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North Texas SC v New England Revolution II Photo by Tim Bouwer/ISI Photos/Getty Images

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Embracing His Opportunity: An interview with North Texas SC’s Derek Waldeck

We talk with NTSC’s most experienced player to get a glimpse of the life of an outsider in FC Dallas’ second team.

Increasingly, North Texas SC seems to be relying on talented players from outside the Academy system to fulfill its mandate to accelerate prospects into the first team. In 2021, we expect newcomers like Hope, Alejandro, Kazu, and JJ Parra to step in and make waves. However, as fans, we’re not as familiar with that profile of the player as with those kids brought through the Academy for whom NTSC represents another rung on the ladder in the club: the Tessmanns and Ches and Reynoldses of the world.

To help bridge that gap, I spoke with incumbent NTSC left-back Derek Waldeck about his experiences with FC Dallas’ second team, learning a new position and style of play in a new club and part of the country, and the pressures of standing out on such a competitive roster. Hopefully, you find the conversation as helpful as I have.

Waldeck was a two-time NCAA D1 champion at Stanford, starting 63 games and appearing in 89 (a school record) across his four years at the west coast powerhouse program while accruing six goals and 22 assists. During his first-team All-Pac-12 senior season, Waldeck served as the captain of the squad, playing well enough to be selected by FC Dallas in the third round of the college draft. A native of Santa Clarita, California, just north of LA, Waldeck spent his youth career at a couple of different, successful clubs in southern CA, ending up at Real So Cal as a key player for their DA squad.

The following conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity in some places. Kudos to Derek for turning my often-amateurish questions into insightful answers.

Sound & Fury: To start, you were drafted in 2020. You entered the preseason with FC Dallas. Was the understanding from the beginning that it would be a trial for FC Dallas, and then, if that didn’t work out, North Texas was the next option? Or was North Texas always Plan A?

Derek Waldeck: It was more the former. The understanding was I was coming into trial with FC Dallas, which was really exciting for me because I knew, if I were to be drafted, wherever that might be, all I wanted was an opportunity to showcase what I have to offer. So that was great to go in and spend, I think, a total of five or six weeks with the first team before officially joining North Texas. It was really nice to have that opportunity, and then I think it was two or three weeks into the preseason with FC Dallas that it started to become more clear, and I had some conversations with different staff members about them wanting to keep me around with North Texas. They thought that was probably going to be the spot where I landed for the year. Still, it was great to have that opportunity to come in and, with nothing to lose, show the first-team staff what I can do.

S&F: Presumably, after they said “it’s probably going to be North Texas”, even in your own draft class there were guys that made the decision to go elsewhere in USL instead of North Texas. You’re from California. There are teams out there where I’m sure you had at least the option to trial for a spot closer to home. Why stick with North Texas at that point as opposed to any of the other options you might have had?

DW: From my perspective, and from what I’ve learned from college teammates getting into the professional game and other professional athletes, opportunities sometimes can be few and far between. Sometimes there can be five, ten teams knocking at your door, but other times it might only be the one. I think what I had taken from some of that, that I’d seen or heard from other players who have experienced different things in the professional game, I came into the pro game telling myself I would take whatever I can get here at the beginning. There are always opportunities to continue forward.

Once I was offered the contract at North Texas, yes, I could have been more greedy and said, “Hey, I want to play at the USL Championship level right away” or maybe go to an MLS 2 side or somewhere else. But what I saw last year when they offered that to me was, I have a guaranteed option year for a year, and I wanted to take that and do everything I could with that. We can assess other options at a later time, but for now, I want to put all my energy into being the best player I can be here in Dallas and striving to make the first team. That was another component of it. Even though it might not be a USL Championship side I was going to play for, the goal was very clear and right there in front of me that, if I perform well and continue to develop, there might be an opportunity at the MLS level, which is what I’ve always wanted. It was a great pathway for me regardless of what flight in the USL it might be.

My mentality is “take what you can get”, and it doesn’t really matter where you are because there are always opportunities to be improving and developing regardless. And FC Dallas is almost without any doubt the best place in the country to be when it comes to developing young players, so that was another thing where I said “I need to take this. I’m in a great spot here, so let’s roll with it and see what I can make out of it.”

S&F: On that development piece: it was very clear that you did that over the course of your first year. Learning a new position, but also, from what I understand, a fairly different style of play compared to Stanford. What was that like immersing yourself in the first team those first five or six weeks? And what were the big things you picked up early on that you were going to have to work on or learn to do that might be different than your prior experience?

DW: Yeah, at least at Stanford, the style we played was more or less a no-nonsense, no-risk type of style where you would play very direct, “let’s get numbers around the ball”, stuff like that. Even as a midfielder there, that did not include big, long spells of possession and the like.

Coming here, I spent some time in the midfield at the six [defensive midfield] in the preseason with the first team and spent a bunch of time at left-back as well. For both of those, the biggest adjustment for me was learning the possession-based style, which, personally, I love. When I was in high school, playing academy for Real So Cal, that’s the style that we played. Everything was “build-out of the back”, “we’ll skip lines when we need to, but we want to hold the ball, pull teams out to expose different gaps in the field”.

So I love the FC Dallas style, but after Stanford, it took time to erase some of the habits that I had created. For example, “Oh, I feel a little bit of pressure, we’re in tight spaces here in our own [defensive] third, maybe I should just skip a ball in to the forwards” or something like that. Instead, now, I’m more in the habit of, “Hey, let’s find a center middy, let’s combine in a tight space here, and then let’s get out and keep the ball a higher percentage of the time.” So that’s been a really fun adjustment for me I think, because, like I said, I love that style of play where it’s tiki-taka, it’s possession, it’s the rondos everywhere on the field. Definitely fun, but definitely an adjustment for me from the get-go.

North Texas SC v New England Revolution II Photo by Tim Bouwer/ISI Photos/Getty Images

S&F: An adjustment in style, but also an adjustment in position. Sounds like in preseason you were working some at LB, and then, obviously, over the course of the 2020 season you played something like 95% of the possible minutes at LB for NTSC. Was [playing LB] something you had done before? Or was that something the coaches saw in you and said, “he’s a lefty, he’s good on the ball, we can put him out there and he’ll be okay”?

DW: I actually had played a little bit of LB. I think it was my junior year of high school in the academy. And then I didn’t play there at all in college. I played out on the left-wing a little bit in a flat 4-4-2, so I did spend a little time out on the flank [at Stanford]. I think that was something that Eric [Quill] and the first team staff saw in me, that, as I was coming out of college, I had the ability to put in a good cross, had the ability to get up and down the flank, but also, at the same time, had center-mid capabilities where passing is my forte and that’s what I like to do. So, I think it was moreso them seeing that potential in me and knowing that guys who can get up and down the field, who can cross the ball well, and who love to keep the ball with good passes typically have a good formula to be successful at LB.

I think they took a little risk on me, converting me to that position, but I was ecstatic to do it. Long-term, for myself in my soccer career (because there’s so much competition in the CM position, and outside backs are a little bit of a depleted position, more or less, here in the US, so there’s always people that are looking for LBs), I thought I might provide a little more value being able to convert to that position. So, I was stoked to do it, and I’m glad it worked out the way it did.

S&F: When we talk about fullbacks globally, there are so many different ways guys are playing that role throughout the global game. Is there anybody that you look to as a reasonable match for the skillset that you bring to that position? Just interested in what inspires you when you think about that spot and how you can play it.

DW: I think [Liverpool LB] Andy Robertson has definitely been the player that I’ve watched the most over the last year or so. And obviously, he is, absolutely, one of the best LBs in the game right now. I don’t think our skillsets exactly match up with each other, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t still strive to do a lot of the things that he does. Specifically, I love the way that he’s able to get forward into the attack and get crosses off, the way that both [Robertson] and Alexander-Arnold tend to lead the team in assists. That’s something that I want to strive for in my career: to be able to get forward, provide good service in the box. And [I also like] his tenacity as well. As a defender, he’s very solid in 1-on-1 situations. His tracking back. His positioning. All those things you might not see each and every time, or might not be on the highlight reel at the end of the game, but those are the little things that kind of help you stand out a little bit game-by-game. So I really enjoy watching him and trying to emulate, as much as I can, the things he does really well.

S&F: Do you feel a pressure to be able to execute on those little things and to be able to stand out in those ways given that the project of North Texas is not one where we would expect really anybody to stick around for more than two or three years at the most? It’s very much a short-term, you-want-to-springboard-to-the-first-team situation. Does that pressure affect you? And if so, in what ways?

DW: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think, for me, I’ve kind of learned to be able to frame the idea of “pressure” into the idea of “opportunity”. And so the way I see things is, it’s in the back of my mind all the time that “hey, I want to be springboarding myself into, hopefully, the first team picture here in the next year”, because I’m coming up on two years at the end of this season, but more than anything I keep reminding myself that it’s an opportunity each and every day to continue to do the little things well.

It’s not going to happen overnight, but there’s a reason it’s a process. The staff brought me here to develop. They were willing to take the one to two-year investment [in] me, and so I continue to tell myself there’s an opportunity each and every day to continue to do what I’ve done that’s gotten me here, and to look to add little things here and there. I think I’m the kind of player who, especially as a fullback, I’m not going to stand out for one day or in one game just for something I do. What’s going to separate me from others is my consistency, and just doing the little things that, kind of like I said, they don’t show up on the score sheet necessarily, but it can be little things that collectively help the guys around me, help the team win, get results, all of that stuff. And then when those individual moments come to show what I have, I can do that, but I rely mostly on my consistency and, in a way, on my simplicity within the game in order to stand out. Especially at fullback, you don’t need all the flash, the “ooh”s, and “aah”s. What makes the best fullbacks in the world great is the fact that they can connect simple passes, they’re great 1v1 defenders, they put dangerous balls in the box. It doesn’t take a million stepovers or this and that to catch someone’s eye. It can be their consistency. That’s what I strive for each day, and I remind myself that I don’t need to put any unnecessary pressure on myself. Just let the process develop as it will, and hopefully somewhere along the road that means I’ll be able to make the jump up to the first team.

Stanford v Georgetown Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images

S&F: That’s such an interesting mindset to take into a situation where, presumably, everybody on the team is trying to catch the attention of the coaches for playing time or the technical staff to potentially move up to the first team. That you would want to stand out with your simplicity or consistency rather than your highlights. Is that something you find (because I have not played at anything close to the levels of soccer you have) is common [in] either the North Texas roster or Stanford or whatever the level? Or do you think you stand out because of that mentality?

DW: I think it’s a little bit of a mixed bag, I’d like to say. That was definitely something I learned at Stanford. I adopted that mentality just through the way our program was and what we learned from our coaching staff and the players around [us]. I think there are definitely a number of players who do that, but I also think that, when you’re at the USL level and so many people are striving to get up to MLS or to be seen so they can go abroad, there are also a number of players who think, “every time I’m on the ball, I need to do something flashy that will catch people’s eyes.” Sometimes those players look fantastic. Sometimes, maybe it’s an off night or an off day, they don’t stand out as much. I think there’s more risk in that [approach]. Depending on if you’re on or off that night, if you take that mentality, it can be great for you or it might be a little more harmful.

That’s why I’ve fallen in love with the simplicity and consistency of the way I like to play because I know if I make it to the MLS level at some point, it’s not going to be my flashiness or anything like that’s going to help me be successful. It’s going to be those little things, doing them over and over again. So yeah, as far as mindsets go, it’s a mixed bag, but I think a lot of players (from what I’ve seen and experienced and from players I’ve talked to who have been at the highest levels), the one common thread is that they just worry about performing consistently every single day. The little things matter to them, and that’s what sets them apart.

S&F: You’re coming into 2021 in a somewhat different place on the roster than you did in 2020 insofar as instead of trying to prove yourself you are almost the proven commodity on the team. You played the second-most minutes last year after Justin Che. But, this year, also unlike last year, you have a direct competitor at your spot. I’m sure there was competition last year, but it wasn’t someone who was a proven LB, who had a lot of projection, who was around the age that would be able to push you like Kazu, who North Texas brought in a few weeks ago. I’m just wondering about your reaction to that news as a competitive person and a professional soccer player, and whether or not having that extra push in training and potentially in games as well changes how you’re going into this year.

DW: I think it’s a great opportunity for both of us having Kazu coming in. We’re really going to push each other, and I think every great athlete loves having that competition. That’s what drives us.

There were definitely moments last year where I’m very competitive with myself, I set very high standards for myself, but also it was tough in a few times where I wasn’t performing as well as I would have liked, but also didn’t have to worry about someone taking my spot. Because, like you said, there was no one who was an out-and-out LB that was nipping at my heels for my spot the whole year. I can even remember a game here or there where I didn’t perform very well and most of the time if I’d had a performance like that, the next game it would be a change for that game just to see if someone else could do better than I did.

So yeah, I’m definitely looking forward to having that motivation all the time of having someone there to push me. It’s just a constant reminder that I need to be on top of my game all the time, not choosing to take a play-off in a game, or not choosing to take a day off in training, or anything like that. It’ll be really exciting, I think, having someone who is constantly competing for that spot with me. I think the competition each and every day in training is what’s going to bring out the best in me and hopefully in Kazu as well. It will continue to drive [me] to master all those little things like I’ve been talking about, each and every day, not just hit or miss. The consistency will be there, hopefully, and we can push each other to both be better in our positions and to develop together. So, I’m really excited for it.

S&F: That actually brings me to the other main change. I referenced it earlier. You’re coming into 2021 as one of the most experienced players on the team. Speaking of pushing your teammates, I think about all the captains that leftover the offseason. I think everyone that was on the roster last year that had worn the armband for North Texas is now gone. A) Does that concern you? B) You went through something somewhat similar at Stanford where you guys had this incredible run of teams, won everything, and then the roster changes over the kind of as a natural progression since you can only be in college for four years. How do you handle losing those kinds of personalities or leaders in the locker room?

DW: To answer your first question: does it concern me? No, it doesn’t. I firmly believe that with the people, we have returning this year and hopefully, with the personalities that are coming in as new signings, we will have great leadership on the field and in the locker room. It will be a matter a time before we find out the right way for all that leadership to work and those different roles to be filled within the team. Obviously, people like Brecc [Evans] and Juan Manuel [Alvarez] and Carlos [Avilez], all those guys that we lost that wore the armband last year, were big personalities on the team and also brought a lot of experience as well, but I have confidence in the “next man up” approach that I’m taking for this year and that hopefully a lot of guys that are returning are taking as well.

Those are positions that have been vacated by those guys who left, so now it’s going to be really interesting to see who steps up into those roles to lead the team. I think we will have some great personalities on the field, in the locker room. We could feel sorry for ourselves that three of our captains are now gone, or we can be excited about the opportunity to step and challenge ourselves some more. I’m really excited to see how that all plays out with a very new team, a very young team. I think it’s going to challenge some of the young guys who might be only 18, 19, 20 years old. They might have to do a lot of growing this year into some of those different leadership roles. It’ll be exciting, I’m looking forward to it, but I’m not too concerned. I trust a lot of the guys on the team to step up.

S&F: It is the nature of North Texas to be both young and the roster [to experience] a ton of turnover every year. As we said, people don’t stick around for more than one to three years. Especially in defense, where you have to play very much as a unit, that can be an issue. You went through some of that last year, especially in the first half of the year. Is that something you’re focused on getting out ahead of this year? Or did you think that was even an issue in 2020?

DW: I think that’s something I definitely want to get out and be ahead of going into this year, just being aware of how slow we started defensively last year. You can find different excuses for last year’s slow start if you want. You could blame the pandemic and not being able to be together in the locker room and our chemistry being off; you can blame the two-month break, having some people being rusty when we came back; all these different things. You can blame our lineup changing, the youth of our backline, whatever your want. But I think, at the end of the day, it came down to us making too many mistakes and kind of shooting ourselves in the foot game after game last year in the first seven, eight games. We were in control of possession, had the better of the chances in the early going, and then a lot of times it felt like it would be possession-based mistakes when we were exposed and trying to build. And other teams were pretty lethal in punishing us when we did make those mistakes. We’re not going to shy away from our possession-based style this year by any means, but I think we’ll definitely have that in mind, just how slow we did start last year.

That’ll hopefully be a point of emphasis as we get into preseason and really start to build together. We’re going to play our brand of soccer, we’re not going to shy away from that, but we need to have that thought in the back of our minds that we want to be sharp from the get-go. We want to be as collective as we can as a back four, as a whole starting eleven, whatever it may be. It’s going to take each and every person defending as well as they can to keep goals off the scoresheet against us. So, I’m pretty confident even though, like you said, we’ve had a lot of turnover. It’ll be a lot of new faces, especially in our backline this year, but I think we’ll still be able to figure it out in the preseason. Thankfully we’ll have a good six weeks, maybe even eight weeks, to get things sorted. We’ll hopefully be gelling really well by the time the season opener comes around.

S&F: As a last question, any personal goals as a player that you want to share for 2020, whether it be performance benchmarking, growth, whatever, just so we can keep tabs on you throughout the season?

DW: Yeah, definitely. I think the first one that’s pretty easy for me to pinpoint is getting on the scoresheet more. Even as an LB, I think I had two assists last year in 16 games. I feel like I can do a little more than that this year. Hard to put an exact number on it. Also, I don’t know at this point how many games we’re playing, if it’s going to be a 28-game season, 30[-game season], what it will be exactly.

But definitely hoping to add more assists more consistently, and also try to find my way on the scoresheet in goals as well. Whether it’s one, two, three goals throughout the course of the season just to show that I have that attacking prowess and I have the ability to get in the box and get on the end of crosses or to combine and create my own opportunities. Stuff like that, I think, will definitely be huge for me, and now that I feel a little more comfortable in our system and I understand what’s expected and how I can expand and go above and beyond in my role as an LB, I think I’ll be able to provide a little more of the scoring and assisting bonuses to the team.

Beyond that, it’s just a lot of the little things, like I was talking about earlier. My interceptions, my tackles won, my duels won – those little things that don’t necessarily show up on the scoresheet at the end of the game, but those are things that I need to be on top of my game for if I want to continue improving and moving forward. I think that’s going to be key for me this season.

And then I think the final piece, which, there isn’t a great way to quantify this, but it’s being a leader and a voice for the guys in the locker room because, like we’ve said, it’s going to be a lot of new faces this year, a lot of young faces. I know I only have one year of professional soccer under my belt, but at the same time, being older than these guys, I’ve had a little bit more experience in the general realm of soccer, whether that’s college or whatever else in my career that I’ve experienced so far. I’m excited for that opportunity to be a guy that others can look up to and feed off of and be the energy-giver and reliability-source for our team this year. Those are the three areas I’m looking to improve and stand out a little bit.

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