It’s 2021, and we are kicking off our preseason coverage of North Texas SC’s 2021 season in USL League One. At this point, very little is known about that season – we don’t have a schedule, a start date, or a full list of clubs who will compete. NTSC’s roster of players contracted to the club will probably come close to doubling over the next few months. In the face of all that shifting sand ahead of us, we will focus this first bit of preview on the one shining constant for NTSC: the FC Dallas Academy. One key pillar of NTSC’s mandate is to serve as a higher venue of competition for the top talents in the FCD pipeline prior to their signing professional contracts. In both of the team’s first two years, about a fifth of NTSC’s stats were accrued by players that started the year on Academy contracts, primarily a small handful of staples followed by a long, low right tail of players making cameo appearances.
What does the NTSC staff look for when evaluating players from the Academy for minutes with the second team? Certainly, they consider things such as technique and tactical understanding and mentality like most other soccer talent evaluators. However, in a conversation with me before last season, NTSC assistant coach Alex Aldaz shared that players without a certain level of physical dynamism struggle to make it at this level.
The academy players that get time with NTSC broadly fit into two categories I’ve discussed before: players hitting their heads on the ceiling of the level of competition in the Academy and players of necessity. Players in the former category are with NTSC as a means of fast-tracking their development with the hope of signing them to a pro deal before they graduate. Players of necessity see playing time because of injuries or other roster considerations that leave NTSC thin at certain spots with need for short term relief.
As a final note, this is not a list of potential Homegrown players. It’s, ideally, a reference for you to come back to throughout the season whenever someone new pops up. The majority of these players will never suit up for the first team … but some will, and that’s the fun of NTSC.
It’s not that common for NTSC to have an Academy player available to them with a significant amount of USL1 playing time already logged. If a player is good enough to contribute to NTSC and young enough to have multiple years of eligibility before graduating the Academy, that player usually earns a pro contract. The pandemic in 2020 likely made this already short section longer than it otherwise would have been.
- Kevin Bonilla* (RB): Remarkably, despite being 19 until September of next year, Kevin Bonilla counts as a veteran of USL1. He’s played ~1,700 competitive minutes across two seasons despite having to earn his starting spot in 2019 and doing it again after joining the team mid-season in 2020. If he plays for NTSC in 2021, it will almost certainly be on an amateur contract to retain his eligibility at the University of Portland, but make no mistake: Bonilla has played more professional minutes than a lot of the pros around the league.
- Grady Easton (RCB): The least well known of the known quantities, Easton’s first competitive appearances for the FCD organization at any level were two starts in NTSC’s first two games of 2020 in the midst of what turned out to be a staffing crisis in defense. After that, he never made another appearance. The hulking CB will be looking to make a bigger impression this season with a full year of training with the Academy under his belt. That said, with Justin Che blocking his path to minutes, the SMU commit may not have much opportunity.
- Beni Redzic (W): A superlative dribbler, The Chef slices and dices down the wing before cutting onto his right and either shooting or setting up teammates. It’s his one move, and, in USL1, it’s remarkably effective. If he wants to go higher, though, he’s got to learn to go both ways and play more within the team’s construct. He was benched once or twice last year for playing too much Hero Ball. Redzic’s future is up in the air – he has not, to my knowledge, committed to play at any college in the fall, nor have I seen evidence that he’s moving to a club overseas this offseason, and yet I don’t think he’s with the FCD U19s, which is what I’d expect if he were sticking with the club. We’ll see where he ends up.
- Collin Smith (W): I’ve talked about him in depth before as one of the few Academy players to get serious NTSC playing time in 2020. Super-fast, aggressive, hard-working, but, for now, not much of a chance creator from the wing, partly because his passing must improve, partly because he’s so young and still learning on the job. Back with the U19s this winter, Smith will be looking to earn a first-choice spot in the lineup next season apart from any first team players coming down for minutes.
For a variety of reasons, the FCD U19s brought in a ton of new players for the 20/21 season. In combination with the fact that none of the ‘04s played with NTSC in 2020 (as several ‘03s did in 2019), that means lots and lots of kids could potentially debut with the second team this season or play meaningful minutes for the first time.
- Philip (“PJ”) Akem (FW): Despite missing a lot of the markers that typically suggest a possible homegrown striker (scoring tons of goals, playing up age groups, USYNT call ups, etc.), Akem remains intriguing by having quick feet and ideas in the penalty box while also being crazy big/fast. He strikes me as someone who came to competitive soccer later than most given his struggles playing within FCD’s preferred tactics, which perhaps means he’ll be one that needs a few years of NTSC or college before he could earn a first team spot.
- Antonio Carrera (GK): Carrera is certainly well-liked by the club and a highly skilled prospect, but there are questions for now. I don’t know who, because FC Dallas haven’t updated their public Academy rosters since last year and the new MLS Next league does not publish numbered rosters, but someone that I don’t recognize is splitting starts with him for the U19s. It’s not a cause for alarm per say because Carrera is playing up an age group, but you would expect a top prospect GK to be getting more starts than not.
- Michael Collodi* (GK): Back training with NTSC after the Ivy League cancelled his season with Columbia, Collodi was the starter for some of the best Academy teams FC Dallas has fielded (the 17/18 U17s and the 18/19 U19s). Despite his less-than-optimal stature (if he’s 6’0”, he’s barely 6’0”), Collodi remains a highly effective GK who relies on his athleticism, smarts, and obscene distribution to make an impact on the game. Like Bonilla, Collodi would probably play on an amateur contract before possibly returning to school in the fall.
- Cesar Daniel Elizalde (LB): With a converted CM already manning the starting LB spot in the form of Derek Waldeck, Elizalde becomes an instant fit as a backup. Formerly the top player in FCD’s 2004 generation as a midfielder, the lefty El Pasoan converted to fullback before suffering an injury that sidelined him until this spring. Since the Academy restarted play, Elizalde has been playing up an age group quite a bit with the U19s, manipulating the game with his passing ability from the flank. If his athleticism can catch up to his technical ability in the next few years, Elizalde will be high on FCD’s list of Homegrown players to sign.
- Cesar Garcia Reyes (CM): After making a cameo with NTSC in the 2019 season, Garcia stuck around with the U19s before committing to SMU in the 2020 signing class. SMU isn’t playing this season, and apparently Garcia is taking something like a gap year as he’s still playing with the Academy, looking miles above the level of play technically and tactically. He’s not a guy that will ever stand out for his athletic measurables, but he plays the game beautifully.
- Erick Gunera (AM): A south Louisiana transplant originally from Honduras, Erick joined the club over the winter break a year ago, training with the Academy last spring before starting most games for the U19s this fall. He’s a lefty that affects the game with his aggressive passing and technical excellence, and has played around the attacking positions and midfield in his short time with FCD.
- Diego Hernandez (CM): Hernandez is a shockingly well-rounded player for his age: doughty in defense, set piece aficionado, bouncy athlete, a shark around the box, fights in the phone booth, periodic captain, etc. When he subbed on in the 2020 season opener for NTSC, the U17 midfielder became by a distance the youngest player ever to appear for the developmental club.
- Jordan Jones (CM): I’ve compared Jones to Tanner Tessmann in the past because they are both bigger midfielders with unexpected ball skill, but I’m changing my scouting report. Jones doesn’t play like Tessmann. He plays like a taller Darlington Nagbe, where his #1 trait on the field is taking the ball under pressure and moving it quickly, safely, and accurately. He’s a lab-grown possession midfielder, and he’s getting minutes playing three years above his age group with the U19s – the last FCD player to get real time with the U19s at Jones’ age was Dante Sealy, if that tells you anything about how the club values Jones.
- Riley O’Donnell (W): A speedy wide attacker, O’Donnell transferred into the Academy from local club Solar SC and now plays with FC Dallas’ U19s. Because he’s spent so little time in the club, it’s hard to separate his performances so far from the usual transition pains you would expect of a player in his situation. However, O’Donnell is the next option as an out-and-out winger after Redzic and Smith, which, in combination with NTSC’s lack of such players on the roster, leaves him just an injury or two away from making the bench.
- Josh Ramsey (LCB): Another recent addition to the Academy, Ramsey comes from Solar SC by way of San Antonio FC. He was a fringe player in the last U17 World Cup cycle after playing a key part in Solar’s run to the 2019 U17 DA Championship. Committed to Notre Dame for now, Ramsey may get some NTSC time in the spring depending on the team’s needs and his personal goals.
- Ty Reynolds (RB): The other 2004 fullback starting with the U19s, Ty isn’t quite the athlete that his brother is, but benefits in comparison from making the switch to outside back earlier in his career. Consequently, he looks a little more natural in defense and in combination than Bryan did in his first professional minutes at RB with NTSC in 2019.
- Michael Sosa (AM): Sosa was the attacker that stepped up alongside David Rodriguez for the U17s in 2019 once Pepi and Sealy were advanced up to NTSC or the first team. After a year’s sabbatical, he’s back with the U19s, working through the same questions of position and role that Jesus Ferreira is with the first team. Can the FC Dallas system accommodate relentless, skilled, and smart attackers that don’t have the pop to win 1v1 on the outside or the heft to survive full-time in the box? Sosa was another that made a cameo with NTSC in 2019.
We’ll see if they get in the mix by the end of the year
I’ve talked about the 2005 generation at FC Dallas before, but the 2006s are, in my opinion, an even more prospect-rich group. Ramirez is the youngest of the ‘05s, and Corcoran and Eyestone are the first fruits of the ‘06s. All three are super talented (in fact, I think they each have higher ceilings than anyone mentioned above), but, because the NTSC staff focuses on picking players that can hold up physically in USL1, none of these players are likely to play early in the year. They’ve got growing to do.
- Anthony Ramirez (AM): Stop me if you’ve heard this before – he’s a technically-gifted attacker who doesn’t have a real positional home. Ramirez is kind of the 2.0 version of Ferreira, Sosa, Hope, Gunera and their peers. For now, he’s playing as a LW with the U17s, but he’s a growth spurt away from being a very intriguing player for NTSC.
- Matthew Corcoran (CM): The consensus top prospect in the Academy, Corcoran is a game-controlling CM who I think profiles as an 8 in the mold of someone like Koke. I don’t remember a FCD Academy player of Corcoran’s age ever being as hyped nationally as Corcoran is, so, if he’s as good as his press clippings, FCD is going to have to fight to get him signed. Part of that process will, no doubt, be early minutes with NTSC.
- Julian Eyestone (GK): Like Corcoran, Eyestone is the consensus top player at his position in his age group nationally, leveraging his advanced frame to anchor the insane defensive record of the FCD U15s over the past two years. He’s probably an injury to someone else and Collodi returning to Columbia late in the year away from making benches for NTSC. Still, the club wants to find playing time for these kids.