Since last we met, defending USL League One Champions North Texas SC stumbled out of the gates. Continuing the club’s history of struggling on the road against pressing teams that play on small, converted baseball fields, NTSC fell 0-1 to Union Omaha on August 1st, and followed that up with a disappointing home tie against Chattanooga Red Wolves on August 8th, 2-2. In both games, NTSC flashed the game control they showed last year and could/should have gotten a better result in both. Costly individual mistakes of technique and focus left the team with only one point for their efforts.
Quill’s still figuring this roster out, and he made a mistake against Chattanooga
Head Coach Eric Quill started his team in a 4-3-3, as per usual. What happened next shocked me. After the first half water break, Quill broke out a formation I had never seen any FCD team at any level play: a 4-1-4-1. Target forward Bruce dropped into midfield to try to collect passes from the NTSC defenders, right winger Damus rotated to the striker position, and holding-mid Almaguer swung out wide right.
That’s all NTSC’s incomplete passes broken out before the first half hydration break, between the break and halftime, and then after halftime. The new formation didn’t work, and NTSC had to use two subs at halftime to jump start the team. They went back to the 4-3-3. Bringing on Batista for Alves helped NTSC to progress more easily up the left side with a natural left-footer at the left center back spot, and subbing on Redzic for D-Rod helped to move the team into the final 3rd (though I thought it was an injustice to D-Rod to take him off instead of Roberts, who D-Rod outplayed in the first half).
Bigger than the tactical choice itself were two things: (1) some change was needed, but Quill’s lineup choices handcuffed him so that he didn’t have good options to adjust (more on this next week) – the 4-1-4-1 forced square pegs into round holes; (2) FCD is so wedded to the 4-3-3 that the first team’s very slow adoption of the 3-5-2 as an auxiliary option has been a story for nearly a year – the second team, on a whim, seemingly, busted out a totally new look after 18 months of playing in one formation despite its mandate to play a parallel style as the rest of the club. Eric Quill might have more freedom with his team than I realized.
NTSC’s set pieces had leveled up in 2020…until the squad was rotated
In an interview with @HomeSweetSoccer in the offseason, NTSC center back Brecc Evans made the point that because the roster changed so much week-to-week in 2019, the team didn’t have many opportunities to run practiced attacking set pieces. With less player movement in and out of the squad because of the pandemic in games one and two, there was no such problem, and Eric Quill and Co. took full advantage. In its first two games this season, NTSC created plenty of chances from set pieces (and two controversially disallowed goals).
NTSC follows the lead of the first team (and the prevailing wisdom of data analysts) in defaulting to in-swingers if possible (having lefties give service from the right wing, and vice versa), and to positioning if not (players that play on the left side of the field give service from the left, and vice versa). From set piece to set piece, the team varied the type of play, the angle of service, and the pattern of movement for the targets in the box. At several points in those first two games, left back Derek Waldeck could be seen making the calls with hand signals to get everyone on the same page.
Here’s a few interesting set pieces that NTSC ran.
Ok, very brief description of each action. *Takes deep breath*
- Fake short play into the corner allows Redzic to hit the ball (badly) while the defense resets;
- Target Batista in a mismatched man-marking matchup and almost score;
- Quick short corner gets D-Rod into a dangerous spot against a scrambling defense;
- Playing to Waldeck short gives Redzic a new angle where he aims for Easton at the far post;
- Target Batista making a near-post run, and it squeaks through to Damus who’s positioned to clean up scraps;
- Batista screens for Waldeck to break for a short corner, and D-Rod aims for Easton in the space cleared out by the run, but the goalkeeper makes a good, aggressive play in the air;
- Pass back to Alvarez resets the angle, where he targets Batista/Easton at the far post to play the ball across the face of goal – unlucky not to score;
- Target Che 1v1 at the back post;
- Waldeck’s delayed run to receive the short corner can be played to the first runner (Bruce) or D-Rod, who’s crashing the top of the box and almost gets to the ball to shoot;
- Slow-building short corner that lets Waldeck run to the top of the box, where he can cross from a new angle;
- Lots of runs to the near post to free up Che’s run to the far post – again, good, aggressive play by the goalkeeper;
The Chattanooga game had basically none of this. I chalk that up to personnel changes, especially including two players (Roberts and Evans) who hadn’t been training with NTSC. Hopefully the team can re-find their threat on set pieces going forward.
- In case you were wondering about his ability to manage the “kids” on NTSC’s roster, Eric Quill is about to have four kids all five or younger in his own household (27:20-28:43). His wife is a former USWNT player and current WPSL coach in the area, so I guess what I’m saying is we should be looking for various Quills to be key pieces of the US national teams at a bunch of World Cups from about 2034 onwards.
- With a shortened, 16-game season and only the top two teams in the standings getting a chance to play for the championship, USL-1 already has the feel of being in the home stretch for the playoffs. Chattanooga’s late, tying goal in the game on Saturday cost NTSC sole possession of second place in the standings. They now find themselves tied with three other teams for fifth. The good news is that nobody has separated from the pack besides Greenville. The bad news is NTSC probably should have done so, but let the opportunity slip away.
- Through three games at the professional level, 16-year-old defender Justin Che has acquitted himself reasonably well. The biggest issue for him right now is his tendency to get out of position defensively, which opens up avenues for opposition attackers to run behind him. It led to the first goal against Chattanooga, another chance four minutes later, and a handful of similar chances against Madison and Omaha.