servania had a successful U-20 World Cup and then was able to be a big piece for us in the second half of the season - a big, big credit to that is our second team.
What's next? The league is growing. It's becoming more competitive. We need to lose more games with our second team so we learn harder lessons. In our first year, to win the league, it's a great positive. But we need to be out of our comfort zone more, so we keep finding solutions.
And then here at the first team level, our goal ultimately is to have a player go through our steps with the academy team, the second team, the first team. Pepi is one example. And one day a player in those steps can eventually reach an opportunity where there's a transfer and from a business standpoint it is fantastic for the club, fantastic for the player, and we're ready to have the next player develop in that same position.
I'm not afraid to lose a player. I believe in the team and developing talent. I don't see our model being Real Madrid or Bayern Munich. Our model is an Ajax or a Porto. We believe we can compete for championships, but with development going hand-in-hand with that.
ASN: When you were the academy director, your group was never far from the first team. Often times you trained at the same time and your key players trained with the first team. Now that you are the first team manager, how close is the academy to the first team? Is it just as close?
GONZALEZ: I believe we've had a lot integration. For example, I have had a lot of second team players that have come through our academy training with us in the first team. And then we've got a lot of our academy players, 17 to 19, training with the second team. It's kind of been a vacuum in that way. And even sometimes you've got a U-17 or a U-19 player that we need. They don't necessarily have to go to the second team. It's dynamic. We ask that our players be on their toes. At any moment they could be with any age group, any team. And they need to adapt and make the best of that opportunity. We all train at the same time so there's a smooth schedule in terms of allowing us to integrate.
ASN: For a big portion of your young core, you had a bunch of players and 2019 was either their first season with the first-team or it was their first full season at that level - Edwin Cerrillo, Brandon Servania, Paxton Pomykal, Jesus Ferreira. What's next for those guys? How do you raise the bar and then how do you avoid the sophomore slump?
GONZALEZ: When these guys joined us a few days ago [from the U.S. camp], there was no big celebration. It was just a quick hug and a congrats. I'm looking to the next step. These are steps. We're not too emotional. There's no party about anything. Let's recognize that it's important that you reach this step but you need to take the next one. That's battling.
I already feel the boys here are humble, wanting to work. We had to we have to shut them down yesterday to give them a proper rest. And they were giving me the eye saying - "coach, we want to train." I love that. I want that fight. But we need to be smart, professional about our decisions - keep them on their feet and making sure they know this is just another day of many and there's going to be ups and downs. Then, over 20-30 years, you can look back over a body of work and be proud and have moments you can celebrate. But we don't have time for that. Let's keep working.
ASN: It was a crazy six weeks for Jesus Ferreira. Citizenship, the USMNT call-up, FIFA clearance, deciding to represent the U.S. team, his first cap, now preseason. How did you see him handle that series of events in quick succession and what did it mean for you to see him get that start?
GONZALEZ: I am very proud of him. I know first-hand coaching him at the different age groups, how much he suffered - not being able to go to national team camps, missing out on the U-17 World Cup, the U-20 World Cup. He was that player that was going to compete with Josh Sargent with the 2000's but he couldn't get it official with citizenship. But he's been super mature. His father plays pro in Colombia. He's like the man of the house with his younger brothers, his mom, his grandmother, at the house. He's had to really grow up quickly and mature.
For him to take advantage of the opportunities over the past year, I'm not surprised - but now it's about the next step and doing more and working even harder, because now he's a scouted player. He's the player that opposition wants to shut down. Now there's an expectation at the national team level. But he has a heart of gold and he wants to keep getting better and he listens. I see him handling it in a mature way and not being a victim of whatever happened in the past that was hard for him at the youth national team level.
And I think his first U.S. game was very positive. He was really smart with his movement and build-up play. He has a very good, tight, touch. He was good in combos. Good in holding the ball so the team can advance forward.
ASN: On the younger stage, last year you introduced Thomas Roberts and Ricardo Pepi into the first team during limited moments and they got their first taste of the first-team. What's next for them as they continue to make that transition from youth team player to first-team player?
GONZALEZ: They're obviously still young. They haven't even reached their potential physically yet. Yeah. You have another player like Dante Sealy as well. It's just about supporting them, pushing them, making sure they're not comfortable, but always making sure that they're getting competition in training and getting games.
This is one of the biggest resources we have now with our second teams - making sure no matter how our young players are doing, we're going to support them with games. They need games. In those games, they've gotta take advantage of those opportunities - whether it's five minutes with the first team, 90 minutes with the first team or 90 minutes with the second team.
You even having cases, where maybe a player that needs to be on loan, maybe with a club in our partnership in Europe. But we've talked about this potential with Bayern Munich. It's kind like what we did with Chris Richards and they end up buying him. So we have to be dynamic in how we support the players in different ways and be flexible. But I think we've got a pathway now to do that. It's all growing and it's all it's all connected. And I think as long as we're caring for the well-being of the player on an off the field, we're going to help them reach their potential and their potential hopefully is helping this club win an MLS Cup one day.
ASN: Reggie Cannon made huge strides like last year, has been a starter for multiple seasons, and is now breaking into the national team. What are the next steps and benchmarks for him? Is he the type of player that you worry, maybe not worry because you say you welcome it, but it could be the subject of rumors about interest in foreign clubs?
GONZALEZ: Reggie is a great example of coming through the academy, having a semester in college, committing to us before going to college to be a first team player. That's another pathway sometimes. Then having a rookie season, that wasn't easy. He had to learn a lot and not play, fight, learn, and observe. That was a challenging first season for Reggie. Then in the second year, he started to really grab hold of his position and the demands of the first team level.
The experience with me and the staff last year was positive in terms of his desire and his commitment to keep learning - to be a great example for these players in the locker room and also be humble. I'm not surprised by his progress in the national team now and showing that maturity there.
The whole thing about international interest. I've been hearing that even before I coached him in the first team. And all I know is Reggie an FC Dallas player today, is committed to the club and he's doing everything he can day by day to help this club. If that leads to him being overseas one day and like it's good for the club and good for Reggie, then, of course, I'd be proud.
ASN: Finally, how proud are you when you look back on 2019 and see the presence FC Dallas has had on the U-17, U-20, U-23, and now the full national team. Each of those teams has almost always had multiple FC Dallas players at all times. It's footprint on U.S. teams has been unique.
GONZALEZ: Absolutely. Very proud. Being an academy director was a great experience for me. Being an academy coach was a great experience for me. It helped mold me as a man, as a husband, as a father, and I had some great mentors in that process.
All these young players on youth national teams now, I remember them when they were there were U-9 or U-10. It's all a process. A lot of them have been surprises. That is the beauty of development. You get some early developers and have hype, when they're ten, eleven, twelve years old. And all of a sudden there's a player that was physically not developing, but he kept working and he has good technique, makes good decisions. And now that player hits his stride physically. Now he's a relevant player in the youth national team system. I've seen that happen so many times.
Everybody is getting better. All the academies are getting better. They're all improving and they're investing... We have to keep trying to find creative ways to be innovative and lead... Winning an MLS Cup for the Hunt family and for our players, people and our fans, that's my number one dream. My second dream is that we have five or six FC Dallas products in a World Cup squad playing in a World Cup. That would be phenomenal. When you look at Spain or Germany, you see a lot of representation of Bayern Munich or Real Madrid or Barcelona. I want us to be one of those clubs as well in terms of representation on the senior national level.