We continue our 2020 USL1 season preview series by taking a deeper look at North Texas SC’s biggest offseason addition (literally): 6’6” CB/W/CDM/LB Lamar Batista, who will wear #22 for the reigning champs. He gets the star treatment here partially because he’s got more publicly available information about him than any other add, and partly because he illustrates how NTSC (and by extension FC Dallas) think about center backs.
Batista’s history with the FC Dallas organization actually goes back several years to his high school days, when Luchi Gonzalez tried to recruit him to the FC Dallas Academy. Since then, he played college in California and has been on the fringes of MLS for a while, first with Portland Timbers II in 2017-18, then a season with LAFC (with stops on loan in Phoenix and Tucson), and then trialing with Minnesota United this offseason before settling with NTSC. His two years as a starter for Timbers II were up and down. In 2017, Batista joined a few months into the season and they were the worst team in the league and arguably the worst defense in the league, but he was named to USL’s 20 Under 20 list. In 2018, they made the playoffs despite a somewhat below-average defense, and Batista split time between LCB, LB, and LW.
Despite having a prototypical center back’s build and starting out in that spot, Batista’s college coach tried him all over the field (ST, LW, LB, etc.) before settling him in as a destroying central midfielder. Likewise, as mentioned above, Timbers II tried him all over the left side. That several different coaches have looked at his frame and his game and put him somewhere other than CB speaks volumes. Of course, if he’s good enough to play two positions at once, why not try him at different spots?
For this post, I reviewed tape of two of his games for USL1’s FC Tucson last season: vs Forward Madison on September 27th (in which he played mostly LB, some LW, and about two minutes of LCB), and vs Toronto FC II on July 3rd (in which he played only LCB). Based on that experience and other research I’ve done, I compiled a list of things he does well and not so well to give a picture of the player NTSC is getting (similar to the portrait of Dante Sealy from a few weeks ago). For each trait, I will throw in some relevant clips from the two games.
But first, a dollop of theory
It’s probably worth explaining how NTSC’s tactics inform the types of defenders that they look for (this whole section will apply to FCD as well).
NTSC has aspirations to dominate the ball in every game they play. They want to play out from the back because it gives them a much higher chance of keeping possession than trying playing long for a second ball. They also want to counter-press frequently to take the ball away from the opponent before that opponent can do damage. There are two key implications of these strategic choices on the responsibilities of the defenders in the team (of course there are way more than two, but we’re going to simplify and say two).
- The key defensive goal when against a team that wants its defenders to play possession is to force those defenders to play sideways, backwards, or into a turnover. However, a defender who can either dribble past his defender and forward, or find a pass behind the first line of defenders is worth his weight in gold – he can turn the defense’s tactic into the offense running in the space left by the vertically stretched defense. Thus, NTSC wants defenders that can hold their own and progress the ball under pressure. More than anything else, it’s his unique facility in such spots that makes some people think that now Louisville City player Jonathan Gomez is the best prospect that FC Dallas has produced since, I don’t know… Weston McKennie? Kellyn Acosta? Jesse Gonzalez? A long time, all the same. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s true that JoGo’s game is a hand-in-glove fit for modern soccer. In FCD terms, this is the Ziegler trait.
- When your own team presses, it puts more stress on your defenders to cover ground and play on an island, because their support from midfield and elsewhere has been pushed further forward. By pressing, you are raising the chance that your first several lines of defense will be cut out of the play, creating more situations where your defense must fend for itself. NTSC wants defenders that can make smart decisions when outnumbered and use their athleticism and game-reading to tilt the odds back in their favor. USMNT defenders like Aaron Long and Miles Robinson made their careers in these scenarios. In FCD terms, this is the Hedges trait.
Obviously, there’s a million other things that ideally NTSC wants their CBs to do well, but they put special focus on these traits relative to other teams because of the way they want to play tactically.
Batista’s Key Positive Attributes
DOSE OF THE DARK ARTS
It’s a pretty small thing in the grand scheme, but Batista seems like a real plus as a character on the field. He commonly confronts opponents after a foul, helps teammates off the ground, chirps at the ref, collects the ball from the goal late in games, sprints upfield to be the first one to join into celebrations after a goal, etc. There’s always room on great teams for a few people who work to build morale and cohesion within the team, and he’s one of those guys.
DRIBBLES LIKE A WINGER
In the context of a playing system that values defenders that can escape the press, Batista’s smoothness with the ball could be a huge asset. Remember that he played a large part of the 2018 season as a winger in the USL Championship (I highly recommend the highlights linked above), and the reason he got away with it is that he looks closer to Thomas Roberts when he carries the ball than your run-of-the-mill CB. He’s not as effective as Roberts, but the coordination and relationship with the ball are there.
Part of the shocking experience of watching him dribble like that at 6’6” is the movement skills that go along with the technical skill. He’s faster than you’d expect, quicker than you’d expect, changes directions more swiftly than you’d expect, etc. All of those help him to contribute on the defensive side as well, but they stand out the most when he’s going by people.
INTRIGUING PASSING RANGE AND VISION
Similar to the above, there are tools here to build a CB that can pick apart a defense that tries to press him. When he wants to, Batista has plenty of clubs in the bag and knows how to use them. He even shows off some nice skill disguising passes until the last minute!
For now, though, he’s too inconsistent to make a big difference. Of note, Callum Montgomery made enormous strides last season in the LCB spot as a passer, going from being a clear weakness at the outset of the season to a weapon for advancing upfield – maybe Quill can do the same trick twice.
WINS IN THE AIR
He’s 6’6”, he can jump, and he’s aggressive about attacking aerials. It would be hard for Batista not to be exceptional at deflecting attacks through the air.
Batista’s Key Areas for Improvement
DEFENSIVE POSITIONING CAN BE ERRATIC
If I had to guess, this is why coaches seem to always move him away from CB after trying him there at the beginning. There were a handful of cases where he would run or walk himself out of being helpful. In the first clip here, he crowds the back of his LB and leaves a large gap in the box behind him. In the second, he backpedals his way out of the attacker’s path, stopping him from making a successful play on the ball. In the third, he follows a midfielder 20 yards from his defensive line and gets bypassed, leaving his fellow CB to cover two runners potentially.
In the last two, he shows off his speed to close down space, which begs the question: how much of Batista’s aggressive / aimless positioning is him betting on his athleticism to help him recover? Remember he was a CDM in college – maybe his coaches gave him license to step out and attack because he’s good enough at it? Regardless, he plays CB in a borderline reckless fashion – can that be ironed coached out?
CAUGHT IN POSSESSION IN THE BACK TOO MUCH
We’ve established Batista has the tools to bypass the press, but, through apathy or ignorance or something else, he’s not the complete product yet. Several times a game, he tried to clear past or pass through a pressing defender, only for the ball to carom off into a potentially dangerous situation for his team. That is way too high of a rate for a team to put the ball at his foot 30-40 times per game.
How will Batista fit in with NTSC in 2020?
So the profile is as follows: frame like Tammy Abraham; dribbles like Thomas Roberts; moves like water; passes like Joe Burrow when he wants to, but every other LSU QB when he doesn’t want to, aggressive like a wolf, but with the positional awareness of a puppy.
That he was invited into pre-season MLS camp with three different clubs indicates some shared vision of potential – all of them at least started him out at CB. That LAFC especially were willing to roster him in 2019 speaks well of his fit in a Luchi-ball-type system since LAFC have (1) been able to execute a close sibling of FCD’s philosophy at a high level and (2) seek players that can affect a game through that system. There are areas where he has to get better, particularly playing within scheme on defense and limiting unnecessary turnovers on the ball, but it’s not hard to see a version of Batista starting at FCD in two years if the light comes on in 2020. The issue of course, and why he’s playing in USL1, is that a handful of teams have already made that bet and couldn’t find the light switch. North Texas SC exists in part so that the FC Dallas organization can shuffle through these high risk, high reward guys until they find a gem.
While he has spent nearly as much time in the past few years on the left touchline playing LB and LW as he has at LCB, I expect him to be spend most of his minutes with NTSC in the center of defense. A quick search of the FIFA video game player database returns only five players globally taller than 6’5” who have spent time at LB or LW, and all those players are primarily CBs. Yes, Batista has unusual movement skills for someone so big, but NTSC has a greater need at LCB than LB at the moment.
That versatility could come in handy for Batista, though. Coach Quill has strongly hinted that 16-year-old Academy player Justin Che will be spending a lot of time with NTSC – the kid is a converted forward who’s ice cold on the ball, super quick for a CB, but maybe a touch undersized for USL1 at the moment. If Quill wanted to give Che minutes, Batista may still have a spot on the field since he has way more professional experience playing outside back than either of NTSC’s other options at LB: a converted CM in Derek Waldeck and utility-man extraordinaire Imanol Almaguer.
In summary, Batista brings together an exciting handful of attributes that could make for not only an MLS-level defender, but a real difference maker for the first team. Like most NTSC players, he’ll have to compete every day to get playing time squeezed between the first team and the next generation of Academy stars, but if he can flourish in this environment then NTSC will have proven its value yet again.