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From Strength To Strength: How North Texas SC’s Offense Will Evolve In 2020

After losing the league’s best player in the offseason, NTSC must recalibrate if it wants to set more records this year.

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Among those who paid close attention to USL League One prior to its inaugural season, the consensus expectation was that North Texas SC would play an aspirational style of soccer, but the combination of youth, competition level, and constant lineup changes would limit their ability to field a cohesive, effective attack. In reality, NTSC were the dominant offensive team in the league in 2019, leading the standings in goals, shots, shots on target, and passes. They turned the rest of the league into sashimi with telepathic interplay and a level of on-ball technique unparalleled in US soccer’s 3rd tier.

As the page turns to 2020, NTSC will return to play in four weeks with the bulk of its goals and assists from 2019, but without talismanic MVP maestro Arturo Rodriguez. Someone (or more likely several someones) will have to step up if the team has ambitions to raise the bar further.

Players To Watch

As a brief point before we review the cast of characters, I am going through this list assuming that NTSC will have the same access to players from FC Dallas’ roster as last season despite the different protocols and restrictions around training and travel in MLS and the USL. Given that FC Dallas was told that they couldn’t play a friendly against NTSC prior to the MLS Is Back tournament, is it likely that FC Dallas players could drop the level to NTSC without hurting their eligibility for subsequent MLS games? Details about the state of play for MLS after Orlando are sparse, so the answer is “no one knows” for now, but should NTSC be without reinforcements from the first team, depth, especially on the wings, will be a problem.

Overall, the group is heavy on versatile, smart, technical players. Don’t be surprised if you see several players get starts in three or four different positions as guys become available and Quill experiments with different looks. We will start with strikers, move to the wings, and then transition back to attacking midfield:

Ronaldo Damus: Arguably the best offensive player on the team last season, Damus won the league’s Golden Boot award as top scorer despite spending half the season on the bench or out of position as an understudy to FCD players Ricardo Pepi and Cristian Colman. When on the field, he had a goal or an assist every ~81 minutes without taking penalty kicks, about the same rate as Carlos Vela in MLS in 2019 and better than Pepi with NTSC. Without a suitable loan or transfer for him in the offseason, Damus is back for 2020.

Alex Bruce: We’ve addressed his background and play style in the past. Since then, Bruce has surprisingly earned the start in all of NTSC’s preseason games over Damus. Is he the first choice ST for NTSC?

Oscar Romero: The elder statesman for NTSC in 2019, Romero gained Eric Quill’s trust down the stretch run and ended up as the team’s 4th most productive player in units of goals and assists with only 920 minutes played. He has lined up at every position across the front three, showing a knack for finding the space to take the final shot or pass. After working his way into the lineup over the course of last season, there’s plenty of reason to believe Romero is a hard worker and a leader for this team.

Dante Sealy: Addressed extensively elsewhere. Here’s hoping he can translate his dominant play against age group opponents to USL1 this year.

Gibran Rayo: Rayo was one of the select few Academy players to earn meaningful minutes with NTSC in 2019 and signed with the second team after a strong winter break with the U19s. A versatile attacker, Rayo played all over the field for the FCD Academy, bringing his quickness and dribbling skill to bear at the 8, the 10, at winger, and at striker at different times. Probably he will be a valuable substitute for NTSC in 2020.

David Rodriguez: He was a better per-minute playmaker than his MVP brother last season. David needs to add some fitness (he rarely went the full 90 minutes last year) and some defensive responsibility/industry, but his skill at finding space and playing a dangerous pass is unparalleled at this level of the US soccer pyramid. Hopefully he is the locked-in starter at the 10 when the next player is away with the first team.

Thomas Roberts: A slippery dribbler and dangerous passer over distance, Roberts was a crucial piece for NTSC in the 2019 playoffs, deferring the playmaker role to Arturo Rodriguez and focusing more on switching the point of attack and retaining the ball. If both Jesus Ferreira and Paxton Pomykal stay healthy, Roberts may have issues getting into the gameday squad for the first team.

Anders Engebretsen: An FCD draftee who joined NTSC after preseason and drew positive reviews from Eric Quill, Engebretsen does not seem to be with the team at this time. His LinkedIn lists his time in the FC Dallas organization as ending in June, he’s now working as an intern at an Oslo-based asset management company, and he’s no longer on the NTSC roster webpage.

While I’m sure Engebretsen made the best decision for himself, his absence leaves an awkward imbalance in NTSC’s roster – there are no remaining true wingers. Damus has played wide, but he’s a striker by nature; Romero can play there, but it’s not his real skillset; Rayo spent time there in the Academy, but he’s probably best on the inside. NTSC may have to rely on either FCD players (Sealy) or Academy players (Beni Redzic or Collin Smith) for the ability to stretch defenses in the wide spaces.

Oh, and by the way…

Now that Franco Jara has joined FC Dallas for real, Ricardo Pepi finds himself once again as the 3rd string ST for the first team. USL League One may have thought he was gone for good, but there’s a real chance Pepi will once again be NTSC’s weekly starting number 9.

A Few Steps Of The Dance

In his seminal work on the history of soccer tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson discusses the links between the formation of the Brazilian style of play and a key part of their culture: dance.

“Various parallels have been drawn between Brazilian soccer and samba—Brazilian fans at the 1958 World Cup chanted ‘samba, samba’ as they celebrated their country’s first win in the tournament—although Simon Kuper in Football Against the Enemy compares Pelé to a capoerista, [a disciple of] an exponent of a martial art invented by Angolan slaves that was disguised as dance to fool their masters.”

That concept (deadly action disguised as rhythmic, hypnotic art) has stuck with me for years as a fantastic metaphor for the best kind of possession-oriented, ball-dominant soccer, built to manipulate the opponent into a position of weakness and then attack the soft spot brutally. The whole purpose is to destroy the enemy. It’s the beautiful game played beautifully, but also played with a constant consideration of how to be maximally effective. It is in this way that North Texas SC (and FC Dallas) seek to play.

Here are a few of the notable features you can look for from NTSC as games restart:

Artificial counter-attacks

In the same way that the NBA changed when it became clear that the three-point shot is more efficient than most two-pointers, soccer is changing to force teams to defend when they are (1) not organized and (2) without a numbers advantage. Traditionally, this was achieved by bunker-and-counter soccer, the successor of which is the modern high press – “we don’t want possession, because if you have the ball it raises the likelihood that we can force a dangerous turnover and score quickly”.

For teams that prefer to dominate the ball (Guardiola’s Man City are the leaders of this style globally), the difficulty is to disorganize and outnumber the defense while they are solely focused on defending rather than using their offensive shape against them right after a turnover. One way that NTSC (and FC Dallas to an even greater extent) achieves this is through what I call “artificial counter-attacks”: situations where the offense is running forward with numerical parity (or better) into a dangerous area with the ball and the defense is retreating, but the preceding action was possession rather than an opposition turnover. Consider this example from NTSC’s road win against FC Tucson.

The first 35 seconds or so is just NTSC with seemingly innocuous possession (sorry for the camera shake – I couldn’t figure out why it’s doing that). There’s a brief change of possession, NTSC regroups, the Tucson defense is in good position, and then all of a sudden NTSC are running into the final 3rd going 3v3 against a Tucson backline sprinting towards their own goal. How?

  1. Off-Ball Positioning: Dante Sealy does a bit of clever positioning to stand just behind and between Tucson’s two midfield pivots – if the NTSC defender is skilled / brave enough to pass the ball into that pocket of space, Sealy can turn and play forward through the space between the midfield and defense, cutting the defending midfielders out of the play;
  2. Eliminating Defenders with the Ball: When Sealy receives the pass, a Tucson center back has jumped forward to close the space he was hoping to enjoy, so Sealy takes a super smart first touch, rounding the CB and cutting him out of the play as well;
  3. Quick Reactions and Transitions: Once Sealy breaks through into the space between the lines, Edwin Cerrillo and Arturo Rodriguez immediately sprint up the field with him, pushing the backline backwards and adding options to the attack;

Many of these attacks are rehearsed motions keyed by whether certain attackers can get open in certain spaces, which starts the whole chain reaction of runs leading to a chance at the other end. However, you still may need a moment of improvised skill or graft (like Sealy in #2) to bypass the defense’s best efforts to stop you.

Massive switching of positions

Because most defenses are a combination of man and zone principles, motion can be a potent tool to create and exploit space. Smart off-ball runs drag the defense to where you want them and away from where you don’t, allowing for others to get open by running into the vacated space. The natural result is a series of switches or rotations among the attacking players.

Here’s that goal in “chalkboard” format.

The RW has came back up the line to receive a pass. The CAM sprints diagonally from his spot in the middle followed by the opposing CDM to the vacated right wing, and the RW rotates with him by dribbling into the now vacant middle. The RW’s dribble has pulled the defending LCB forward, and the ST runs into the space now open behind, receiving a through-ball. From the beginning, the attacking LB has switched places with the LW, and now he attacks the goal as the LW and RW go to the top of the box to clean up any rebounds like attacking midfielders.

All that movement and switching forces constant communication and rapid decision-making from the defense. When executed quickly, it can pry open seams and spaces that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Integration of the fullbacks

Because NTSC tends to play with a true single-pivot defensive midfielder (Cerrillo in both the cases below), they have enough solidity against counterattacks down the middle that the CBs can cheat wider, pushing the outside backs into the attack as de facto added midfielders.

Watch this goal from the playoff semifinals:

At 75:04, the fullbacks are further forward than the entire midfield three (noting that Roberts has rotated to LW as Romero checks back for the ball). Once Cerrillo unlocks the defense by playing out to Nelson on the left sideline, Arturo Rodriguez does well to run diagonally ahead of Nelson to open an alleyway for the LB to attack and feed the ball in to Pepi. From there, it’s just the phenom shaping his body to disguise that he’s aiming for the left corner and NTSC is on the way to a title.

It’s not just providing width. In this clip, with the RW sitting high up and on the far touchline and the ST dropping in to take a pass to his feet, RB Bryan Reynolds has the license to make an outside-in diagonal run behind the opposing defense, where Rodriguez finds him.

It’s hard to overstate how radical that freedom is for an outside back to wield. Among top clubs globally, Ajax is really the only team that gives its fullbacks such liberty. In doing so, NTSC creates more opportunities for the rotations and switches mentioned above, and the opposition defenders have to spot runs from deeper, unorthodox positions, raising the chances that they will overlook one and be punished.