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North Texas Two Step: Building the next Michael Barrios

A new attacker is emerging for a so-far-in-2020 unlucky North Texas SC squad.

FC Dallas/North Texas SC

Well, well, well. Turns out the easiest way to get back to the form of the 2019 campaign is to bring in all the players from 2019. Brecc Evans is back, Arturo Rodriguez is back, Kevin Bonilla is back, and North Texas SC put in back-to-back assured performances on the road, picking up a win and a draw at Tucson and Orlando, respectively. Sprinkled in with those established names are a few new contributors who have solidified their places in Eric Quill’s plans – the most surprising of these is the subject of our First Step.

Collin Smith is not throwing away his shot

Few if any players in FC Dallas’ organization have benefitted more from COVID in soccer terms than young NTSC winger Collin Smith. Throughout pre-season, Coach Quill favored a winger combo of FCD draft pick Anders Engebretsen and FCD homegrown Dante Sealy. Because of the pandemic, the former is gone and the latter can’t play with NTSC. Consequently, Smith, an Academy player who graduates in 2022, became the third- or fourth-string wide attacker for the second team to begin the season, earned some sub appearances, took advantage, and is now a consistent starter for NTSC.

The first thing you notice with Smith is his speed. If every player in the club, from Academy to first team, were to run timed 60-yard dashes, Smith might end up in the top two or three. That, paired with high work rate and an advanced judgment of space and balance, has made him an exciting attacker in a dangerous attack. His deliveries must improve. His work on the ball is either elegant in its simplicity or betrays a lack of high-level skill, depending on your perspective. That said, Smith has made an impression in 2020.

Here are a few of his best moments so far this season.

Stylistically, Smith fits somewhere on a spectrum with LAFC’s Diego Rossi or Chelsea’s Timo Werner on one end and FCD’s Michael Barrios on the other (again, in terms of style, not quality); players with more function than flash, having built themselves to weaponize their speed. NTSC seem to be asking for more of Barrios from Smith: playing outside of the opposing fullbacks, making runs in behind or going 1v1 to send in crosses. That said, I wonder, as he matures physically, technically, and tactically (he’s 16 until December), whether Smith will tend toward Rossi and Werner: playing inside the fullbacks, running the channels to threaten the goal with shots.

Stats 201: A couple of metrics you may not have heard of, courtesy of hockey analytics

I’d like to draw your attention to two metrics that originated in ice hockey that (1) are highly complementary to one another, (2) do a great job in tandem of explaining why games end with in the results they do, and (3) illustrate, I think, a key truth about soccer.

TSR is a metric of chance creation. All else equal, more shots mean more goals, so if your TSR is >1 you’re likely to score more goals than your opponent. PDO is a metric of chance conversion. All else equal, more goals-per-shot means more goals, so if your PDO is >1 (meaning your conversion rate is higher than your opponent’s) you’re likely to score more goals than your opponent.

Soccer is about scoring more goals than your opponent, so these seem like logical metrics to improve if you want to win more games. In fact, both correlate with goal differential, which in turn correlates highly with points. Which one is a more sustainable source of such success? Consider the below graphs. The blue dots are the cumulative TSRs (left) or PDOs (right) of every team in MLS in the first half of 2019, ordered from lowest to highest, based on ASA data. The red dots are those metrics for the same teams in the second half of the year.

  • Teams that did well in TSR in the first half also tended to do well in TSR in the second half – both trend-lines in the left graph tend upwards and the data sets track each other pretty well; Correlation is fairly high – 0.63.
  • On the other hand, PDO in the second half of the year has no discernable relationship to PDO in the first half of the year; correlation is 0.06. Teams that are “good” or “bad” at PDO don’t tend to stay that way. The biggest takeaway here is that if a team’s performance is driven by PDO (by chance conversion) you should not trust that to continue.

What does that mean for NTSC? Their cumulative TSR/PDO this season has been 1.16/0.99, which would put them top/bottom ten in MLS last year, respectively. Fair to say this team has played well overall, but their luck has let them down in key moments.

Burnt Ends

  • Announcers referring to players by their first names makes me uncomfortable. In situations like USL League One where the announcers are offsite and probably have never met any of the players, it’s overly familiar to a cringe-worthy degree (as it was in the OCB match). Even when someone like Steve Davis calls Paxton Pomykal “Paxton”, in a relationship that exists off the field, it seems unprofessional.
  • Arturo Rodriguez and picking up defensive actions all over the field: name a more iconic duo – I’ll wait. The chart below is A-Rod’s performance at Tucson. What a player.
  • Defender Lamar Batista has left the team. He was benched following a poor performance in the game in Fort Lauderdale, but showed flashes of greatness earlier in the season. The window to establish a playing career in soccer can be brutally short, so hopefully this allows Batista, 22, to latch on somewhere quickly. Best of luck to Lamar wherever he lands.