Sat. Jul 20th, 2024

Peter Luccin is a different kind of head coach for FC Dallas. Will he bring different results?

By meerna Jul10,2024
Peter Luccin is a different kind of head coach for FC Dallas. Will he bring different results?

When FC Dallas fired Nico Estévez after two and a half years at the helm, I couldn’t help but think of Luchi Gonzalez, whose time in Frisco was so different and yet so similar. Their shared lack of success may point to an answer to the question of where FC Dallas is headed.

Gonzalez played at SMU and bounced around MLS before rising to youth coaching at FC Dallas, eventually becoming the club’s manager in 2018. He took over a team loaded with talent bred in FC Dallas’ storied youth program and had a reputation as a well-liked coach who wanted to play beautiful soccer. Still, the squad lacked the experience and firepower to make a significant run in the MLS playoffs or compete for any silverware. The typical result? Finishing anywhere from fifth to 10th, then getting knocked out of the playoffs in the first round.

Not that his surroundings did him much good: fans have often criticized the owners for failing to provide Gonzalez with impactful and valuable signings, and players like Franco Jara have absorbed the bulk of the team’s resources without much to speak of. Yet Gonzalez was fired in 2021, his efforts failing to yield any lasting progress.

His replacement, Estévez, took over a squad with considerably more talent when he arrived in a strange pseudo-transfer with Gonzalez, who had taken over the Spaniard’s former position with the U.S. men’s national team. Estévez was also young, stylish and likeable; the Ted Lasso-style cookies he delivered after victories were a welcome touch. His European background, combined with his national team and MLS experience, made him a natural choice to take charge of a young team.

Unlike Gonzalez, Estévez’s arrival coincided with several significant signings that signaled a shift in ownership strategy. Paul Arriola, Sebastian Lletget and Alan Velasco were all brought in for record or near-record fees, a huge shift for a team that had built a reputation as the country’s best incubator of young talent while rarely spending a significant portion of its revenue when those players were sold abroad. FC Dallas doubled down on that strategy, adding former Real Madrid midfielder Asier Illarramendi in 2023 and Benfica striker Petar Musa this year to underscore the Hunt family’s confidence in Estévez. FC Dallas currently boasts the 14th-highest payroll in MLS, barely approaching the league’s biggest spender but still a significant improvement from its No. 21 spot in 2020.

Still, the results haven’t been much better than the Gonzalez era. The club’s third-place finish in the Western Conference in 2022 was an outlier, as Dallas finished seventh, sixth, 11th, and seventh in the other years between 2019 and 2023. Despite two wins in its last three games, the club is 11th this year. When a team makes a significant investment in its players without significant improvement, the manager is often the victim.

So after a few years and two different team-building strategies, the owner got rid of two bright football minds who had little experience as a player or head coach at the highest level. Next up is a completely different profile: 45-year-old assistant Peter Luccin, who took over on a temporary basis.

How different are we? Gonzalez reached his peak as an MLS player. Estévez’s career peaked with Valencia’s B team. Luccin, meanwhile, has played nearly 400 games as a midfielder in Europe’s top five leagues, including European powerhouses Paris-St. Germain and Atletico Madrid. He knows what it’s like to play at the Camp Nou and the Bernabéu, and that experience may be just what the team needs, given that the Frenchman’s coaching resume is even thinner than that of his predecessors (he’s only been a professional coach since 2019). With a less talented squad, tactics matter more. But in the era in which FC Dallas has built its roster, the team may need a manager who can control egos and motivate every player, someone who can say with a straight face that he’s played in tougher battles and in tighter conditions than any they’ve faced in the States.

From a macro perspective, it seems unlikely that a new manager will have much of an impact on where the team ends up. FC Dallas have been through several iterations of a decent team that has never threatened to win a trophy, despite signing international and international stars in their prime. Is it the heat? The family-friendly stadium? The theme nights? The lack of investment in defense? Does the club need to spend more or simply spend better? Something always seems to hold the team back from reaching its potential.

But a micro perspective might offer more hope. Despite the signing of Musa, only three Western Conference teams have scored fewer goals than FC Dallas under Estévez, while only four Western Conference teams have conceded more. Before Luccin took over, the team had scored just 18 goals in 16 MLS games. Since Luccin has been at the helm, the team has scored 14 goals in six games. The previously declining Musa has accounted for six of those goals, while the team’s attacking talisman, Jesus Ferreira, returned from injury to score two. Perhaps Luccin, who has been with the club since 2019, has unlocked something in attack that Estévez hasn’t. The team has won three and lost three in that span, and the defense still needs to be strengthened, but it’s much easier to be optimistic about the future when the offense is working.

What’s more, All-Star goalkeeper Maarten Paes is always among the league’s best, and if emerging leader and centre-back Nkosi Tafari can continue to strengthen his partnership with defensive midfielder Illarramendi to overcome the lack of resources in defence, the team could turn things around. As is always the case in MLS, there’s a congested midfield, with 10 points separating fifth and 11th place. A few good results could put them back in the play-off hunt.

Both the odds and the club’s history tell us that Dallas is more likely to remain outside the postseason hunt than in it, that it will end in another wimpy finish, leading to another offseason in which we look for reasons to believe that next year will be the year the club makes a serious run at the MLS Cup for the first time since 2015. But even that could be in Luccin’s favor, because the last major difference between him and his predecessors is his familiarity with the organization. Gonzalez and Estévez were outsiders. Luccin, on the other hand, understands the culture at every level, having started as a player in 2013-14 and then spent five years coaching Dallas’ acclaimed youth system before moving on to the front-line coaching staff in 2019. This is the only American soccer home he’s ever known, so for better or worse, he’s intimately familiar with FCD’s infrastructure, trajectory, and idiosyncrasies. This institutional knowledge can do a lot.

Which is convenient, because right now FC Dallas has virtually nowhere to go but up. Boy, does the new head coach know that.


Will Maddox be

Will is a senior writer General Director magazine and editor of D CEO Healthcare. He has written about healthcare…

By meerna

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