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North Texas SC 2021 Season Preview: Midfielders

Even without reinforcements from FC Dallas, North Texas’ midfield could be the strength of the team.

North Texas SC

North Texas has plenty left to do before they can even start pre-season, but likely little of that work will be done on the midfield position group, which returns more talent than any other part of the roster. One theme that will emerge as we progress though our preview series peeks its head out here: NTSC enters 2021 with many of the staple contributors from its first two years gone or unavailable. In the middle of the park, that’s Arturo Rodriguez and Thomas Roberts and Edwin Cerrillo. Who will step up to run the game for FC Dallas’ second team in 2021?

Names to know (for now)

NTSC enters 2021 with a delightfully high ceiling at all three midfield positions. Even if none of the FC Dallas options play in USL1 this season (and I don’t expect that any will aside from injury), NTSC is left with a proven, versatile, hungry core of contributors to mix and match as well as a very talented group of Academy players looking to make their mark. You can read about the handful of Academy possibilities here. Don’t expect more than perhaps one additional signing in this position group before the season.

How it might play out

In reality, piecing together a three-man combo will be more complicated than picking the best player from the three “Best Position” options in the table above. While some of those players are truly specialists, more often availability and the mix Eric Quill is looking to create will play a key role. I’ve found it’s helpful to think of the options on a spectrum from the top of midfield to the base (and obviously some of these guys could play outside of midfield as well – we’ve seen Rayo used as a winger, Alisson used as a CB, and Almaguer used as an outside back, for example).

Forced to pick a tentative starting group for the opening game, I’d choose Alisson, Nicky, and Hope, but Hope is the only one of those I have any real confidence in getting the first game. Pre-season performances will go a long way towards finding out who the real contenders are in midfield. Alisson will have to beat out Almaguer (a forgotten man by the fanbase after his injury-hampered 2020 season) and a few very interesting Academy contenders. I count seven non-first-team players above who are all very talented and all want Nicky’s spot desperately. As for the 10, check the next section.

Storylines to watch

THE HOPE KODZO SHOW

With Rodriguez gone for at least part of the year on an apparent loan deal to hometown club Atlético San Luis (which is something of a feeder club for Spanish giants Atlético Madrid), newcomer Hope Kodzo becomes the odds on favorite to carry the reins of NTSC’s attack in 2021. The Hunts invested a five-year contract in the Ghanaian, unprecedented at the NTSC level, so it shouldn’t really be a surprise that they cleared the depth chart for him. Once he signed that contract, Hope immediately became the most likely NTSC player to earn a move to the first team. We’ll see if his play lives up to the hype.

Additionally, D-Rod’s move clears a path to playing time for highly-rated Academy playmaker Diego Hernandez, who you should expect to get minutes off the bench at this spot now. Yes, Rayo and Nicky both got starts at the 10 in games last season, but both are likely to be preferred elsewhere – Nicky at the 8 and Rayo on the forward line.

As for Rodriguez, after struggling for playing time behind Thomas Roberts in 2020, it seems like there is a perilously narrow band of performance over the coming months he will have to hit for us to ever see him getting serious minutes with the FCD organization again. Should it prove to be a loan, if he plays poorly with San Luis (and probably San Luis’ reserve team), it seems unlikely he could return to Texas and win the job. If he plays too well, it seems unlikely he’d be allowed to leave his hometown. On the other hand, FC Dallas is referring to him as a “former North Texas SC player”, so maybe it was an outright sale. To a player I genuinely enjoy watching, I wish good luck and safe travels. There will always be his 2019 performance as a sub at home against Tucson to remember as maybe the hottest heat check game in NTSC history.

ENCORE PERFORMANCES

Based on its results from the first two years, NTSC is succeeding in (1) accelerating the development of Academy talents (like Tessmann and Che) and (2) getting minutes for the bottom third of the FC Dallas roster. However, in the area of finding and moving high-potential players from outside the club (or guys who have graduated the Academy) up to the first team, NTSC has struggled. In 2021, NTSC will field a group of players from this problem area that impressed at different points over the course of 2020.

Nicky Hernandez had basically no prep when he was thrust into the lineup at Tucson mid-year, but managed to stake a claim to being the team’s MVP in the final six weeks or so. Gibran Rayo likewise used his versatility and skill to help the team. Alisson and Waldeck trailed only Justin Che for minutes played among field players in 2020 for NTSC, both evolving more and more into the NTSC style of play as the year progressed. Imanol Almaguer suffered something of a lost 2020, battling injuries for most of the season, but remains a highly valued player after his contributions to the 2019 title run.

Those guys will need to continue to get better if they want to make the jump to the first team. In 2020, we thought Damus, Evans, Avilez, and A-Rod might do it. The former two plateaued, and the latter two actually improved season-on-season, but still weren’t picked up by FC Dallas (apart from Avilez’ short-term emergency deal). The final concept to prove for NTSC is their ability to move such players up a level. Can Eric Quill & Co. do what they haven’t been able to yet?

WILL THE NEW GENERATION PLEASE STAND UP?

Because midfield is the position group with the most returning talent for NTSC, it sets up an interesting dynamic within the club. ’99-’01 stand out as a “golden generation” of sorts for FCD in putting out pro-level midfielders. In those three birth years, you had Servania, Pomykal, Cerrillo, Ferreira, Tessmann, and Roberts among others. The ’05 and ’06 vintages have a chance to rival that production with one year to spare (though there are some interesting players in the ‘07s too).

And yet, NTSC has strong players ahead of each of these youngsters on the path to playing time. Take the 8, for example. Nicky Hernandez and Gibran Rayo were key contributors to NTSC’s scorching stretch run in 2020. Garcia and Gunera are both classy players ripping up the U19s. If Jordan Jones wants that spot, he has to outplay at least two or three of those guys. At the 6, Both Alisson and Almaguer have had dominant games as d-mids in USL1, and Garcia has the tools to be a very effective deep distributor from that spot for NTSC. Matthew Corcoran will be 15 when the season starts – can he play his way onto the field?

For many of these kids, this will be where the rubber meets the road. This season especially, that’s Hernandez and Jones, who are about as old as Pepi and Sealy were in NTSC’s inaugural season. If they want to show that they are special talents worthy of a first team contract, these are the kind of challenges they must overcome. FC Dallas’ player development philosophy relies on the idea that competition breeds excellence. Some of these guys won’t make it because they can’t raise their level. The ones that do will be that much better because of it.