In Toyota Stadium, right after FC Dallas defeated the Colorado Rapids, North Texas SC played its final tune-up match before the start of the USL League One season. They defeated SMU 4-0, with 15-year-old striker Ricardo Pepi putting in an impressive display, scoring two goals and assisting another.
NTSC competed in the same 4-3-3 formation as FC Dallas. From back to front, here was the starting lineup for NTSC:
Zobek, Pedroso, Montgomery, Evans, Nelson, Servania, Jatta, (Arturo) Rodriguez, Romero, Sealy, Pepi
NTSC had two captains in this match: Brecc Evans and Alfusainey Jatta.
Right from the get-go, NTSC got the scoring going. In the 6th minute, Jatta received the ball in the center of the field at the top of the penalty area. He took a long touch to set himself up for a shot, but Ricardo Pepi was there in that space, and took the shot instead. It was a hard shot on the ground right to the SMU keeper, who made a huge mistake, letting the ball slide in between his legs and roll into the net.
In the 23rd minute, Pepi scored again. This time, his goal was not the result of a mistake by the defending team. John Nelson dribbled the ball forward and played a hard pass to the feet of Pepi inside the penalty area. Pepi scored with two adept, quick touches. Pepi pirouetted past a defender with an unreal first touch and immediately sent the ball to the far upper corner of the goal, leaving no chances for the defenders or goalkeeper. There were gasps from the small crowd gathered in the stadium because of the insane skill display Pepi showed on this goal.
Just about a minute later, Pepi scored another goal that would have completed his hat trick, but this goal was called offside.
Then, later in the first half, Pepi was a goal-line clearance away from getting an assist. John Nelson chipped the ball over-the-top to Pepi on the byline. Pepi controlled the ball in tight space while battling with defenders, then played in a great, low cross. His cross was redirected towards goal by an NTSC player (I couldn’t tell who), and beat the goalkeeper, but was cleared off the line by an SMU defender.
In the 43rd minute, NTSC did get its third goal before halftime. After a free kick delivery, a rebound fell to Arturo Rodriguez on the left side of the penalty box. Arturo placed his shot from the top of the box to the bottom right corner.
At halftime, Carlos Avilez and Bryan Reynalds subbed on for Kyle Zobeck and John Nelson, respectively. Reynalds immediately made an impact, crossing a low, driven ball to Dante Sealy, who one-timed a shot towards goal from point-blank range. Sealy’s shot either was saved by the SMU keeper or hit the post. I couldn’t tell from where I was sitting, but either way, it was very nearly a goal.
David Rodriguez and Ronaldo Damus were two other substitutes that were able to make a quick impact. After both subbed on in the 60th minute (for Sealy and Arturo), the two nearly combined for a goal in the 65th minute. David received the ball in his own end of the field and carried the ball forward on the dribble, took a couple of players on, then played an accurate through pass that sprang Damus in on goal and one-vs-one against the SMU keeper. Damus pulled his shot wide of goal, missing out on a great opportunity to score after a beautiful run.
SMU pressured NTSC a little bit more in the second half. They nearly capitalized on a clearance mistake by FC Dallas draft pick Callum Montgomery, but Carlos Avilez was up to the task and made a great save.
Mohammed Sesay was able to score the fourth goal for NTSC in the 88th minute by placing his shot into the bottom left corner of the net after receiving a pass from Ricardo Pepi, who had dropped into a midfield position during much of the second half.
- Without there being a giant, raucous crowd in this game like the crowd for the FC Dallas-Colorado match, it was interesting to be able to hear the players talk on the field. The two NTSC goalkeepers, Kyle Zobeck and Carlos Avilez, were both extremely vocal, and could be heard giving out instructions and feedback to the field players. Avilez was switching between English and Spanish practically mid-sentence as the ball moved between English-speaking and Spanish-speaking players in front of him. Callum Montgomery was another very vocal player.
- The main takeaway from this game for me is that Ricardo Pepi is good. Like, really, really, good. His second goal of the game was one of the best goals I have ever seen. He was able to get two goals and an assist in this match, and his hold-up play was not too shabby, either.
- The other most exciting player to watch for me was John Nelson, or “Johnny” as his teammates on the field called him. Nelson was quiet vocally in his 45 minute shift, but his playing and movement spoke for themselves. Nelson got up the field well from his right-back position, contributed an assist, started several good offensive plays, and generally looked MLS-ready to me.
- Alfusainey Jatta was a calming presence on the field. He had solid ball control and provided quick and precise movement of the ball. He had quality switches of the ball to the opposite ends of the field.
- Sealy got frustrated in this match. He did not play terribly, but had a couple of bad touches and was unlucky to not score on his chance right in front of goal. He provided excellent corner kick service on about three corner kicks from the right side in the first half, but nobody was able to connect and find a goal on any of them.
- David Rodriguez has incredible talent, but he likes to dribble, and his teammates seemed to want him to play a little more simple, especially to close the game out at the end.
- There was a moment in the second half where Montgomery did a beautiful Figueroa-esque, across-the-field switch to start an attack that I liked a lot. It’s a skill that is nice to see he has as a defender.
This was the first North Texas SC match I have watched, and it was a joy. It was a nice win for them, and I am excited for their USL League One season, which will kick off next Saturday, March 30 at home in Toyota Stadium against the Chattanooga Red Wolves SC at 6:00 pm. As a reminder, the USL League One season will have games available to watch on ESPN+ if you have a subscription.