It was April Fool’s Day but FC Dallas wasn’t joking around when they announced the departure of Brazilian midfielder Thiago Santos after only a single season at the club.

There have been mixed opinions within the fan base about Santos’ departure, with some fans recognizing that it may have been a good deal monetarily while others have pointed out the club’s inability to properly reinvest in the club in the form of new players from recent sales.

This article will not attempt to land on one side of that debate but rather will focus on the on-field impact of Santos’ departure.

Big Opportunity for Homegrown Players

In terms of sheer numbers in midfield, Santos’ departure doesn’t have a massive impact, FCD has a huge number of midfielders, many of whom are homegrown players who will have a major opportunity to step into a much larger role now that Santos is not there taking a starting spot. Santos was set to be the regular starter in the defensive midfield position, likely only not starting due to injury, suspension or rest.

With him out of the picture, Luchi Gonzalez needs to find a new number 6 quickly and it is likely that the player who actually wears number 6 is going to get the biggest crack at it. Edwin Cerrillo is the only other true defensive midfielder on the roster and, in terms of playstyle, makes the most sense as a plug-and-play option to replace Santos. Cerrillo had an excellent first half of the 2019 season before fading off after the U20 World Cup and then barely made an appearance in 2020. He’ll hope to bounce back in a massive way in 2021 and has reportedly had a very strong preseason.

Tanner Tessmann is the other homegrown player that stands to benefit the most from Santos’ departure.

Although Tessmann has typically played as more of a box-to-box midfielder, he is capable of playing in a more defensive role and could wind up playing alongside either Edwin Cerrillo or Bryan Acosta in more of a double pivot in midfield as opposed to the single-pivot often used with Santos. This would see Dallas revert to a look that they used down the stretch in 2019 in which Bryan Acosta and Brandon Servania were often paired in a midfield double pivot, with Jesus Ferreira playing in front of them as an attacking midfielder.

Potential Loss of Defensive Stability

The aforementioned Acosta/Servania pairing used down the stretch in 2019 was relatively effective going forward but struggled defensively at times. This would be the biggest concern for Luchi Gonzalez regarding the loss of Santos. Statistically, Santos was one of the best midfielders in the league defensively, he was among league leaders in duals won, tackles and recoveries.

Even outside of statistics, Santos was a joy to watch defensively, his game reading is as good as one would expect for a 31-year-old veteran who has played at the highest levels of South American soccer, and his tenacity in winning the ball back was greatly appreciated by FCD fans.

If Edwin Cerrillo is able to lock down the spot as the single pivot, he has some big shoes to fill and is likely to go through some growing pains. Luckily for Cerrillo and the other midfielders, the Dallas backline is as solid as ever, potentially even improving upon their solidity with the addition of Spanish defender Jose Antonio Martinez for 2021.

To add additional stability defensively, Luchi Gonzalez may elect to play Cerrillo in a double pivot, pairing him with one of the many 8s on the FCD roster, with Acosta or Tessmann the most likely candidates. If Cerrillo is unable to impress enough to lock down the job, a double pivot is a virtual guarantee, with Acosta/Tessmann being the most likely pairing, though Brandon Servania could factor in once he returns from his loan in Austria and rookie Nicky Hernandez may emerge as a dark horse candidate as well.

Formation Changes

This topic pairs well with the previous topic as we’ve already discussed the potential for FCD to line up in more of a double pivot with a 4-2-3-1 as opposed to the 4-3-3 typically deployed under Luchi Gonzalez, but in Luchi’s search for defensive stability, something he places a clear focus on, he may continue to pursue a three-man backline in a 3-4-3, used in last week’s friendly against San Antonio FC, or a 3-5-2 formation. Ostensibly, using a back three would allow Luchi to deploy a less defensively focused midfield and would take some pressure off of a young homegrown like Edwin Cerrillo or Tanner Tessmann.

Asking a 20-year-old to be the defensive fulcrum of the team is a big ask and it is no knock on either player to question if they would be up for that over the full course of a 34 game season. I suspect that we will see more tinkering and changing of formations from Luchi Gonzalez in 2021 than we did in either 2019 or 2020.

Final Thoughts

There’s no question that losing a player like Thiago Santos will have an impact on FC Dallas in 2021. Any team losing a veteran presence of Santos’ quality is going to feel that throughout the team and truthfully, it is unlikely that FCD will be able to completely replace what Santos brought to the table. However, this is a massive opportunity for some of FCD’s homegrown players to take a major step in their careers and become fixtures within the club and within MLS as a whole, putting themselves in the shop window worldwide. As we’ve seen in the last year, the biggest clubs in the world are paying attention to FC Dallas and especially to their homegrown players.

As unfortunate as it is to lose a player of Santos’ quality, this is what this club is supposed to be all about, giving young players from the area a real opportunity to establish themselves.

How do you think Luchi Gonzalez will go about replacing Thiago Santos?
Who will get the start in midfield to open the season on April 17th?

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