While we anxiously track the playoff race for FC Dallas, North Texas SC in its first year in the young MLS Next Pro is also in a fight for playoff seedings. It’s been a year of firsts - not just a new league but a new head coach, Pa-Modou Kah. Plenty of new faces, including a bevy of youngsters from the academy, have served as the backbone of a raw team that has looked dominant at times and toothless at others. I decided to grill my two favorite North Texas SC writers, Jack McClean and Jose Carmona, about their perspectives for North Texas so far.
You can follow Jack on Twitter at @JackWMcClean.
You can follow Jose on Twitter at @elchicocarmona.
Nathan: Some of us expected North Texas SC, who had a pretty dominant run in USL League One the past few years (including an inaugural championship) to come out of the gates and run rampant over this league. Recent results have definitely dampened our enthusiasm — and yet the team has been so much fun to watch. They are on track for a playoff spot. They could get hot and make a deep run. How has the team adapted to this new league with new teams and with all of these funky rules?
Jack: North Texas came into the season with a better roster and culture than many of their peers. The rest of the league had caught up by the beginning of July, and the glaring issues regarding the team’s defense were finally exposed. Coach Pa-Modou Kah is of the mindset that with young players and his coaching style that a mid-season slump was inevitable. The adversity this team has now faced has helped prepare them for the playoffs.
Of the new rules, the one that’s caused the most trouble for North Texas has been the introduction of penalties at the end of a tie. Kah is hands-off in this department, and assistant coach Vikram Virk has won 1/4 shootouts, dropping three crucial points to conference rivals. North Texas sits five points behind first-place, yet the gap drops to just a single point had they won their shootouts.
Nevertheless, they sit seven points clear in playoff qualification, and how they finish the season mostly impacts playoff seeding. Per the new rules, playoff seeding and hosting depend on overall points. North Texas has a tough schedule to finish out the season and how they perform will determine their opponent and whether they get home field advantage or not
Jose: North Texas SC has had a target on its back from day one. The club has had to adapt from being a club that was just another tough opponent in a tough league to having a target on their back all season, despite the fact that they did not win USL League One (nor make the final) in the previous season. They also had to adjust to the way that clubs attack/defend them, as most USL League One clubs followed a similar playbook in how to stifle North Texas SC (sit in a low block and hit NTXSC on the counter). In MLS Next Pro, the fact that there are far more clubs than there are in USL League One, and the large difference between the quality of opposition from opponent to opponent, means that North Texas SC has had to be more disciplined in their approach compared to previous seasons.
Nathan: What would you say is the biggest lesson the team has come away with thus far as it has adjusted to MLS Next Pro?
Jack: Your background doesn’t define your ability. This team has Real Madrid and Bayern academy products playing alongside a high schooler and a walk-on winger in Bernard Kamungo. Young academy products like Nolan Norris and Alejandro Araneda will compete to start over college standouts like Isaiah Parker and Chase Niece. If you work hard in practice, you’ll be rewarded on the pitch.
Jose: The biggest lesson the club has learned is that they do not need to lean on the senior squad as they have in years past. It’s clear to see that the club has gained confidence in their established scouting network, as their acquisitions for this season, have all contributed to the club’s success.
Nathan: Head Coach Kah has been a joy to speak with on a weekly basis as he has moved into the FC Dallas organization with an energy and approach that really seems to fit with the FC Dallas way. He has shown a passion to play the youngsters and revolve positions based on their opponent and who is doing well in practice. How would you grade him at this point in the season? Do you think FC Dallas got this hire right?
Jack: Kah’s game plan rewards hard work and closely aligns with that of Nico Estévez. He prioritized playing young academy products rather than FC Dallas reserves and rewarded well-behaved, hardworking players rather than talent. He’s often stated that when a first-team player joins North Texas, they’re not guaranteed time. We saw this against Timbers2 when Thomas Roberts joined the team only to earn 28 minutes off the bench.
Most importantly, Kah is a highly holistic coach. He takes the game less seriously than some and is more concerned with his players finding the right mindset rather than reaching a certain stat line. The team is seen as a family, and many of the players see each other as friends, rather than fellow employees. From post-match press conferences, he’s made it clear that he’d rather lose a well-fought battle than win with complacency.
Although I admire his approach to the game and the relationships he’s created, it’s difficult to create trust and accountability with a group of teenagers. We’ve seen good players stay on the bench because of poor choices off the pitch, although this has been a rare occurrence. I’d rate Kah’s contribution this season as an A-.
Jose: Since the season isn’t complete, I will give coach Kah a B+. I’d like to give him a higher grade, but playoff results will determine the final grade. Kah has implemented a sense of accountability across the roster and ensured that each player, regardless of their level (academy, roster, or senior squad), understands the level of play expected from them. I think it’s impressive that Kah has managed to navigate what is a massive roster for a new manager to figure out and has done so seamlessly.
Nathan: In the background of North Texas SC’s solid season, there seems to be some realignment about how North Texas SC is going to fit in FC Dallas’ organizational approach to developing talent. Some promising academy talents, like say, Matthew Corcoran, have decided to look elsewhere for their next step, either because the team didn’t rate them enough for a homegrown contract or they just weren’t interested in a year with North Texas. On the other hand, more and more academy players are earning minutes, including guys who haven’t necessarily been on anyone’s radar. This seems a little different to how North Texas was managed in the USL League One, with a smattering of talented foreign signings earning the bulk of the minutes along with lower-end or young senior roster guys.
In recent weeks, the team has announced a loan for a Haitian national team player and the departure of Derek Waldeck, probably the longest-tenured North Texas SC player in team history (who is now heading to a USL-1 squad). And even more recently, Bernard Kamungo was signed to FC Dallas!
What do these moves mean? Is this just a natural adjustment to the quality of MLS Next Pro or prioritizing the team as primarily a vehicle for academy development? Is there going to be a strong pipeline between North Texas and FC Dallas, or will that take more time to develop? Will we see less opportunity for players to get North Texas SC contracts as the team gets better at evaluating talent?
Jack: As of this season North Texas is mainly concerned with those who will develop into MLS quality players or better. They see themselves as a stepping stone between the academies and FC Dallas. Good players need playing time and by keeping them in MLS NEXT Pro, FC Dallas can maximize their value. This is why we’ve hardly seen movement between the two despite a few standout players. Bernard Kamungo specifically has dominated on the wing, but his talents would be wasted behind an oversaturated front-line for FC Dallas. This is the same situation that Kalil ElMedKhar fell victim to this season. Having said that, the pipeline will strengthen over the years as the league’s quality improves.
Derek Waldeck, although well-liked, was aging out of the squad and has likely reached his potential. The acquisition of Carl Fred Sainté is a two-month loan that fills a gap at the 6 that North Texas has missed all season. It’s a low-risk investment for FC Dallas that should fix many of the issues defensively and in team build-up. It’ll also fill in a CDM role that functions as the heart of Kah’s system, which the young Jared Aguilar has done well to fill, but not excel in.
Jose: Waldeck’s departure was always going to happen. At the age of 24 years old, Waldeck is well past the “prospect” stage of his career, for a player that is not on the senior roster. Carl Sainte, at the age of 19 years old, is at the “prospect” stage of his career and is a like-for-like replacement for Waldeck on the field. This like-for-like swap of players should tell you exactly the direction that North Texas SC has decided to take. North Texas SC has now effectively become a club that will take unpolished gems and will discover if any of them show the potential to shine at a higher level. The problem with this approach is that while NTXSC has taken it’s place on the developmental ladder just above the U19 academy, there still remains a large gap between NTXSC and FCD........a sort of missing rung on the development ladder.
Nathan: Last question, what would have you feeling positive about North Texas SC’s inaugural season? A deep run in the playoffs? Making the playoffs? Someone making the transition to the senior team?
Jack: September should make or break this squad. If Sainté works out and Bartlett sticks with the squad then there is no excuse to not go on a deep playoff run. The biggest obstacle in the way would be a potential away playoff match against the Tacoma Defiance. They’re full of fringe-MLS talent, and if the Sounders fall out of the MLS playoff race, we’ll likely see in excess of 2,000 passionate Seattle fans. The other potential obstacle would be facing the Columbus Crew 2 in the final. Their squad is largely made up of fringe-MLS players, league leading scorer Jacen Russell-Rowe, and a roster with an average age of 21.96 years. Only two players on North Texas are older than 22.
For now, all fans should look forward to a successful end to the season. Collin Smith, Nolan Norris, Hope Avayevu, Bernard Kamungo and Isaiah Parker are all quality prospects who have taken big steps this year. Even coach Kah has been vetted by numerous MLS squads. The future of FC Dallas is bright, and I feel positive saying Smith and Kamungo will be standouts not only in the playoffs but next season at a higher level, perhaps even for Dallas. For now, fans should remain patient with the team. They’ve taken massive steps towards embracing the new club culture and come next season, Apple’s broadcasting deal with MLS should massively improve the fan experience.
Jose: The club sending players to the senior roster next season is what I’m looking for and also a continuation of playoff appearances (to establish a level of high expectation). The rumor that Mulato has been bought and will join the FCD senior roster next season, if true, means I’m feeling very positive about the direction of the club. I fully expect a couple of players currently on the NTX roster, to make the jump next season.
To our readers: What questions would you ask Jack and Jose about North Texas that I didn’t? Post below in the comments.