On Monday afternoon, North Texas SC released its decisions regarding player contracts for the 2021 season. The club will be returning defender Derek Waldeck, midfielders Imanol Almaguer, Alisson Dos Santos Correa, Nicky Hernandez, Gibran Rayo, and David Rodriguez, and forward Alex Bruce. As I’m sure you remember, the club has already announced the long-term signing of newcomer Hope Kodzo Avayevu as well.
It’s the nature of the NTSC project that they will turnover a large part of their roster every offseason. I like to use the analogy of a card game – your goal is to get aces (first team players). While there is some capacity to turn a king or a queen into an ace, that’s uncertain and takes time, so the best use of your resources is to discard your hand, redraw, and hope the odds go in your favor.
The reality, however, is much more difficult. Goalkeepers Carlos Avilez and Luis Zamudio, defenders Brecc Evans, Philip Ponder, and Pedro Alves, midfielders Arturo Rodriguez and Juan Alvarez, and forward Ronaldo Damus were not retained for the 2021 season. That’s a whole lot of key figures in the best memories, biggest achievements, and most exciting moments in the club’s short history. Avilez, Damus, Rodriguez, and Evans especially were the core of that all-conquering 2019 squad. They represent the first generation of legends at this club, and I hope all find a successful second act of their careers in the coming months and years.
State of the Depth Chart
The first thing you may be thinking is that having eight total players on the roster going into the offseason is insane. In reality, NTSC is returning as many players for 2021 as returned for 2020, and other nearby clubs in USL are starting with even fewer names on the proverbial whiteboard, shown below.
As I’ve written before, NTSC is committed to maintaining a roster that can withstand all but the worst blockages of access to first team and Academy players to supplement the game day team sheet. A few key areas where I expect NTSC GM Matt Denny and co. to focus this offseason:
Goalkeepers – They don’t have any right now, and unless Phelipe sticks around there aren’t really any with the first team where you would want to invest the game time. It’s possible Antonio Carrera challenges for time in 2021, but it’s more likely NTSC finds a couple of developmental prospects like Avilez and Zamudio this past season.
Center backs – Alisson showed he can play on either side of central defense in a pinch, but he’s a midfielder by trade and ideally you’d want two dedicated bodies for the position (you won’t necessarily need them, but it’s good to have them).
Forward depth – While we know Beni Redzic and Collin Smith can contribute at this level, there’s a lack of devoted depth in the forward spots. All of Hope, David Rodriguez, and Gibran Rayo have played as strikers in their careers, but none are true #9s. What happens if Redzic goes to college, Smith has Academy responsibilities, and Bruce gets hurt? Same question for both of the wings, to be honest.
Leadership – To my knowledge, everyone who wore the captain’s armband for NTSC last year is now gone. Brecc Evans famously captained the team to the title in the inaugural USL1 season, and Rodriguez, Avilez, and Alvarez were unmistakable tone-setters while with the club. The early odds favor Waldeck to captain this team in 2021, but I’m more concerned about the collective than any individual – can you lose all those strong personalities and maintain your standard of performance? Can guys like Alisson, Hernandez, Bruce, and Rayo step into that void?
NTSC’s players now have 1-2 months off to rest, recuperate, and get ready for next season. Each will have a list of areas where they want to improve. This is me guessing the content of those lists.
Alisson – Dominate the game more defensively. For a player with such an imposing figure, the young Brazilian does far too little to deflect attacks from the center of the park. Is the problem his game-reading? Is it fleetness of foot? Is it his commitment to defense? I don’t know, but he will need to improve there if he wants a shot with the first team.
Almaguer – Come back healthy and ready to play fast. Almaguer struggled through the 2020 season, missing large stretches of games with ill-described maladies. An undersized and athletically-limited player, Almaguer is at his best when he’s playing with high speed and intensity, usually as a midfielder.
Bruce – Alex Bruce is another who fought injuries in 2020. Despite showing flashes of some pretty sophisticated hold-up-and-lay-off play, he never seemed to mesh with Quill’s vision for how the team should function. Hopefully Bruce gets plenty of training reps with Rayo and Hope and Redzic this offseason.
Hernandez – Nicky’s arrival in the squad in late summer coincided with both Arturo Rodriguez’ return and the upward inflection in NTSC’s results. Whether that inflection was more to do with him or the reigning MVP is a matter of debate. For 2021, then, Nicky will have to supplement his ground coverage and fancy feet around the box with a more robust left foot and contribution in possession.
Hope – More on my best estimate of Hope’s strengths and weaknesses here.
Rayo – Rayo, like Hernandez, saw his increased role in the team play a large role in NTSC’s improving fortunes through the 2020 season. A tremendous technical player, Rayo’s quickness can put defenses in desperate situations, but too often he lets them off the hook by making the wrong final decision or not executing the right one.
Rodriguez – Well, we don’t have to call him “D-Rod” anymore. Will his older brother’s exit provide the environment David needs to flourish? No one doubts his ability in and around the box, and frankly I thought he was playing well before he got benched a few games into 2021. However, he must become more relentless, shaping the game for the full 90 minutes from endline-to-endline. Maybe that means improved fitness, maybe it means an improved mentality.
Waldeck – The old man on the squad at 23 by the time next season begins, Waldeck made real, verifiable progress adapting to his new role as a LB throughout the season. He has an athletic ceiling which may preclude him from making it to the first team, but I have no issue with seeing if he can compensate with his game-reading, especially since there isn’t a dynamite LB prospect knocking on NTSC’s door from the Academy at the moment (we’ll see if this changes by the end of next season).