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 look at the midfielders and forwards.
Asier Illarramendi – A
One word describes the former Real Sociedad and Real Madrid man: class. I’ve been watching FC Dallas regularly since 2014 and Illarra is the most talented and skillful player I’ve seen play for the Burn. Looking back through the history of the team, he has to rank, at least, in the top 5 of most skillful players to wear the shirt. A bit of an out of nowhere signing, Illarra debuted after Leagues Cup (boy it would have been nice to have him against Miami, huh?) and immediately became not just a starter, but the fulcrum of the entire team. It was actually remarkable how quickly the entire squad turned to him and began to play through him. Illarra isn’t a particularly physical player, but his positioning and game reading instincts are simply off the charts. His touches and passes are effortless. The only real concerns are being able to hold up over the course of a whole season at age 34 and a slight lack of pace, but, make no mistake about it, this is a massively important signing and a player who will be massive in 2024. No question about it, Dallas must pick up his option.
Alan Velasco – B
The young Argentinean is a tough one to rate in 2023. Prior to the summer, Velasco was having what anyone would describe as a disappointing season. Playing largely on the left wing in the 4-3-3, Velasco struggled to create goals and assists and seemed to have stagnated, if not taken a step backward, from his play in his first MLS season in 2022. On the wing, defenders in MLS seemed to have largely gotten his number and Velasco would come inside to find the ball more and more often. With injuries and international callups as the summer wore on, more and more was put on Velasco’s shoulders and it increasingly looked like he couldn’t handle the load.
Then Leagues Cup happened and Nico Estevez and his staff made a slight tactical shift, moving Velasco into the midfield to play pretty much as a 10. The move was revelatory for Velasco, who looked like a new player in the early Leagues Cup games against Charlotte, Necaxa and Mazatlan while Dallas’ sleepy offense looked to have woken up (in just 4 Leagues Cup games, Dallas scored 11 goals). Other players factored into this (more on Bernard Kamungo later), but Velasco playing centrally seemed to unlock him. It all came to a head in Dallas’ huge shown against Inter Miami and Lionel Messi where Velasco was arguably the best player on the field. Once MLS got back under way, Velasco spent some time back on the wing and some time centrally, but consistently looked more dangerous and like he had taken a step up from 2022. He was named to the number one spot on the annual MLS 22 Under 22 list for 2023 and as the playoffs loomed he looked poised to be the key contributor for Dallas if they wanted to make a run.
Sadly, just 18 minutes into that playoff run, Velasco subbed out of the first game in Seattle with what would end up being diagnosed as a torn ACL. Velasco faces a long road to recovery that will see him miss the vast majority of the 2024 season, a real shame for a player who looked set to be a part of Argentina’s Olympic team. Dallas, and Velasco, will just have to hope he can return even stronger when that day eventually comes.
Paxton Pomykal – B
What else is there to say about Paxton Pomykal at this point? Any time Pomykal plays, you know what you’re getting: a ton of running and effort, moments of real quality in possession but an unfortunate lack of end product. After a really successful 2022 season back in midfield, Pomykal dealt with the injury bug again in 2023, one of many players to miss time during the summer. He hit a low point in the game against Miami where he came off the bench, failed to really impress in open play, and then skied his penalty, leading to Dallas’ shootout loss. But Pomykal bounced back well from that moment, ending the season as a regular starter and getting back to having a major positive impact on the team. That said, the end product is still an issue for Pomykal, who failed to score a goal for the second consecutive season while only providing 2 assists in the 24 matches he played. Regardless, Pomykal is a clear piece to keep around for the foreseeable future and should factor into the starting lineup again in 2024.
Liam Fraser – B
The Canadian international joined the team following Leagues Cup and the trade of Edwin Cerrillo to the Galaxy. Fraser started his time with the Burn a little rough around the edges, he was thrown into the mix quite quickly, but as the season came to a close, he proved to be a dependable, if not spectacular, option in midfield. With Facundo Quignon’s late season green card departure, Fraser ended up playing a bunch of important minutes that most likely didn’t expect him to play, particularly in the playoffs. He wasn’t perfect but he showed a lot of mental toughness, a willingness to get physical and some quality on the ball. At just over $150k in salary, his option for 2024 should definitely be picked up.
Nolan Norris – B
The teenage homegrown spent the majority of the season either on international duty with different youth national teams or playing for North Texas SC where he played a variety of positions: center back, left back, 6 and 8. The coaching staff is reportedly not entirely sure where Norris will end up playing as a pro, but in his limited first team minutes in 2023, he played as a 6 and looked quite good. He had a very unlucky own goal in his second start against Nashville but besides that looked very solid for an 18 year old only recently converted to the position. Norris will be a fascinating one to watch for in the offseason and preseason. He looks a class above North Texas SC, but is he ready to play more regularly for the first team? A loan to USL Championship might be a great move for him.
Facundo Quignon – B-
The veteran Argentinean midfielder had another solid season playing the 6 without being able to really lock down the starting spot. To start the season, much like 2022, he split time with Edwin Cerrillo, with each player playing relatively equal amounts of time before the injury crisis over the summer forced them to play together for a number of games. After Cerrillo was traded, Quignon seemed to have the spot locked down but by season’s end, it was a combination of Illarra and Pomykal playing in midfield behind Alan Velasco. Facu, bizarrely, disappeared from the team entirely near the end of the season, owing to first a small injury but then to him having to go back to Argentina in order to obtain his green card. Strange timing for sure and even though he did return to Dallas before season’s end, he didn’t play a single minute after dropping out of the team late on.
A B- is maybe a bit harsh on Quignon for his performances, but it is partly based on his salary, which is near $900k, making him one of the highest earners in the team. Facu has an option for 2024, but it would be a surprise to see Dallas pick it up. They may opt to decline it and try to negotiate a new, much less expensive deal. He certainly still has some value in MLS but he isn’t a player you necessarily want starting the majority of your games.
Tsiki Ntsabeleng – B-
It was a strange and ultimately disappointing season for the South African in 2023. Tsiki started the season as one of the primary midfield options off the bench, coming off the bench in 7 of Dallas’ first 10 matches, providing 2 assists in that time period. As some injuries started to hit the team, Tsiki looked like he might pick up a starting role and he played an excellent match playing underneath Jesus Ferreira in a sort of 4-4-1-1 kind of look against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Unfortunately for Ntsabeleng, he picked up an early injury a couple matches later in San Jose. This was a nasty looking injury, when it happened I was almost 100% sure that he was done for the season. But surprisingly enough, he was able to make his return just a bit over a month later against LAFC, where he once again picked up another assist. By that point, he was the team’s leader in assists with 4, an honor he would hold until nearly the very end of the season.
But unfortunately for Tsiki, at some point in the summer, he lost the trust of the coaching staff. It is hard to say when exactly this happened. Once he returned from injury, he returned to being a regular sub off the bench. It is likely a combination of things that did Tsiki in. The first is out of his control: a combination of Alan Velasco moving back to midfield and Asier Illarramendi being signed, along with Paxton Pomykal and Sebastian Lletget returning from injury. Minutes in midfield just sort of dried up. But he did also have a couple moments in Leagues Cup that probably didn’t do him any favors. The first came in the first game against Charlotte. Tsiki had a golden opportunity right at the end of regulation where he had an easy lay off for Eugene Ansah that would have been a sure goal. Tsiki opted instead to shoot and missed the target entirely. He was then subbed in late against Miami and proceeded to commit a really poor foul to set up Messi for a free kick just outside the area. Unlike the one that was scored, Messi hit this free kick into the wall, but it was the kind of challenge that coaches just hate. After Leagues Cup, Tsiki only made two appearances and spent many games not even making the bench. He has an option for 2024 but with his playing time disappearing completely, it seems likely that Dallas will move on.
Sebastian Lletget – C
On paper, the veteran midfielder had a decent enough start to his season before going down with injury about a third of the way through. He picked up a couple assists and was a regular starter prior to the injury. But off the field, Sebastian Lletget had one of the most wild and well covered stories involving an FC Dallas player possibly ever. I won’t get too much into it but it involved infidelity with Lletget’s fiancee, international pop star Becky G, while FCD was in Spain for preseason. Suffice to say, Lletget had a lot on his mind early in the season and did not look to be the same player that FCD traded for in 2022. In truth, it probably wasn’t just the drama that affected Lletget, he suffered an injury in preseason that held him out for an extended time and he was just never really able to recover his form prior to injury.
He made a comeback just before Leagues Cup and in Leagues Cup itself, looked to have turned a corner on his season, starting all 4 games and contributing 2 goals and 2 assists, including one assist against Inter Miami. He continued his solid form after Leagues Cup, returning to the starting lineup and playing solid. But he suffered an injury in practice just before FCD’s home game against Seattle which basically ended his season. He made a last gasp return to the team in the playoffs but only managed an ineffective and anonymous 10 minute appearance in the final game. Lletget is under contract in 2024 and will hope that every part of the season is an improvement from 2023.
Bernard Kamungo – A
What an incredible season for Bernard Kamungo. It started a bit shaky but the young winger reportedly coming into camp overweight and not in proper shape. But he responded well from that while playing for North Texas SC early in the season, where he looked well above the level. He finally got his shot back with the first team and quickly took his opportunity, scoring a game winner against RSL for his first MLS goal. He continued from there largely playing as a late game sub until FCD’s injury crisis forced him into the starting lineup, where he got the game winning goal against LAFC in his first MLS start. He then scored the game tying goal to secure a point a few games later in Seattle to lead into Leagues Cup, where he kept his starting spot despite the return of players from international duty and injury and just kept scoring, most notably one of the most exciting goals of the season in American soccer when he rounded Drake Callendar to put FCD 2-1 up before halftime against Miami. An injury forced Bernard to miss some time down the stretch at the end of the season but he returned just in time to help Dallas secure a playoff spot, scoring two goals against the Galaxy in the final game of the season. He also provided an assist in his second ever playoff game but his nagging injury rendered him a bit ineffective on Seattle’s turf.
Internationally, Bernie received multiple call ups to different countries, first from his native Tanzania where paperwork issues prevented him from getting to play. He then, somewhat surprisingly, received a call up to the USA U23 team in their Olympic preparations where, unsurprisingly, he provided an assist in the first game he played with the team. He received another U23 call up and looks poised to play in the Olympics in 2024. Safe to say Bernard has big, big things in his future.
Jader Obrian – B
The enigma that is Jader Obrian continued for another season in 2023. Obrian had some very poor moments while also providing moments of real quality, really the story of him his entire time with Dallas. He ended up playing a lot more than most expected due to injuries, appearing in 29 games with 21 starts but also provided more goals and assists than most expected, with 6 and 5 respectively. Ultimately you can’t question Obrian’s work rate and desire and he does have a knack for scoring goals at opportune times but with just a contract option for 2024 and with the signing of Eugene Ansah and emergence of Bernard Kamungo, it is hard to see where Obrian fits into the picture in 2024.
Paul Arriola – C+
A bit of a rough season for FCD’s captain, who went through a lot of personal life “stuff” in 2023, including getting married and expecting his first child. Arriola, like many others in the team, also dealt with injuries throughout the season and ended up seeing a big drop off from his hugely successful 2022 season, dropping from 32 games, 10 goals and 7 assists to just 22 games, 2 goals and 4 assists with almost 1000 fewer minutes played. Prior to the injuries early in the season, Arriola just seemed to struggle to impact games in the same way as 2022. But after his injuries dropped off later in the season, I’ll give huge credit to Arriola for continuing to fight for the team and by season’s end he was looking much closer to the Paul Arriola of 2022. With a rough season behind him, FCD and Arriola will look for a return to form in 2024.
Eugene Ansah – C
The midseason acquisition from the Israeli league made most of his impact almost right after joining the team. Ansah did not start a game in 2023 but scored a couple goals off the bench in Leagues Cup against Necaxa and Mazatlan and looked set to sort of replace Jader Obrian’s role in the team as a substitute winger. But as the season wore on, Ansah struggled to replicate his success, with his only other goal coming from a bad mistake from St Louis keeper Roman Burki in late August. Ansah’s minutes dried up after that and he rarely impacted games and rarely played more than 10 minutes in games. It is always tough for midseason acquisitions to find their footing in MLS so here is hoping that Ansah can take a step forward in 2024.
Dante Sealy – C
Sealy, who had been on loan to PSV’s second team for two straight seasons, wasn’t someone who anyone who pays attention to this club expected to make any sort of impact on the 2023 season for FCD. Sealy had previously shown a real desire to get out of MLS, so I, like many others, expected him to seek another team in Europe. That never transpired so during the summer transfer window, Sealy made his return to FC Dallas. He ended up playing in 13 games and made 2 starts, with a decent amount of playing time coming, bizarrely enough, as a left wing back. Sealy started bright, showing a lot of drive and looked to potentially provide a directness that was lacking in the team overall. But as the season went on, Sealy struggled to make any significant impact and ultimately ended the season without any goal contributions in his 321 minutes. Sealy has a guaranteed contract for 2024 but without a clear pathway to regular first team minutes, Dallas may look to move him via transfer or trade.
Jesus Ferreira – B
FCD’s talisman started the season strong, scoring 10 goals prior to leaving for the Gold Cup (where he proceeded to score a ton of goals and win the Golden Boot), but faded in the back half of the season (most suspect he was dealing with some sort of long term nagging injury). For most of the season, FCD went as Ferreira went, if he scored, they usually won and he didn’t score, they usually lost. The team seemed to be completely lost for ideas when he was gone at the Gold Cup, only managing a single win in that time period. He had good moments after returning to the team, his brace against RSL to get one of FCD’s few away wins of the season sticks out, but he too often found himself drifting to the wings or back into midfield, trying to pick up slack and provide for his teammates instead of trusting them to get him the ball. The season ended with a bit of a whimper, Ferreira missed two huge opportunities in the first playoff game against Seattle and was unable to play at all in the decisive third game, his nagging injury finally proving to be too much.
Ferreira is at an odd place in his career. Many likely expected that he would be sold in the summer or in this upcoming winter but that seems incredibly unlikely at this point. With Alan Velasco set to miss most of the season, it may be prudent for Dallas to drop Ferreira back into a second striker or number 10 role in 2024 and sign someone to play in front of him. Regardless of what they go with, Ferreira will certainly be here at least until next summer.
Jose Mulato – C
The Colombian had very little impact on the first team, playing largely for North Texas SC where he scored 11 goals and added 3 assists in 20 games played. For the first team, he made 7 appearances totaling just 100 minutes. Despite spending a decent chunk of the season being the only healthy proper number 9 on the roster, the coaching staff didn’t trust Mulato enough to give him even a single start, even electing to play Herbert Endeley at striker against Austin over him. Mulato is still quite young, he’s just 20 years old, but that doesn’t bode well for his future with the team. Dallas may look to find a willing buyer for Mulato and move on.
Jesus Jimenez – F
Disaster. That’s the only word to describe the trade Dallas made for Jesus Jimenez. They sent homegrown midfielder Brandon Servania to Toronto in exchange for Jimenez, who had scored 9 goals for TFC in 2022. Jimenez never even looked particularly close to scoring in 2023 for Dallas. He had a couple of bad misses, he provided one single assist but beyond that he did absolutely nothing. He missed a large part of the season with injury and what little impact he was having on the team prior to his injury completely disappeared after he returned from it. He clearly lost the trust of the coaching staff as well as his minutes down the stretch all but disappeared. He was given one last shot in the final playoff game against Seattle but was, unsurprisingly, completely ineffective and his last action of the season was embarrassingly pulling out of a 50/50 challenge during stoppage time. Please buy him out.
What are your thoughts on the midfielders and forwards in 2023? Let me know in the comments below!
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