We here at Big D Soccer make no secret of the fact that we enjoyed North Texas SC’s run to the inaugural USL League One championship. After all, there will only ever be one “first”, and that, dear friends, was Eric Quill’s squad.
However, far be it from us to ever forget that the Hunts did not invest as much as they did and do into NTSC for the sole purpose of laying waste to the third division of the US soccer pyramid. “While it’s nice that the team has success,” Alex Aldaz, Assistant Coach for NTSC and Head Coach of the FC Dallas Academy U15s. “It’s almost as if, if we win a championship but we’re not pushing guys to the first team, something’s missing.”
Early returns on that side of NTSC are positive: Ricardo Pepi progressed to the first team after only about six months with NTSC. I’d argue that Tanner Tessmann is another feather in NTSC’s cap – while he was never a permanent part of the second team’s roster, he had 900 minutes and tons of training time with NTSC’s setup in 2019. NTSC can be a catalyst for a player’s development without ever actually signing that player.
That said, while I’d bet the next player to be signed by FC Dallas after spending time with NTSC is already on NTSC’s roster, integration between the Academy and NTSC will be crucial to sustaining the pipeline to the first team for the long run. Read on to better understand that relationship to see our expectations for it in 2020.
NTSC and the Academy: 2019 in review
It certainly seemed at times last year that NTSC was basically just FCD’s U19 team with different jerseys, but after looking at the data, the nature of the Academy’s imprint on NTSC was different than I thought.
Academy players represented a small minority of minutes played (20%), goals and assists (11%), and attempted passes (19%) for NTSC in 2019. The average across all counting stats available to me was 16%. And honestly, it’s partly a trick of the accounting that makes it look even that significant. Ricardo Pepi (NTSC -> FCD) and Imanol Almaguer (Academy -> FCD) were the only two players to jump between buckets during the season – I’ve counted them here in the bucket they started in: Pepi with NTSC, and Almaguer with the Academy.
That matters, because the few stats that were accumulated by Academy players last season were highly concentrated – a group of six players (Almaguer, Bonilla, Tessman, Rayo, and The Gomez Brothers) accounted for >90% of each counting I stat I track earned by Academy players.
In practice, NTSC games are not a development tool for every player on the FCD U19s – they were used by a small, elite group. “Once someone is hitting their head on the ceiling of what [their] environment provides, you need to put them in an environment that really pushes them outside of their comfort zone,” says Aldaz. “Again, so, they can take the next step in their growth and development. By struggling and suffering and making mistakes, and then learning how to be successful in that new environment.”
Significant amateur minutes with NTSC are reserved for those players that are “hitting their head on the ceiling” of the Academy.
The Dark Side of the Moon: the hidden value of NTSC we don’t get to see
“We have a revolving door on the second team with players coming in and out for time to train, probably more so than any team in the club,” said Aldaz. “We have a fantastic pulse on the entire Academy, on what’s going on.”
The natural thing is for training to be the entry point for most Academy players into NTSC. It’s an environment has neither the pressure of the USL1 table nor the limitations of only being able to play 11 starters plus three subs in a given game. Academy players called in to train with NTSC are forced to adapt their game to a level of physicality and technique that can’t be replicated by age group opponents. The guests in training are forced to raise their game.
“The main thing that you’ll notice players can’t get away without having is if you lack certain physical characteristics: mobility, dynamism, and explosiveness,” said Aldaz. “Especially when we head to certain venues where it’s a smaller field, there’s not a lot of time and space, the players that they’re playing against are men who are physically much more developed than the U17s or U19s, and the margin for error is much less.”
Crucially, as stated in the quote above, the opportunity to develop and grow in training is available to a wider pool than any other team in the club’s structure. While significant minutes with NTSC are the domain of the “next big things” coming out of FCD’s development pipeline, the identification of the next group of players to hold that mantle happens daily on the training fields of Frisco.
Who should we expect to see get minutes out of the Academy in 2020?
Looking at the distribution of minutes above and Aldaz’ comments, I would argue there are basically two classes of Academy players that see the field for NTSC: players that are hitting their heads against the ceiling, for whom NTSC actively tries to find game minutes, and players of expediency, needed to fill out a game day roster because of injuries or call-ups or whatever.
Players hitting their head against the ceiling
It’s important to remember that simply because an Academy player is highly regarded by the organization is no guarantee that they will get every minute available to them. The players signed to NTSC are there because the club thinks there’s a chance that they could rise to the first team in short order. “If we have a great talent in the Academy [at a position of depth for NTSC],” said Aldaz. “We have to get creative now and try to find a solution for that problem. It’s good problem, but it certainly doesn’t make decisions easier knowing we have other players that need time.”
- Beni Redzic is the year-younger version of Gibran Rayo. Both are versatile attackers who can be deployed across the frontlines. Both were elevated to the U19s a year young. Both have been called up to various youth national teams, but would be considered “fringe” at best for their age groups. Both have struggled to fill up the box score at the U19 DA level, and yet both are pretty much locked-in starters unless someone from higher up in FC Dallas’ organization comes down to get minutes. With the current state of the NTSC roster, Redzic is well-positioned to get a series of cameo appearances off the bench for NTSC if he can impress in training.
- If there’s one player in the Academy that has “mobility, dynamism, [and] explosiveness”, it’s Collin Smith. The sometimes captain and leading scorer from the U17s has rub-your-eyes-to-make-sure-you-saw-that-right speed and a natural feel for space uncommon in wingers. My guess is with Redzic available we won’t see Smith too much with NTSC until next year, but he’s been a shining light with the U17s.
- I expect to see RB Kevin Bonilla and CM Cesar Garcia to get a handful of NTSC minutes before they go to school late in the summer. Bonilla is the more effective player today, but the adds of Pedro Alves and Eddie Munjoma this offseason may make minutes harder to come by.
- U17 CB Justin Che has been talked up by the coaching staff this offseason, and he definitely fits the mold of an Academy player above the level of the DA. However, look back only one season to see an example of a highly-touted FCD Academy CB get little time with NTSC behind a recent FCD draft pick and a NTSC player fresh out of college. Justin Che, Nkosi Burgess, and Philip Ponder may be this year’s Nico Carrera, Callum Montgomery, and Brecc Evans. In my humble opinion, the best way to get around that is to let Che play at the six when it’s open, a position that’s a better fit for his athleticism, body type, and ball skills long term.
- Speaking of Nico Carrera, he would fit in this section if I wasn’t increasingly concerned that he has played his last game for FC Dallas. After putting in a defender-of-the-tournament showing in Florida in the first of the FCD U19’s winter stops, he has not officially played for FCD since (though he did apparently get some time in FCD’s first preseason game against NTX Rayados). That includes a trip to Guadelajara (an event in which he has participated in the past) and two DA games. He was just in Germany training with a Bundesliga.2 side, he turns 18 in May, his dad is talking about Nico’s time in the Academy in the past tense, and Nico is liking tweets that say that more top-level players will be leaving the Academy. From the FCD side, as mentioned above, club media has kind of abruptly started highlighting Justin Che, despite the fact that he’s younger and has usually played behind Carrera. Should he leave the club, Carrera would join Eric Davies as the only two players that I know of to represent FC Dallas at a World Cup and not go on to play for the club professionally – and the US team Carrera was named to in 2019 was much better than the Canadian team Davies made in 2013. It’s not just the pedigree: Carrera is actually very good. You can easily watch the all-touches videos and see a modern CB with no clear deficiency in his game. What’s more difficult to tell from the tape is routinely the first thing for which coaches (16:30) and commentators (43:55) praise him: his intelligence and leadership.
Players of expediency
Because of the NTSC’s second season goal of getting two quality players relatively guaranteed for each position, the role of the players of expediency is likely to shrink in 2020. These are a few names we might see despite that.
- LB is probably the easiest place on NTSC’s roster to get on the field. FC Dallas draft pick Derek Waldeck has been working there in preseason, but he may have duties in midfield at some point this season. Jonathan Gomez’s departure from the Academy opens the window for Jesus Veloz (LB for the U19s) or Eduardo Ruiz (LB for the U17s) to mop up some minutes. I’ve been pleasantly surprised each time I’ve seen Ruiz play and think he may be the better prospect long-term, but Veloz likely gets the nod in this case.
- Depending on if USL1 Golden Boot winner Ronaldo Damus spends much time with the Haitian national team this season, you may see Andres Dicun, leading scorer for the FCD U19s.
Don’t freak out if opening day comes and there aren’t seven Academy players on amateur contracts in the 18. Don’t even freak out if there are none. With the changes to NTSC’s roster this offseason (still ongoing), the absolute numbers of Academy players getting minutes with the team are likely to fall. You will still see a few high performers, but the team will probably sink or swim on the efforts of the players already on the roster.
That doesn’t mean the next generation is being snubbed. Their time will come as the players above them push upwards and out. We must remember that the operative verb for NTSC is “to launch”, not “to stay”.
“We’re very ambitious, and we have a lot of passion and energy towards what we do, and demand for the players,” said Aldaz. “We want to make sure we’re pushing them as much as we can to remember that their stop here at NTSC needs to be a brief one. And then they need to want to get on that stadium field. It’s not ‘I’m going to stay at NTSC and this is my end goal.’ That’s not what we want, that’s not our purpose, that’s not why we exist.”