As the 2021 MLS season season draws near, FC Dallas will begin their preseason preparations. Part of the preseason is determining who the regular game day starters and who will be left on the bench. This series will go position by position on the pitch and analyze the depth chart at each spot.
As a note, this week’s column will look at the three midfield positions most commonly used in Luchi Gonzalez’s most used formation, the 4-3-3: the deepest lying defensive midfielder (the “6”), the box-to-box midfielder (the “8”) and the more attack minded midfielder (the “10”). Many of the club’s midfielders are capable of playing multiple spots, if not all three, but each player listed will be placed in what is their “primary” position and will only be listed one time. Players who could slot in to other spots will be mentioned in the break down but not included on the depth chart itself. On to the depth chart!
1) Thiago Santos
2) Edwin Cerrillo
The most obvious and clear cut choice, the veteran Brazilian Thiago Santos will maintain his starting position as the defensive midfielder in 2021. Santos was very specifically brought in to be a regular starter and try to replace the quality play of Carlos Gruezo, who was sold to FC Augsburg back in summer 2019. Santos was one of the most effective defensive mids in MLS in 2020, consistently among the league leaders in duels won, tackles and ball recoveries. Indeed, ball recovery is far and away Santos’ strongest quality, he is absolutely tenacious in winning the ball back. Santos could still look to improve his consistency, he had a handful of games in 2020 that were well below the standard he set for himself in his better performances, but it is tough to judge players on the crazy 2020 season and, overall, Santos was very, very good for FCD in 2020 and will likely be very, very good in 2021 as well. My only slight concern with Santos is his age. At 31, Santos is still in the prime of his career, but he plays a very physical style in a very physical league and he may need to be rested from time to time to keep him in tip top shape.
Which leads naturally into the other obvious reason Santos was brought in: the mentor the young homegrown midfielders in the FC Dallas squad, and, in particular, to mentor the most similar player on the roster in Edwin Cerrillo. Cerrillo came from relative anonymity and made a number of starts and appearances in the 2019 season, doing enough to get himself to the U20 World Cup with the national team, but after returning from the World Cup (where he didn’t play a single minute), his minutes dropped off significantly and he hardly made an appearance for the first team in 2020, only appearing twice for a total of 17 minutes, down from just under 1000 in 2019. Cerrillo will obviously look to change that in 2021 and his game will undoubtedly continue to improve will learning under a veteran like Santos, but he’ll need to really grab a hold of the opportunities presented to him this season.
1) Bryan Acosta
2) Tanner Tessmann
3) Brandon Servania
Some of you may read this depth chart and call me insane, but let me introduce a few caveats here. One, this article is trying to take an educated guess as to how the FC Dallas staff is looking at the team, not necessarily how I would personally line the team up. Second, Tanner Tessmann is going to miss almost the entire preseason with the U-23 national team in Olympic qualifying. I don’t care how good you are (and Tanner is very, very good), missing that much time with the team is going to have an impact on your spot on the depth chart. And finally, as maligned as Bryan Acosta has been in his time at Dallas, he has spent the better part of one season playing out of position as the 6 and dealt with injuries throughout much of 2020 that limited his effectiveness. I still believe that if the club can get the best out of Acosta, which we unfortunately have not seen a ton of, that he could be a very, very effective player in the midfield.
That being said, Acosta’s position at the top of the depth chart is tenuous at best. Tessmann exploded onto the scene last season, recording 1001 minutes in 19 appearances and playing in both playoff games. He is clearly a massive talent likely bound for bigger and better things than MLS, so it would be nice to get as much out of him as possible before he inevitably departs in the future. Tessmann is also versatile, he is a natural fit to slide into a double pivot if Thiago Santos needs a rest and he can also play in more attacking positions if needed. However, assuming the Olympics actually happen this summer, Tessmann is likely to miss a good chunk of the season in late summer with the national team.
That leads us to the odd man out here, Brandon Servania. To say Servania had a disappointing 2020 season would be an understatement. After going from North Texas SC at the start of 2019 to holding down a starting spot in midfield by the end of 2019, Servania hardly factored in 2020, dropping to 398 minutes from 1118 in 2019. In an effort to get the young midfielder more playing time, he was loaned out to Austrian side SKN St. Polten for the remainder of their season. Servania has not yet appeared or made the bench in Austria yet but that experience will hopefully get him some needed minutes and experience and allow him to come back (likely in May) ready to take any opportunities presented to him in 2021.
Another name not included here because he has not officially been signed is FCD’s first round draft pick Nicky Hernandez, who played with North Texas SC in the second half of 2020. Nicky would likely fall in at the end of the depth chart behind Servania but considering Acosta’s soon expiring contract and Tessmann’s likely exit in the future, Hernandez could end up playing a factor sooner rather than later.
1) Andres Ricaurte
2) Paxton Pomykal
3) Thomas Roberts
To be clear, this position is a bit nebulous for FC Dallas at this point in time. At times, the team plays with a more proper number 10 with a double pivot of more defensive midfielders behind them and at other times, this position plays very similarly to the 8, going from box to box and being expected to do defensive work. Any of these three players could play other positions, Ricarute spent time playing more as an 8 in 2020, Pomykal’s versatility is well known at this point and Roberts has spent time playing on the wing as well.
Ricaurte enters the season in the pole position in this spot for me. In his time with the club in 2020, Ricaurte showed a spark of creativity and passing quality that the team had not really seen since Mauro Diaz departed mid way through the 2018 season. However, it became clear that Ricaurte’s position was not that of a “natural” 10 like Diaz as he preferred to drop deep and dictate play rather than spend a lot of time in and around and 18 yard box. Something that many have posited as an option would be to actually drop Ricaurte to the 8 position and play Paxton Pomykal in this position to take advantage of his work rate and ability on the ball, while allowing Ricarute to play to his strength as a deeper lying midfielder. However, for purposes of this depth chart, we will place Ricaurte and Pomykal in the same position. Ricaurte bumps to the top of the depth chart based on his role in 2020 as well as Pomykal’s ongoing recovery from the surgery that prematurely ended his 2020 season. This is another position that is likely to be in flux in 2021 with Luchi Gonzalez likely to try a lot of different midfield combinations to find the best option. Jesus Ferreira, not included on this depth chart, has also spent significant time playing in this position in 2019 and 2020 and could continue to factor in here as well.
Thomas Roberts is a bit on the outside looking in at this point. Roberts spent most of 2019 and 2020 playing with North Texas SC and by the end of 2020, that level looked a little bit below his talents. Roberts went on a trial with Hibernian FC in Scotland over the winter and was one of the players sent over to Bayern Munich to train as well. With players missing due to national team duty or recovering from injury, Roberts has a chance in preseason to assert himself and push for more significant minutes than he saw in 2020, but he has an uphill battle to climb with the competition in front of him. Don’t be shocked to see Roberts go on loan to the USL Championship before, or shortly after, the start of the MLS season.
How do you feel about the club’s midfield depth going into 2021? What do you feel is the best midfield combination to start the season on April 17th? Let me know in the comments below!
Featured Image: Omar Vega/Dallas Morning News