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North Texas Two Step – Turn out the lights, the party’s over

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North Texas SC’s 2020 season comes to a valiant end with plenty to build on in 2021.

North Texas SC

Since we last met…*sigh*…since we last met North Texas SC, they drew Revolution 2 on the road and beat both Forward Madison and South Georgia Tormenta deep into stoppage time, coming the width of the goalpost from pulling out three last-minute wins in three dramatic, must-win games. But it was a different last-minute goal in Omaha that left NTSC at 3rd in the table, missing the USL League One championship game by two points. What an effort by these players and coaches down the stretch, winning five of their final six games only to come up short by the slimmest of margins.

A season of inches

Reflecting back on that thin margin, I’m reminded of the famous speech from Any Given Sunday.

At sufficiently high levels of any skill or endeavor, the difference between winning or losing or drawing can be vanishingly small. It’s the slight difference of how a ball is struck, how a position is taken, how a run is made. A few of those small plays that stand out in my mind from this season:

  • If Charlie Dennis hand had actually struck Edwin Cerrillo instead of barely missing, which prompted the referee to send off Cerrillo for retaliating but keep Dennis on the field. NTSC went on to draw the game – maybe they win if it’s 10v10 instead of 10v11.
  • If Alisson and others had stayed a little more focused after NTSC’s go-ahead 87th minute goal at home against Chattanooga, making the clearance a few seconds later instead of letting Hurst and Hernandez waltz into the box.
  • If Isaac Angking had hit his 79th minute shot a tiny bit different in NER2’s early-season meeting with NTSC, playing out for a goal kick instead of finding the top corner for a golazo.
  • If the ball had bounced even slightly differently in the box in the 84th minute at home against Omaha, so that Che could have found a clearance instead of Vanacore-Decker hitting the equalizer.
  • If Eddie Munjoma could have scooped the ball into the net in the 90th minute instead of off the left post in the draw at NER2.

If any of those occur slightly more in NTSC’s favor, our club could be preparing for an extra trip to Greenville right now. That’s not to say that NTSC didn’t benefit from its own share of luck and marginal plays. If you are a NTSC player today, though, especially if you’re a young one, you have learned viscerally that soccer is a game of inches. Hopefully that lesson changes how they train and the mentality with which they play going forward.

Any play could be the difference, so you’ve got to find the inches you need in every play.

State of the Program

That matters, because NTSC is explicitly a platform for development before it is a competitive team. The primary goal, finding and developing players for the first team, is served by challenging for trophies, not the other way around.

Broadly, there are four ways that NTSC helps the wider FC Dallas to find or develop players:

NTSC should create space for the bottom third of the FCD roster to get game minutes, to develop, to stay match fit, etc.

  • So far, despite the issues COVID has posed to the second year of the club, NTSC is doing well at this. Roberts, Cerrillo, Munjoma, and Burgess were the biggest beneficiaries, the latter two getting game time in situations where they could take live reps in FCD’s system. COVID meant it wasn’t as smooth and convenient as usual, but NTSC remains a fine tool in this respect.

NTSC should provide a next level of competition for players still in the Academy

  • It’s hard to argue other than that NTSC is succeeding spectacularly in this respect. Che and Tessmann are two clear examples of high-performance Academy players that had their trajectories accelerated by playing time in USL1. NTSC has significantly boosted others like Collin Smith, Ricardo Pepi, Beni Redzic, and Jonathan Gomez (pour one out).

NTSC should be a further stage for players that age out of the Academy but are worth keeping tabs on after they pursue another path (college, especially)

  • Players like Ronaldo Damus, Brecc Evans, Arturo Rodriguez, Carlos Avilez, Gibran Rayo, and Imanol Almaguer fall into this category. NTSC has yet to find a first team contributor from this function, although maybe someone signs this offseason.

NTSC should be a validation rubric for high-potential young players from outside the club

  • This could be any number of players, recruited from other clubs’ youth setups (like Alisson), joining from the edges of competitive soccer (like Jatta and Danso), or coming from lower levels in the US (like Waldeck coming from college, or Batista joining from USL-C). If FCD is unsure if they are good enough for MLS, the club can take a low-risk gamble by signing the prospect to NTSC first.

So far, the first two functions are working well for NTSC. The third and fourth, on the other hand, have been fruitless. Again, maybe that changes this offseason.

As Quill, Denny, and co. build the roster for 2021, they have to weigh these things against one another – there are only so many roster spots and minutes to go around. If they are finding success building up Academy players, maybe they should shift minutes that way and cut back on college players and external prospects? Can you go too far in that direction (like Union 2, maybe)?

Burnt Ends

  • BGN first reported a couple weeks ago that several MLS affiliates would be withdrawing from the USL. Namely, Philadelphia Union II and Portland Timbers 2 from the USL Championship, and Orlando City B from USL League One. The general expectation is this move precedes an MLS reserves league. Relevantly, all three of those teams were among the worst in their divisions in 2020. As argued above, there is value for the FC Dallas organization (and others like NYRB and RSL) in having their second team in USL, but perhaps that value is diminished if you can’t reliably compete at that level.
  • One tactical nuance that I suspect has been pushed throughout this whole club is the value of shot position. FCD is top three in MLS in the difference between their xG per shot and their opponents’ xG per shot, suggesting that they do a good job of finding high-percentage shots relative to the opposition. We don’t have xG for USL1, but we do know that 64% of NTSC’s shots come from inside the box compared to 54% for their opponents. Cut another way, NTSC took 18% more shots than their opponents over the course of the season, but 41% more shots from inside the box.
  • Justin Che was substituted off for Alisson with 20’ left to play in the final game of the season. It was the first time NTSC played without Che on the field this season. I can only assume that Coach Quill saw my predictions piece from before the season predicting someone would play every available minute, and, knowing his team had been eliminated by the result in Omaha, wanted to spite me.
  • Here’s two unbelievable plays by FCD’s Thomas Roberts against Tormenta to advance the ball from halfway into a dangerous situation around the penalty box, only for Roberts to make the wrong choice or mis-execute the play. To me, this is the book on Roberts for now: class between the 18-yard-boxes (in a lot of different ways), but just not good enough at the final action for now.