By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (May 22, 2020) US Soccer Players - Luchi Gonzalez lives on the bright side. Talking to FC Dallas's head coach, even amid a shutdown of the sport he loves, is an exercise in receiving positivity. No one could call the current situation, both in soccer and in society, "good." Yet for Gonzalez, even living in quarantine for the last two-and-a-half months had its benefits.
"I would say the initial phase of it for me personally was OK," Gonzalez said on SiriusXM on Thursday. "I appreciate it. Those moments with them. I really did. And so I obviously still do. Every day I want our purpose and meaning in my personal life, my family, their safety, their well-being, my connection with them is number one."
Still, Gonzalez is itching for Major League Soccer's full return. The start of individual training for FC Dallas players means Gonzalez can get back to coaching soccer. Getting players back on the field in any form represents progress. Gonzalez and his staff are working hard to maximize the impact.
"I know my players and the staff and the club every person in the world is going through this journey. But my passion is football, soccer. It's been a part of my life since I was four years old," Gonzalez said. "I've done something in the game whether playing or coaching or watching on TV live. I've been a part of this game since I was four years old. And so it's a big part of me. So we miss it."
"We've taken more of a general approach with these individual workouts, but still accomplishing things that we feel each player needs no matter the position. So each coach I have is assigned like a team and then they have the setup on their field and then the players are rotated on those that field as the week goes by."
Individual workouts are a necessary first step on the path to actual games, but they lack a crucial element athletes need for motivation: competition. Gonzalez and FC Dallas built competition into the individual workout plans to better push the players physically and to fire up their mental engines.
"No matter what, what we always want to have every session is that there's competition," Gonzalez explained. "And even though the players can't physically touch, they're competing with each other for points about accuracy of hitting their target, about time. If it's a relay race you have like two against two and then it's this time or one goes after the other. We're just trying to make it competitive. It's fun because the mental part of this is just as important, if not more important than the physical."
For a club like FC Dallas, one that places a heavy emphasis on bringing through players from its academy, youth is both a blessing and a curse. A small deficit of experience might be a problem in difficult times like these, but Gonzalez related that his young group possesses an energy and dedication that might make getting back to playing shape easier.
"A lot of our young guys, they're active every day. They're actually doing work on top of the work we're assigning them. They were staying an extra hour on the field. And, you know, maybe playing a little one versus one with their roommate."
The crop of academy products at FC Dallas, several of whom have already broken through with the USMNT or are on the verge of getting a chance with the senior team, makes the Texas team one of the more intriguing to watch if-and-when MLS returns in some form. What the kids might lack in sharpness when they get back on the field they'll make up for in enthusiasm.
It's a bit cynical to think in these terms, but younger players typically have fewer responsibilities at home. Not only does that make them better suited to staying fit during a quarantine, it means they might be less concerned about months away if MLS decides on a summer tournament in a central location.
The appetite for a return to playing games is strong enough that Gonzalez, a married man with two children at home, has no issue with the mooted plan for MLS to base teams out of one location for two months and play a modified competition.
"I'm in support of it," Gonzalez declared. "You know, this is all new for us. This is different in the league. The league needs support. The league needs to thrive over time. And although this is a low moment in the history of the league, I know the league is going to come out of it and be great and maybe the greatest in the world one day."
"I think we have our part to play in helping make sure that we help us improve and save the league in this tough situation, improve and save our careers. And yet it's going to need the sacrifice made, which is probably a short journey here, a mini-tournament that's longer than maybe every anyone who's ever been away from their family."
High profile opposition to a centralized tournament plan might submarine the effect before it even begins. While Gonzalez didn't commit to all of his players being on board with the concept, he suggested that in general, FC Dallas is ready to do what it takes.
"I just know a lot of players, they're itching to get back to playing in groups together as a team. Competing because they love the game and they miss it. It's their living— and they provide for their families. But, I can't speak for every player I know. I know there's still a lot of concerns."
Those concerns may slow the return of soccer in 2020, but the future of the league seems secure. For FC Dallas, that future means more investment in development as part of the league's recently announced elite development platform.
"I think the number one question we have to answer always is, is there a pathway for a player to have a career and profession, professional soccer? And if a player, whether they're in DC, Dallas or Iowa or Alaska, does that player have a pathway to be a professional in that pathway?" Gonzalez said.
"No player is growing when they're not out of their comfort zone. Winning five, six zero. So there has to be good competition for the level of player. And then and then in that pathway, at some point, especially pre-professional ages 15, 16, 17 players need to be exposed to environments that are really difficult and challenge them and make them uncomfortable."
Not every club in MLS has defined its pathway as well as FC Dallas. The club not only has a comprehensive academy program but promotes players in need of a stop before MLS to its USL League One team, North Texas SC. Gonazalez's excitement for the lead MLS is taking in development is a function of his own club's proven ability to give young players the best possible chance to reach their potential.
Times are tough, and the return of MLS is still over the horizon. For Gonzalez, that just means we get to anticipate the dawn.
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- What does MLS do about the summer transfer window?
- Cincinnati vs Columbus and Orlando vs Atlanta
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Photo by John Dorton - ISIPhotos.com