Since we last met, North Texas SC reeled off three desperately needed victories, vs Fort Lauderdale, at Chattanooga, and vs Richmond. FC Dallas’ second team didn’t give up a goal across all three games apart from two penalty kicks, and now leads the league by a mile in goals-per-game. Simply put, they have finally rounded into their 2019 form, and all it took was the midseason introduction of a bunch of FC Dallas players and last season’s stalwarts. Was it too little too late?
What does NTSC need to make the championship game?
The next time I post this thing, the 2020 USL League One regular season will be over. NTSC will either be preparing for a repeat final on the road at Greenville, or will be preparing for a long layoff before next season. At this point, the latter is still far more likely. The Richmond Kickers hold a three point and two-win advantage over NTSC – wins are the first tie-breaker in case of a tie in the standings – and have the easiest remaining schedule of the three teams in contention for 2nd, notably getting two home games (where Richmond have won five of six so far this season) and an away game at pitiful OCB. If I were to put out a projection for the final standings between Richmond, NTSC, and Omaha, it would look something like this, which is the result of a simple venue-adjusted PPG model I threw together. NTSC has a lot of ground to make up.
What does NTSC need specifically to book tickets to Greenville? The easiest scenario is obviously to win every game possible, in which case the club would have about a 50/50 shot of making it. It’s possible otherwise, but increasingly difficult. Take a look.
As a final point, meaningful games are a valuable developmental tool. Even if NTSC doesn’t make the championship game, I’d prefer this situation than to, say, Philadelphia Union 2’s, where they regularly fielded lineups with an average age of 17 but were basically eliminated from the playoffs after one month of the season. Results and development must go hand-in-hand.
Putting down a benchmark – Justin Che’s 2020 statistical profile
A newly minted FC Dallas Homegrown player, Che is growing his game with every match, but because we get to watch him every week, it may be difficult to see his development in real time. Odds are, Che will be the starting RCB at NTSC again next year, so 2020 will be a benchmark for his performance next year – we want to see continuation of the good stuff and improvements elsewhere.
Three areas I’ll be watching closely:
- Minutes – Che has played every possible minute for NTSC this year. That’s not necessarily surprising, but does indicate a relatively high floor to his contribution to the team, a positive in such a young player in the center of defense.
- Passing – At this point, Che struggles as a passer compared to NTSC’s other options at CB. Among players that have gotten minutes at CB in 2020, Che is last in passes-per-90 (52.1) and passing accuracy (81.4%). Lest you think the latter is because Che takes on a more aggressive pass profile than peers, his long passing accuracy is also lowest in the group (48.2%) and the ratio of his passes that go forward to passes that go backward is also lowest (2.9). He can hit great passes (like in the 61st vs Richmond). It just doesn’t happen often enough.
- Duels – Che is near the top among CBs in duels per game (9.2) and aerial duels per game (3.5), and yet his winning percentage in those situations (47%, 49%) are near the bottom among CBs.
Of course, stats (especially those that are publicly available) don’t capture all of a player’s performance. On the positive side, Che’s already excellent at avoiding pressure (63rd minute vs Richmond) and progressing the ball (4th minute vs Richmond) with his dribbling. On the improvement side, Che is ultra-aggressive in defense, often jumping out of his position to intercept a pass or pressure an attacker, leaving dangerous space when he misses. We can see in the stats that he intercepts passes more often than peers, but we can’t see the times that he tries and fails.
- Ronaldo Damus was caught between two soccer principles in the 92nd minute against Fort Lauderdale: don’t steal other players’ goals by kicking a ball that’s already going into the net; get hat tricks whenever you can. Smith’s shot whistled across the face of goal. Damus, already on two goals with his team up by three, elected not to stretch out his foot and stuff the ball home, but the shot rang off the post instead of going in. A moment of gentlemanly chivalry from Damus? Or simply a harbinger of the injury that reportedly kept him out of the Chattanooga game?
- Beni Redzic has got to go left sometimes. Collin Smith needs to pick up his head and cut inside sometimes. Both have signature moves that almost always work at this level, but only ever taking one club out of the bag won’t fly if they want to make difference with the first team.
- The home game against Richmond was Eddie Munjoma’s first game at RB for NTSC, and he looked, generally speaking, above the level. I counted five or six times in the first 25 minutes where he and RW Gibran Rayo switched positions and Munjoma ended up next to the ST, high and inside of Rayo, who was further back along the touchline (see two examples below). Switching of positions and integration of the fullbacks are key parts of NTSC’s offensive structure, but this was the most aggressive Eric Quill has allowed a fullback to be so far in 2020 – evidence of both Munjoma’s ability and NTSC’s desperation for points, I think.
- Drawing fouls is an art. It’s a dark art, but an art nonetheless, and Gibran Rayo is a master. Certainly, he contributed more to the win at Chattanooga than his grift, but by choosing good spots to earn calls he contributed directly to two goals and pulled NTSC out of a few jams.