The 2023 season for FC Dallas has come to a close and now the offseason is underway. We’ll kick off the offseason by looking back at the season and grading each player on the team. This week, we’ll start with the goalkeepers and defenders.
Maarten Paes – A
The Dutch goalkeeper was one of the best shot stoppers in MLS in 2023 and has a strong case for being the team MVP. Pretty much every game it seemed like Paes made a massive save to either preserve a lead, draw or keep Dallas in games. Dallas did not concede a lot of chances in 2023 but Paes’ ability to make big saves in big moments was huge for the Burn. His major weakness continues to be playing out of the back with his feet, largely on longer passes, which tend to be somewhat aimless at times, though he certainly isn’t helped by FCD’s overall lack of height and ability to win aerial duels. Off the field, Paes has embraced Dallas and especially Dallas sports like few foreign players ever have. He will inevitably end up back in Europe at some point (he’s still only 25 years old) but Dallas fans should enjoy him while he’s here.
Jimmy Maurer – B
The veteran keeper only made a handful of appearances in 2023, one in FCD’s single US Open Cup game and 5 other games replacing Paes for injury and suspension reasons. This gives me a decent opportunity to mention that these grades are judged on a curve based on each player and their expectations for the season. Maurer’s appearances weren’t spectacular, but as the backup keeper, he stepped in when he was called upon and performed at a solid level. Maurer’s shot stopping abilities have dropped off a bit with age but he is still solid at organizing his defense and his distribution is quite strong. Maurer is reaching a stage in his career where the next year is up in the air. I’d love to see him return in 2024 as a sort of player/coach and occupy the 3rd goalkeeper spot to make room for Antonio Carrera to be the backup to Paes.
Antonio Carrera – B
The young homegrown has not yet made his first appearance with the first team but he got a bunch of playing time with North Texas SC in MLS Next Pro and played at the U20 World Cup and the Pan-American games, the latter of which he put in a couple of man of the match level performances, most notably against Brazil. The obvious question for Carrera is where things go from here with him. Spending more time playing at North Texas wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, but he certainly needs to be playing. It would be great to see Carrera take up the mantle of the second goalkeeper, playing in place of Paes when needed, but that may result in less playing time than you’d like to see for a young goalkeeper. A loan to USL Championship sounds great but that doesn’t guarantee consistent playing time and also forces Dallas to find another goalkeeper to keep around in case of emergencies. Carrera will be interesting to watch over the offseason and next year’s preseason.
Nkosi Tafari – A
After a 2022 season where Tafari spent the season primarily as the first option off the bench behind Matt Hedges and Jose Martinez, Tafari finally took the step forward (and was allowed to take that step forward by the coaching staff) that fans have been looking for since he broke through in 2021. Tafari set new career highs in appearances (30) and starts (27) and became the clear first choice center back at the club. He was probably the most consistent performer over the course of the season, rarely letting his high quality of play drop and regularly being a shining spot in some of Dallas’ poor team performances.
Tafari is elite in the air and I still have not witnessed anyone in MLS beat him for pace in his three seasons playing for the first team. His passing often times kicked off dangerous attacks for Dallas and he added goals in crucial moments, scoring an equalizer against San Jose that ended up having a massive impact on the table at the end of the season, and a last second winner against Austin. Tafari looks set to lead the backline for years to come. Dallas should give him a raise and lock him down for the next 4-5 seasons.
Sebastien Ibeagha – B
One of the biggest questions coming into the season was how Dallas would replace the immense and legendary presence of Matt Hedges in defense. The answer to that question ended up being Sebastien Ibeagha, which raised a lot of eyebrows initially. Prior to this season, Ibeagha had typically been the third center back for his previous teams, NYCFC and LAFC. Although he started the MLS Cup Final in 2022 and played the full 120 minutes, Ibeagha had previously never started more than 18 games in a season, with that season coming way back in 2018.
Despite some shakiness early in the season, Ibeagha ended up being incredibly dependable for the Burn in 2023, smashing his previous career highs for appearances (31) and starts (26) while also scoring his first goal in MLS and adding his first assist. The 31 year old was seemingly the only player on the roster who didn’t spend any time out for injury over the course of the season as well, a huge boon during an injury ravaged season.
Let’s be clear, Ibeagha is not Matt Hedges. He is a very solid defender, strong in aerial challenges and one of the better center backs in MLS in terms of clearances statistically. His one major issue is on the ball. Ibeagha typically elects to play relatively safe passes and stepping out of that comfort zone can lead to some dodgy results. He is capable of pulling off an impressive long switch or a threaded pass into a forward, but he is also prone to a wayward pass and often times looks shaky under pressure. This was, unfortunately, exemplified in FCD’s biggest game of the season, the decisive game 3 against Seattle, where his poor pass out of the back, coupled with an uncharacteristic lack of effort to recover after his mistake, led to Albert Rusnak’s game winning goal.
All that said, Ibeagha has ended up being a fantastic signing and one poor moment should not overshadow a very strong season. Ideally, Ibeagha would move into the third center back position, allowing him to deputize for Tafari or a new starter when needed, but another season of him being a starter alongside Tafari would not be a major issue.
Jose Martinez – C+
The big Spaniard followed up a strong 2022 season in which he appeared and started in almost every game with a subpar 2023. He only made 16 starts, owing to recurring injuries and falling out of the lineup by the final third of the season. Martinez did notch his first MLS goal and first MLS assist in 2023 but the same issues fans have seen with Martinez since he joined in 2021 were there again. When temperatures ramped up in the summer, Martinez’s endurance issues returned with the center back rarely able to manage the full 90 minutes. His lack of agility and foot speed was once again on display at various points, most notably against Nashville SC where he was screwed into the ground by Hany Mukhtar for the second consecutive season.
Martinez is sort of an inverse of Sebastien Ibeagha. His strengths are in possession, particularly in his passing. But ultimately those strengths did not outweigh his weaknesses and by the end of the year he was out of the lineup entirely, no longer even coming on to help close out games. It seems highly unlikely that Martinez’s option will be picked up for 2024.
Amet Korca – C
The young defender was brought in from the Croatian league as a low-risk, potentially high reward 4th CB signing and that is pretty much exactly the role he performed. Korca spent the majority of the season playing with North Texas SC, where he looked good but never really great. He did make a couple starts for the first team, a solid outing against DC United followed by a disaster in Colorado where he was awkwardly deployed as a right center back/right back role in a bizarre tactic from Estevez and his staff. Most of his other appearances were late in games where there was little impact one way or another. Korca has an option for 2024 which seems very unlikely to be picked up.
Marco Farfan – B+
Farfan followed up a fantastic debut season in 2022 with another very strong season. It is actually remarkable how much his 2023 mirrored 2022. In MLS, he made 34 appearances with 1 goal and 3 assists in both 2022 and 2023. His minutes tally was almost the same, with him playing just 27 fewer minutes in 2023. He is basically a written in ink starter at left back and is easily one of the best defensive left backs in all of MLS. The main concern with Farfan is wearing down by the end of the season. That was something seen in 2022 and was part of why the club got Sam Junqua to be a dependable and solid backup for him, but Farfan was still relied upon heavily over the course of the season and by season’s end, it was noticeable. Farfan still played at a high level but made a couple noticeable and uncharacteristic errors down the stretch, most notably conceding a penalty in the first playoff game against Seattle before injuries kept him out of the final decisive game. But overall, another successful season for Farfan and he continues to be a player to build around into the future.
Sam Junqua – B+
The Cal graduate made the somewhat rare jump from Houston to Dallas in the offseason as the last signing Dallas made ahead of the season. Ostensibly just brought in to be an occasional deputy for Marco Farfan at left back, Junqua ended up being one of the biggest surprises of the season, making 25 appearances, a career high, and scoring 2 goals. Junqua was deployed almost as a Ryan Hollingshead-esque utility player, spending time playing left back, right back, center back, left wing and right wing over the course of the season. He’s also perhaps the best value on the roster, sitting at just $85k in salary. Junqua became a fan favorite quickly for his constant running and hustle and his contract option will almost certainly be picked up for 2024, and a new contract should really be drawn up to go along with it.
Ema Twumasi – B
For the third straight season, Dallas looked to replace Ema Twumasi at right back and for the third straight season, Ema Twumasi was the starting right back at the end of the season. Twumasi has quietly become one of the longest tenured players on the roster, only Paxton Pomykal, Jesus Ferreira and Jimmy Maurer have been with the team longer, and has developed into a very steady and solid presence at right back. For a former winger, Twumasi’s defensive ability is perhaps most impressive and has become the strongest part of his game. His ball retention is another main strength, Twumasi is a strong dribbler and very good at shielding the ball from opposing players. But the big downside for Ema is on the attacking side. He did finally score his first goal for the Burn in the regular season finale in Carson, but, on the whole, has struggled in the final third, particularly in finding good crosses. He often elects to go backwards and not attack defenders, but it is also hard to say how much of this comes from coaching instructions. Twumasi has one more guaranteed year on his contract and with Geovane Jesus set to miss the first half of the season recovering from his ACL injury, he’ll be an important presence in the team once again.
Geovane Jesus – B
The Brazilian U22 initiative signing was Dallas’ “big” signing of the offseason, expected to be a big improvement at right back over Nanu, who was expected to be the starter in 2022 but largely disappointed. Jesus immediately displayed some pretty insane athleticism, watching him sky for headers is extremely impressive, and his willingness and ability to put in crosses was a welcome change of pace from right back. But Jesus seemed to struggle to cope with the challenges of MLS. He would often put in strong performances at home before dropping stinkers on the road, perhaps most notably away to Sporting Kansas City where he basically watched one of the most dangerous attackers in the last half decade of MLS, Daniel Salloi, walk right into the box and place a shot past Maarten Paes. But as the season went on, Jesus seemed to be adapting well to MLS and his performances improved. Sadly, he popped his ACL in a training session in September, prematurely ending his season and keeping him out until midway through 2024. When he does come back, he’ll certainly factor in but right now all his focus will be on recovery and rehab.
Collin Smith – B
The young homegrown spent the majority of 2023 on loan at Birmingham Legion in the USL Championship but did also make his first couple of appearances for the first team, being recalled from loan during FCD’s mid-summer injury crisis and starting a couple games. Smith had a very strong season in USL, largely locking down the right back spot for a solid Birmingham team throughout the year. He made 29 appearances, scoring 2 goals and adding an assist. Quite impressive work for a 19 year old playing at that level for the first time.
With Dallas, Smith started games against Sporting Kansas City, where he was really thrown into the fire and asked to defend against one of the best wingers in the league in Daniel Salloi, and Austin FC, where he actually played on the wing in what was really Dallas’ most injury ravaged single game of the season. Smith did not really excel in either game but he also did not look at all out of place, especially considering he was on short term recalls on his loan. Smith has a contract option for 2024, with Geovane Jesus set to miss a significant part of the season, Smith will likely look to slot in as the backup right back to Ema Twumasi. Don’t be shocked to see he and the club work out a new contract after his option is picked up.
Herbert Endeley – B
Dallas’ first round SuperDraft pick from Indiana was expected to play pretty much exclusively for North Texas SC in 2023. A winger in college, he was next in line in FCD’s long line of winger-to-fullback conversion projects, but due to FCD’s big injury issues in the middle part of the season, Endeley ended up making eight MLS appearances with two starts. Endeley played a bit of right back, a bit of right wing and even a game starting as a striker (that horrible Austin game). Due to the circumstances of why he was playing, it is tough to properly judge Endeley’s performances, but, in my opinion, he performed admirably given those circumstances and showed a lot of quality and directness in his play.
In MLS Next Pro with North Texas SC, Endeley looked close to dominant. He breezed past defenders easily, showing his pace and dribbling ability. He ended up tallying 4 goals and 2 assists in his 17 games played, especially impressive when many of these appearances came as a right back. With a bit of a logjam at right back, it is hard to say if Dallas will end up picking up Endeley’s contract option for 2024. His contract is very cheap but he may prefer to pursue opportunities elsewhere, perhaps in USL Championship where he would likely shine. Personally, I’d like to see him get another year but he’ll be one to watch with the upcoming roster decisions.
Isaiah Parker – C-
It was not the season anyone envisioned for the Generation Adidas and former first round draft pick from St Louis. After a season spent playing for North Texas SC in 2022, Parker spent preseason with the first team before the decision was made for him, like Collin Smith, to spent a season on loan in USL Championship with San Antonio FC. It seemed like a great opportunity for Parker to get much needed minutes at left back as his transition from a high flying and electric winger at the college level to left back continued. Unfortunately for Parker, he spent the majority of the season battling injuries and rarely got on the field for San Antonio. He only made nine appearances for SAFC, with just three of those being starts, for a paltry 266 total minutes. Parker, as a GA signing, has a guaranteed three year deal, so he has one last season at FCD, but it is hard to see where he factors into the team in 2024.
Next week we’ll continue the season review with the midfielders and forwards. Stay tuned!
Featured Image: FC Dallas