Were you wistful after Atlanta United won the MLS Cup in 2018 after a historically good regular season? Wishing you, as a fan, could experience your team dominating in a similar way? Well friend, have I got a team for you…
North Texas SC finished the regular season with 2.00 PPG. Atlanta last year? 2.03. North Texas SC finished with an average per game scoring margin of 0.8. Atlanta last year? 0.8. North Texas SC pitched a shutout in each of its playoff games. Atlanta? Two goals allowed over five playoff games, and zero allowed at home. NTSC scored more goals than anyone. Their ultra-productive striker and talismanic winger / attacking midfielder finished as the two leaders in MVP balloting (Almiron and Martinez, anyone?). The manager won Coach of the Year and then immediately left to coach a national team.
And yes, NTSC did it while giving the large majority of its minutes to players that can’t buy alcohol.
How did they do it? More importantly, is it sustainable?
Is North Texas SC going to stay this good?
ESPN’s Bill Connelly uses a really intuitive framework to describe the formula for success in college football: there are three core functions great teams must do well: talent acquisition (in college football terms, recruiting), talent development (coaching), and talent deployment (game-planning and play-calling). I’ll add talent retention in this article to capture the realities of lower league soccer, where short-term contracts are common and teams must resell themselves to their best players every year.
Is NTSC great at talent acquisition?
If we interpret “talent acquisition” as the quality of players brought in to play for NTSC compared to the rest of the league, then the answer is unequivocally “yes”. Top two vote-getters for MVP. Ricardo Pepi. All those MLS players that came down and dominated (Servania, Roberts, Cerrillo, Nelson, etc.). Carlos Avilez was a top-5 GK in USL1. Both Danso and Jatta looked dominant at their best. There was no team in the league that could match NTSC’s individual quality when they played their A or B squad. Why?
1. NTSC is a part of the most prolific soccer talent production line in the USA
It’s hard to think of the last USYNT roster that came out without an FCD player on it, at any age group. NTSC gets the best FCD has to offer from the ages of roughly 15 to 21. As much as I respect Toronto FC’s Academy, no other USL1 team can match NTSC’s talent pool.
2. When NTSC signs players, it uses an MLS-funded scouting setup to look for players that can potentially be MLS players
Except for a few depth pieces like Oscar Romero or Eduardo Cortes, NTSC is looking for players that have as much of a chance of reaching the first team as the Academy kids. That’s a very different pool of players compared to teams that are looking for solid USL1 starters. Of note, it’s unlikely a team like Forward Madison could appeal to these types of players – NTSC has the carrot of a promotion to MLS to dangle.
I am an advocate of the (admittedly pretty extreme) view that soccer players don’t get better after turning 21, they just get more consistent. As such, I think NTSC will probably have a long-term quality advantage over the rest of the league, but teams will exploit NTSC’s consistency disadvantage (eg: Greenville’s unbreakable low block and scything counter-attacks). The most likely way this manifests for NTSC’s USL1 competitors in 2020? Better teamwork and better coaching. See “talent deployment” below.
3. NTSC gets to pull from a very broad pool of players
Over the course of the season, NTSC gave minutes to 38 different players. Of those, 12 were on FCD contracts, 13 were on NTSC contracts, and the remaining 13 were either on Academy contracts or were Coach Michel (quick aside: isn’t that a nice illustration of NTSC’s place in the FCD organization? Balance right between the first team and the Academy). As a comparison, the other three playoff teams, Lansing, Greenville, and Madison, used 24, 20, and 25 players respectively.
Two-way MLS contracts and Academy contracts have allowed NTSC to test a broader pool of players than the other competitive clubs in the league. NTSC gains an advantage by being able to “flip over more cards” in a single season than other clubs. Of course, some of that is just compensation for 2/3rds of the roster having other stuff to do during the year (Dallas Cup, DA playoffs, FCD games), but it’s awfully helpful for games where the whole gang is available.
4. It was the first year of a new league – the best team was always going to set the standard
Owners and GMs for USL1 teams had an extremely difficult job this last year. In a situation where resources are very limited and not all can go to player salaries and fees, how much should they invest in the roster? They knew the quality of the league would be somewhere between the PDL and the USL Championship, but until NTSC ran away with the early season, they didn’t know where the line would be drawn. NTSC’s ambition allowed it to be the best in year 1, but everyone else has now an offseason to hit the mark that NTSC put up.
The easiest way to do so? Cut the players on your team that can’t help you beat a team of NTSC’s quality and bring in players that might, even if that means dropping the entire bottom half of your roster. Soccer is unique among American sports in that the player pool is virtually limitless – there are tens of thousands of soccer players out there good enough to play in USL1. Expect huge turnover among other USL1 teams this offseason.
Verdict: NTSC had a meaningfully better roster than its peers in 2019 for a variety. The FCD Academy isn’t going away, nor is NTSC’s ambition to find players that are good enough to make it in MLS eventually, but the standard NTSC set in 2019 will guide the roster decisions other teams make. The talent gap will shrink in 2020.
Is NTSC great at talent development?
What other USL1 team is getting five of its players sent to train with Bayern Munich for two weeks as an extension to the season? How many USL1 teams have access to MLS-level facilities, training, infrastructure, etc. See #1 above: FCD is maybe the best place in the USA for young players, and NTSC benefits from that too.
Verdict: Yes, NTSC is going to see its players improve more than other USL1 teams on average.
Is NTSC Great at talent deployment?
Did someone say coaching?
NTSC plays the exact same system as FC Dallas. The only substantive change to my eye was some intriguing stuff with their fullbacks. Mostly because NTSC played with either Edwin Cerrillo or Alfusainey Jatta at holding midfielder, both of whom are less adventurous than Bryan Acosta, NTSC had better cover for the outside backs to burst forward into the channels and challenge the opposing backline.
Because NTSC played the same brand of soccer 90%+ of the roster had been training for years, it enjoyed the built-in advantage that its players didn’t have to learn their jobs. Expect that to dissipate next season (it already did somewhat by the playoffs).
That said, Quill’s biggest contribution to this team was not his tactical acumen, but instead his man management. As mentioned above, NTSC gave minutes to 38 players this season. Roughly 2/3rds of his player pool had other obligations that superseded NTSC duty – maintaining continuity and a championship mentality through the roster churn of the summer was no small feat. Props to Brecc Evans and the other player leaders as well.
Verdict: NTSC got years of a head-start in training its players to play in its system, and pounced on other teams that were just learning to play together. With any luck, USL1 will be a league of more cohesive, coordinated squads in 2020. NTSC won’t be such an outlier.
Can NTSC be great at talent retention?
We’re finding this out as we speak. Johan Gomez is gone, as is (apparently) Alfusainey Jatta. In a league where the contracts we’ve seen reported are all short-term in nature, players have to evaluate each year whether they want to remain with the club, and the club has to reprove its value as a destination each year. Kudos to NTSC for bringing players like Arturo Rodriguez and Ronaldo Damus into the team and keeping them in USL1 despite their being clearly higher quality than the league. Now the question becomes can NTSC and FC Dallas convince players like that to do it again?
In my view, this is an underrated challenge and need for GM Matt Denny and the rest of the NTSC FO. Being able to keep high quality players is at least as important to the sustainability of NTSC’s success as their ability to recruit high quality players. Teams with better talent acquisition tend to have better seasons on average, but teams with better talent retention tend to (1) improve more reliably over a given time period, and (2) have lower year-on-year volatility.* Part of NTSC’s strategy is to “lose” players to the first team, but losing players to clubs outside of the FCD organization weakens the club.
One super intriguing aspect of this is player movement between USL and MLS and between USL1 and USLC. In MLS, when a player leaves a team, they are effectively in a “waiver”-like process where the team with the highest spot in the allocation order gets the right to claim or pass on them. It’s much more free-wheeling in the USL, and, to my knowledge, player movement between USL and MLS is basically un-regulated. Remember that players like Arturo Rodriguez and Ronaldo Damus are USL1 players – they are not legally tied to the MLS. It’s possible, if their contracts are up, they could move somewhere like Forward Madison or Louisville City or, more insidiously, Bethlehem Steel or Toronto FC II. FCD would likely still hold that player’s homegrown rights and could block them moving into MLS elsewhere, but the club has been willing to let players go in the past when they have wanted to go. Yes, Dallas is giving unprecedented opportunities to young players and the whole sporting organization is built on the principle of competition, which should make FCD attractive to ambitious young players, but being the #1 choice for every NTSC player is no sure thing.
Keep an eye on it, is what I’m saying.
*Please just trust me on this one. I spent three days building a stochastic model of USL1 in excel, and it would break my heart if the implied results weren’t true.