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North Texas Two Step: Considering Style Instead of Substance

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With North Texas loitering in the middle of the table, we opine on how the exciting, young team plays.

North Texas SC

Since last we met, North Texas SC lost 3-2 in South Florida to expansion side Ft. Lauderdale and then drew Union Omaha 2-2 at home midweek. If the club’s odds to make the championship game were long prior to those games, they’re astronomical now. Firmly in the bottom half of the table in points-per-game, they will need to win something like seven or eight of the final ten games of the season to advance. Barring such a run of form, we’ll focus less on “table talk”, instead examining the team through the lens of player development and (as below) tactics.

NTSC may not be good (yet), but at least they’re exciting

The results have been the bad news. The good news is, depending on your preferences, NTSC might be the most exciting team to watch in all of USL-C and USL1. They have had a lot of tight, high-scoring games – you can see them right in the middle of the “Outer Envelope of Excitement” below.

The first important, perhaps obvious takeaway from this is that NTSC’s offense is still good. Like last season, they are averaging two goals per game on a little more than five shots on target per game. It’s the defense – an extra goal conceded per game on six more shots conceded per game.

Prior to the season, I figured the defense would struggle early. I did not see them being the worst defense in the league as the halfway point of the season nears. With all four starters from last year’s stretch run gone (until Brecc Evans returned from Austin), NTSC has started at least three players at every spot on the backline going back to the preseason, including, by my count, six players at RCB across those ten games. The resulting lack of cohesion has been on display, both in defensive miscommunications as well as in myriad mistakes while playing from the back.

20-year old Brazilian newcomer Alisson played well against Omaha next to Evans in his first start at CB since the preseason. You can see two plays that stood out to me below. Perhaps Quill has found a solid CB tandem. Or, perhaps 2020 NTSC just doesn’t have the quality to find success playing the NTSC way (more below). If so, no worries: just enjoy the most exciting team in US soccer.

A question about playing style and quality

When asked about his preferred style in his introductory press conference as Juventus’ new manager, Andrea Pirlo said something that translates roughly to “we need to always have the ball, and when we don’t have it, we must win it back immediately.” That “ball domination” style of soccer should be familiar to anyone who listens to Luchi Gonzalez’ press conferences or watched NTSC romp to a title in 2019.

Although Guardiola’s Barcelona were known for Tiki-Taka, the press was just as important: “win it back in six seconds after losing the ball” was the rule. Pep didn’t invent the style, but his team’s dominance and flair brought it into vogue so that now the ideal for most managers is close to Pirlo’s quote above.

In a banner day for scatterplots at the North Texas Two Step, consider the following from this excellent post about RB Leipzig.

At the cloud-shrouded peaks of global club soccer, the best teams are both pressing high and retaining possession maniacally. The simplest takeaway from that graph is that if you want to be great (score/prevent goals, win games, get trophies), you should play this way. On that basis, we should be happy that FCD as an organization and NTSC as a team strive to do so, right?

The article muses that, rather than play style dictating success, teams that win a lot tend to play the way Pirlo describes because they lead more than teams that win less. I offer a parallel interpretation: is it all player quality? Is playing that way possible only for the teams with the best players, and therefore, since teams with better players win more, you see that style popping up on teams that win? The question is relevant to NTSC, because, in a year where they seem to lack superior talent relative to the league, they have dropped points trying and failing to play this way.

What do y’all think? Would NTSC / FC Dallas be better served playing a more pragmatic style? Can this style work without also having the best players? NTSC is primarily about player development: does this style create better soccer players?

Burnt Ends

  • There may not have been better chance creation performances this season in USL1 than the games Lamar Batista and Derek Waldeck had on the road making opportunities for Ft. Lauderdale. Turnovers, apathetic marking in the box, playing attackers onside, getting pulled out of position: it was a masterclass for mistakes in the defensive third. NTSC needs better play from the “veterans” in the squad if things are going to turn around.
  • Did anyone know Brecc Evans is a lefty before his recent run of games at LCB? He played all last year at the RCB spot, mostly used his right foot. I guess I just assumed he was right-footed. Anyway, after a few games of settling in, he looked pretty, pretty good at home versus Omaha (though not without blips). Now NTSC has to get the other CB spot fixed, as argued above.
  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the first game where NTSC played three “FCD” guys in midfield together (Cerrillo, Roberts, and Rayo, all of whom came up through the Academy), I noted a step up in coordination and speed of play. More passes with first touches. Lots of clean, simple, easy combos. Synchronized defense. A few examples are clipped below. This type of midfield play has been sporadic so far in 2020 for NTSC. Alisson’s potential move back into defense may open up opportunities for more.