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Ill-advised predictions on the 2020 USL League One Season

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Your intrepid writer foretells the fate of USL1 despite the best advice of those close to him and his own common sense.

For those of you just joining us because the FC Dallas first team withdrew from the MLS Is Back Tournament, welcome weary travelers. I entreat you – nay, I beg you – to cast your troubled, tear-stained spirits upon the comforting bosom of North Texas Soccer Club, and may its balm of triangle passing patterns and precocious maestros provide you succor in this dark time.

With USL League One restarting next weekend, this will be the final post in our offseason series previewing NTSC’s 2020 season. We have looked at NTSC’s fluid roster situation entering pre-season, examined the role of Academy players in the second team, tallied up the returning production across the league, analyzed NTSC’s record-setting offense, profiled potential stars Dante Sealy and Lamar Batista at length, and listed the winners and losers of the league’s shortened 2020 format. And there’s more, which you can find by clicking the “USL” link at the top of this page if you’re interested in reading up before games begin. All USL1 games through 2022 will remain on ESPN+, which is still ~$5/month and includes an obscene amount of soccer/documentary content.

Below, I’ll synthesize everything I’ve learned and written about NTSC over the past eight months or so and make a series of forecasts about how USL1 will play out. I never claimed to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but what kind of idiot ties his good reputation to (1) predictions (2) about 3rd division soccer (3) played on a condensed schedule (4) after an unprecedented 9-month layoff (5) in the middle of a pandemic?

Exactly this kind of idiot.

Bold Predictions for the USL League One’s 2020 Season

CONCERNING NORTH TEXAS SC

  1. At least one NTSC player will play every available minute. If you listen to the League One Fun interview with NTSC GM Matt Denny (starting at 22:00 here), when the question of the availability of FC Dallas players comes up he talks about (1) accelerating the integration of certain players from the Academy and (2) the larger roster of players signed to NTSC. All that to say he pretty much avoided the question of whether NTSC will have access to players from the FCD roster. We discussed it briefly a few weeks ago, but I’m getting more and more convinced that NTSC isn’t planning on access to players on the FC Dallas roster (how FCD’s withdrawal from Orlando affects this remains to be seen). That would reduce depth on the roster and increase consistency in the starting lineup, leaving six or seven players as locks to start every week barring wear and tear. The odds-on favorite to play all the minutes would be Juan Manuel Alvarez, a CM who everyone around the club keeps talking about.
  2. At least four NTSC players will play more than 90% of available minutes. As a continuation of the last prediction, despite NTSC’s reputation for rotating playing time, I expect Eric Quill to rely on a hardy core of key players to lead the team through the shortened season. Besides Alvarez, look for Lamar Batista, Pedro Conceição Alves, Luis Zamudio, David Rodriguez, and Oscar Romero to spend a lot of time on the field. Again, the availability of FCD players (especially Munjoma, Reynolds, Roberts, Avilez, and Sealy) could really affect this prediction.
  3. David Rodriguez will comfortably lead the league in combined shots and shots assists. We’ve mentioned it before, but it’s worth repeating that David was involved in more chances on a per minute basis than his MVP brother last season. Arturo led the league by a distance in that metric. This year, D-Rod is the likely starter as the playmaking fulcrum of a ball-dominant, high-volume offense. At his best, David is a type of player that neither FC Dallas nor the US has produced at a high level: a Paulo Dybala style angles-merchant who wins in the attacking 3rd by leaning wholeheartedly on his superior technique and mental understanding of the game. Heck, he’s even got Dybala’s baby-faced, short socks, foppish hair aesthetic.
  4. Gibran Rayo will lead the team in fouls drawn. I doubt he will be one of those players that plays 90% of NTSC’s minutes, but he will get a bunch of starts, and when he doesn’t he’ll make consistent appearances off the bench. If there’s one thing Rayo can do well, it’s find dangerous space in the opponent’s half, dribble forward, then get fouled (potentially in the penalty area – he’s excellent at winning PKs). Last year for NTSC, he was fouled 4.2 times per 96 minutes, 3rd in the league for players that played more than 3 games, almost exactly in line with the 2019 mark of Nico Lodeiro, who led MLS in fouls drawn, and a full extra foul per game more than Paxton Pomykal, who was second in the FCD organization in the metric.
  5. NTSC’s defense will finish in the middle 3rd of the league in goals allowed. A year after finishing with the 3rd best goals against record and tied for the most clean sheets in USL1, NTSC should expect a step back on defense in 2020. While the most of the players brought in have potential, the team will nevertheless be replacing last year’s GK (Avilez), starting defenders (Gomez, Montgomery, Evans, Bonilla), and CDM (Jatta). It will take time on the field together for the new players to meld, which may mean NTSC is at its strongest in the final few games of 2020.

CONCERNING THE REST OF THE LEAGUE

  1. After 10 games, five of the top six teams in the standings will be independents. The “2” teams in USL1 are built to include players from the bottom of their parent teams’ rosters. As argued above, the pandemic could leave them without those pieces at least for the first chunk of the season, creating a weaker and shallower roster than otherwise with no real incentive to find a short-term solution. Add in that only NTSC and TFC II were going to be better than “yikes” anyway, and I feel pretty good about this one.
  2. Fort Lauderdale will average <0.7 PPG, putting them in range of Orlando City B’s mark of infamy in their first season (0.57 PPG). This is a club that didn’t have a name, crest, or colors until 55 days before their first scheduled competitive game. Their head coach is also the head coach for the USMNT Olympics program in addition to being the Inter Miami Academy Director. They have 10 players on the roster at the moment (at least that’s what I can tell from Transfermarkt and a few other sources – the club doesn’t have a devoted website) and won’t have access to MLS players for at least the first game and probably longer depending on Miami’s success in the MLS Is Back Tourney and the roster rules thereafter. Which means they might have to rely on talent from their Academy, who played its first games *checks notes* less than a year ago. A real “we’re comfortable getting a ‘D’ in this class” vibe.
  3. There will be >2.5 goals scored per game in the league this year (vs 2.32 last year). Basically, I see a handful of teams that probably got better on offense year-on-year but only one or two that got better on defense. Combine that with a few porous expansion teams and a general lack of cohesion after the long layoff and you’ve got a recipe for more high-scoring games.
  4. South Georgia Tormenta will lead the league in combined goals scored and goals allowed per game. Toronto FC II won this award last year with a 3.2 mark, and they probably got better on offense but worse on defense year-over-year, so they’re the favorites. But that means it wouldn’t be a bold prediction if I picked them, so I’m going with Tormenta, who lost a lot this offseason and pretty much only restocked with attacking players. They’re going to carve up some teams.
  5. There will be more yellow and red cards per game in 2020 than in 2019 (>=4.3 per game). This is just a bet on sloppiness and poor conditioning in a condensed season after an extended offseason. Defenders that are out of position or that are tired commit fouls and earn cards.

CONCERNING HARDWARE

Golden Boot: Marco Micaletto, South Georgia Tormenta – I expect NTSC, TFC II, and Tormenta to be the three best scoring teams in the league. However, Alex Bruce and Ronaldo Damus may split the production at North Texas, and TFC II’s Jordan Perruzza has a real shot at getting promoted to the first team after Ifunanyachi Achara’s season-ending knee injury, which splits that production as well, leaving Tormenta’s Micaletto as my favorite for the award.

Assist Champion: David Rodriguez, NTSC – Addressed above, but I’ll repeat that I expect David to lead the league in chance creation by a distance. The rest is down to whether his teammates can convert. Other names to watch include Tucson’s Charlie Dennis, Greenville’s Carlos Gomez, and Tormenta’s Pato.

Defender of the Year: Brandon Fricke, Greenville Triumph – Greenville was the best defensive team in the league by a distance last year, and Fricke is joining the group as an all-league second-team defender for Lansing. He also benefits from being a CB, traditionally the easiest route to this hardware. His backline partner, Tyler Polak, will probably get some votes, and Forward Madison’s Christian Diaz is the most likely fullback to win the award.

Goalkeeper of the Year: Rashid Nuhu, Union Omaha – Going off a smallish sample size here, but Union Omaha were very tough to break down in pre-season playing against good USL Championship sides. If they end up with as stingy a defense as I expect, the former New York Red Bulls GK should save some room on his mantelpiece.

Most Points / Supporters’ Shield: Greenville Triumph – the 3rd seed in last year’s playoffs, I expect Greenville to suffocate teams this year. They’ll have a chip on their shoulder after losing to NTSC in the final game too.

Fewest Points / Wooden Spoon: Fort Lauderdale CF, see above discussion.

USL League One Championship Finalists: Greenville Triumph and South Georgia Tormenta, and Greenville will win, 3-1.

That’s it for me. If you have any bold NTSC predictions you’d like to be judged harshly, share them in the comments section below. I will collect all those made before kickoff of the first game (July 18, 2020) to be included in a 2020 season retrospective.