North Texas SC’s ironman CB/RB Justin Che earned a homegrown contract with FC Dallas last week. It was the culmination of (almost literally) a lifetime of work on the part of the 16-year-old, and continues a long and lauded tradition at the club of shepherding the best youth prospects in North Texas into the professional game.
With Che off the table, though, the natural question becomes “Who’s next?”.
Homegrowns are usually signed either in the offseason (especially in pre-season) or during the summer months. In fact, only four of the thirty homegrown signings FC Dallas has made fall outside those two windows: Jesse Gonzalez, Alex Zendejas (signed on a pre-contract that kicked in the next pre-season), Chris Richards (signed in a rush to prevent him going to Bayern for free), and Justin Che (who would have been a summer signing in a normal year, I think). I will order my thoughts around those windows.
I expect FC Dallas to look for depth at several positions on the roster in 2021. It will be Luchi’s third year at the helm, which has always been the “MLS Cup Expectations” year, and a congested international schedule may test the lower edges of FCD’s depth chart. In particular, I expect FCD to look for depth at the #9, on the wings, and at LCB.
I’ve argued that Beni “The Chef” Redzic has played himself into a look with the first team next January as possible depth at wing. Collin Smith is in a similar spot, though I think he needs more seasoning with the second team, and, because he’s still more than a year from turning 18 and nearly two years from starting college, time is less pressing in his case. NTSC stalwarts Ronaldo Damus, Arturo “A-Rod” Rodriguez, and Brecc Evans have all been excellent for NTSC at various points this season and may impress enough in camp to earn a deal. Finally, standout college players at needed positions may get looks: Brayan Padilla at Maryland and Daniel Evans at Kentucky come to mind.
You may note that all of these players fall into the older, roster-supplementation category of homegrown signing. With the second team now up and running, I have a hard time seeing FCD signing a teenager that hasn’t spent at least some time competing in USL League One. Outside of Smith and Redzic, Che is the only Academy player that has gotten significant minutes with NTSC in 2020 – remember, minutes with the second team are rare for Academy players. All that to say that I don’t expect FCD to sign another Che-type prospect (signed as the “best available” rather than to fill a need) this winter.
Next summer or beyond
If Collin Smith continues to improve, he would still be an option after another few months with NTSC in 2021. Also, as the timeline gets longer, we should expect more roster spots to open up. If Bryan Reynolds continues to improve, for example, FCD will have to start planning actively for his departure (in the same way they did before Reggie Cannon left by signing Eddie Munjoma). That’s a case where Kevin Bonilla, one of my favorite players in the whole FC Dallas system, becomes interesting. Mark Salas at UNC is another name to think about here, as is Cristian Escribano, who has started out well at #1-ranked Wake Forest.
However, I absolutely expect at least one Ricardo Pepi-type signing next summer. These would be young academy players that earn minutes with NTSC in the first half of the 2021 season, impress, and are promoted upwards to the first team. It’s here that we start getting more 15-, 16-, or 17-year-old players, the top ‘04s and ‘05s, a true new wave of Homegrown players.
Once Carlos Avilez couldn’t stick with the first team this summer, the NTSC GK depth chart officially went into “lame duck” mode - I expect U-19 starter Antonio Carrera to get minutes in that spot next year. Bryan’s little brother Ty Reynolds may also earn minutes at RB for NTSC and elbow his way into the same conversation as the other RBs discussed above.
I wrote about the ultra-deep ’05 generation last spring – any number of kids from that group could make a leap and earn a first-team deal with their play at NTSC. A few names that seem more likely in the medium-term than others: Diego Hernandez (who I see as very similar to Paxton Pomykal stylistically), Anthony Ramirez (one of the youngest in the cohort, but truly special with the ball), and Jordan Jones (think Tanner Tessmann – a dangerous combo of smart, elegant, big, and athletic).
The youngest player with a realistic shot at being #31 is also potentially the most exciting. Matthew Corcoran is an ’06 – he’ll turn 15 next February. I’ve recently thought quite a bit about the dangers of profiling such young players – things change so much over even short periods of time at that age that prognosis is basically futile, and engaging in that way may even harm the players themselves. So, take the following sentences as me trying to be as sober and realistic as possible. Every couple of years, FCD seems to produce someone with enough potential to be the standout in their age group nationally: think Weston McKennie, Pomykal, Pepi, I’d put Dante Sealy in that category. Corcoran, a metronomic field general in central midfield stylistically somewhere between a peak Michael Bradley and Xavi Hernandez, fits squarely in that group, and may be the best of all of them. For the reasons laid out at the beginning of this paragraph, I think FCD would do the kid a disservice by signing him to a contract in the next 12 months, but there’s no doubt he has a chance to be the next homegrown player for FC Dallas.