On Sunday, Sept. 25 at 6:30 p.m., North Texas SC will play in a semifinal matchup against Western Conference winners St. Louis City 2.
SLC2 are familiar opponents who suffered a 3-1 defeat to North Texas on Sept. 9th. They have now gone winless in three straight matches.
Nevertheless, with Sunday’s Decision Day coming to a close SLC2 snuck their way into first in the Western Conference with a tie against Sporting K.C. II.
Now, although coach Pa-Modou Kah excelled at finding open space in his recent matchup with SLC2, they will have the advantage this time around.
Until Sept. 27, Kah will be without starting goalkeeper Antonio Carrera and defender Nolan Norris, both of whom have been called up to the U.S. U-19 camp for the fourth Slovenia Nations Cup. In Carrera’s debut for the U-19s he earned a clean sheet against Malta in a 5-0 win. For game two, Norris earned a spot in the starting lineup and scored against Croatia in a close 4-3 victory.
The team will also be without starting striker José Mulato. Mulato joined the Colombian U-20s in the Dominican Republic and will also return on the 27th.
Carrera was phenomenal against SLC2 last time around, earning eight saves before losing a near clean sheet with a garbage-time goal.
His usual backup, Felipe Carneiro, has had plenty of success when Carrera’s away, earning three clean sheets in seven matches with a save rate of 67%. He however picked up an injury last week, forcing Kah to look to the Dallas academy for help.
16-year-old Julian Eyestone, who’s made huge strides in his development this season, would earn his professional debut against Houston Dynamo 2.
Eyestone is a phenomenal talent who’s earned call-ups to the U.S. U-17s and to FC Dallas practices. He managed four saves against Dynamo 2 and I wouldn’t be surprised if he joins North Texas full-time next season.
That being said, despite allowing four goals in his last start, Carneiro is still the more developed of the two. If he is healthy, he’ll likely start against SLC2.
Without Norris in the lineup, Will Baker also earned his first professional start last Sunday. Either Baker or Alejandro Araneda should start alongside Lucas Bartlett at center-back.
Without Mulato up top, Kah will have to rely on the likes of Pablo Torre and Tarik Scott. Torre has earned four goals and an assist in 16 matches this season. He can score in a variety of ways but doesn’t have the same physicality as Mulato.
Scott on the other hand has two goals but only 100 minutes on the season. He spent much of the year with Bayern Munich’s International Academy and will likely only feature as a substitute.
That leaves Hope Avayevu, Bernard Kamungo and Luis Miguel. Kamungo and Miguel both prefer the wing but have moved centrally at times depending on late-game adjustments. The only reason these three would feature simultaneously is if Kah abandons his usual set up.
With everything said, North Texas still have a decent chance at winning their matchup, along with the entire tournament once their missing starters return.
SLC2 are a well-rounded team, but an underwhelming first-seed with few individual standouts.
Alongside Rochester N.Y. FC, they’re also without an MLS counterpart. This means their sole focus comes with team performance rather than player development. Therefore their most recent starting lineup capped an average age of 22.9 years compared to NTX’s 19.6.
Two of the older starters, Joshua Yaro (27) and Kyle Hiebert (25), have both been prolific this year, with the latter earning a spot on the MLS NEXT Pro Best XI.
Akil Watts, who can cover a multitude of positions, secured six goals and seven assists throughout the season and will be the biggest challenge for Carl Fred Sainté to slow down.
Watts has helped SLC2 become one of the most creative attacking teams this league has seen. An older team often means a more mature and physical defense as well. Mulato’s strength and speed will surely be missed tonight.
SLC2 fans have given their team loads of support in their first year of existence so expect a strong atmosphere within the stadium
North Texas’s first-ever semifinal in MLS NEXT Pro is a great opportunity for the team to build on their legacy aside from player development. We’ll see tonight if they can maintain their winning ways from past seasons.