In 2018, FC Dallas began a “player development partnership” with Bavarian superclub Bayern Munich. These types of deals are somewhat common in MLS, but this one has made more noise than most: young players from the FC Dallas setup go to train in Munich every offseason, Chris Richards and now Justin Che (more on him below) were loaned to Germany at young ages, FC Dallas youth teams play in Munich-based tournaments. As much as it’s about player movement, however, the partnership allows for the clubs to share best practices in player development, with coaches and administrators traveling back and forth as well. Indeed, given the co-incident launch of the partnership and North Texas SC, no part of the FCD organization has been shaped in quite the same way by the relationship.
The Rekordmeister are one of the top clubs FC Dallas could possibly emulate in this regard in world soccer. In Bayern’s unbelievable 2019/20 campaign, wherein they won every trophy possible for them, 19 out of 38 players to have made a gameday roster appeared at one point for Bayern II. Additionally, they sold four players that had appeared for Bayern II in the transfer windows prior for $42 million (mostly accounted for by Mats Hummels). All that data is per Transfermarkt.
It’s not just players. Going back to 2010, Bayern II has used nine different managers, four of whom went on to manage top-flight sides including Hoffenheim (Seb Hoeneβ), Wolfsburg (Andries Jonker), Utrecht, Ajax (Erik Ten Haag), and Stuttgart (Tim Walter), while two more (Hermann Gerland and Danny Schwarz) remain in Bayern’s Academy technical staff. All that said, while it’s obvious Bayern sits at a very different part of the worldwide soccer pyramid than FC Dallas, that does not mean FCD can’t learn from the German giant’s success.
The first obvious point of comparison is age. Looking at NTSC’s 2020 season compared to Bayern II’s 20-21 season thus far (stats current as of February 9th), Bayern seems to operate a slightly older outfit, averaging nearly two years older on a minutes weighted basis. Luchi has said (and I apologize for not being able to track down the full quote) that the FCD’s vision for NTSC is for it to evolve into more of a “true U23” team – is this what he means? An older age profile? Not so fast my friend.
That entire difference is driven by three outliers: Nicolas Feldhahn, Maximilian Welzmüller, and Timo Kern, a CB, CDM, and CM, respectively. All three joined Bayern II in their late 20s after nomadic careers in lower division German soccer, none of them having played at a higher level than the 3 Liga at any point. Why is Bayern giving so many minutes to these guys that have no chance of playing with the first team? It’s not totally clear, though, when Kern was signed, the head coach talked as if they try to have a quota of veterans on the active roster at all times. By contrast, FCD wants NTSC to be a squad where overage players should be a rare exception rather than the rule.
Another key similarity is how large of a group of players the two teams draw upon for playing time. So far this season, per FBRef, Bayern II have used 32 players in league play, most in their league. The story was the same in ‘19/’20: 36 players played, first in the league. On the other side of the Atlantic, in both 2019 and 2020, NTSC led USL1 in the number of players used (and probably used fewer than they would have liked in 2020). Going into the 2021 season, I count something like 40-45 players that have a realistic shot at minutes for NTSC with more offseason additions still likely – the knife fight for playing time that Quill and his staff organize most weekdays is a key part of the second team’s role in player development within FC Dallas.
By design, those players can come from all over, supplementing Academy production where needed with high projection athletes from outside the club. When Andre Zanotta recently spoke about NTSC, he noted that, though they found success in their inaugural year playing almost exclusively FCD Academy talent, the second team can/should be a strategic platform for younger international players to adapt to the US and FCD outside of the pressure of first team soccer. In 2019, there were no players of that type on the team. In 2020, it was Alisson, Alves, Alvarez, and Zamudio, though only Alisson found a consistent spot with the team. Every signing so far this offseason fits in that bucket: Hope, Alejandro, Kazu, and Parra.
Comparing directly to Bayern’s setup is a little difficult for a variety of reasons, but if you tally all rostered players for the two teams into internally developed players and externally developed players (imperfectly defined as players that played with the club’s Academy setup below the oldest age group, which is currently U19 for FC Dallas – ie: if you joined FCD at the U19 level or above, you’re not “internally developed” for these purposes) the result is below. A majority of Bayern II players are molded at Academies other than Bayern’s. NTSC took a step in that direction in 2020, and will likely do so again in 2021.
As a final point, consider where Bayern II plays: the 3 Liga. They are the only second team to compete in the national leagues (third division and up), and would be in the 2 Bundesliga if rules didn’t require them to keep at least one level between themselves and their first team. Nobody in Germany plays their second team at a higher level of competition.
The club made the choice to place NTSC in the third rather than second division from the outset, so there is some degree of mixed signals, but make no mistake: FCD values the competitive level that NTSC faces in the same way. At The Striker Texas’ recent symposium, FC Dallas U19 head coach and Director of Boys Coaching John Gall referred to NTSC as a “revelation” in FCD’s player pathway. In its role as a stepping stone between the Academy and the first team, NTSC provides playing time against adults with loads of professional experience, the opportunity to play in front of thousands of hostile fans, and a professional travel and training schedule. Further, in the same call referenced above, Zanotta praised the team for offering out-of-age-group competition from outside the squad alongside more intense competition within the squad. To speculate openly, if you take Gall and Zanotta at their word and Bayern II as a model, NTSC seems more likely to move up to the USL Championship in the medium term than it is to dissolve down to any upcoming MLS reserves league.
But what about Justin Che?
While there is some disagreement among reporters, most are saying that Justin Che’s loan to Bayern Munich has an option to buy attached to it, meaning, if Bayern chooses, they can purchase Che at the end of the loan (this summer) for a preset fee. It’s the same structure as Chris Richards’ loan back in 2018. All that to say there is a realistic chance that Che never plays in an FC Dallas jersey again. What would FCD lose should that happen?
In the near term? Not that much. With Hedges, Burgess, and Bressan all on FC Dallas’ roster, 17-year-old Che was almost certainly not going to factor into the first team’s plans in 2021. Beyond that, he would likely struggle for playing time for several years until Hedges declines significantly. The truth is, for later-developing positions where substitutions and rotation are uncommon (especially CB and GK), it’s hard to get needed playing time for young players outside of loans. For FC Dallas, that probably means a loan to USL, where Che had already started to hold his own. It may be that FCD runs the numbers and finds out its more-often-than-not the right call strategically to flip Homegrown players at these positions for profit before they play much for the first team. We’ll see how that evolves over time.
In the longer term, in my opinion, Che could top out as a USMNT starter and a well-regarded starter for a well-regarded team in Europe. Basically, the John Brooks career arc. He’s likely to be a plus athlete as he matures (speed, strength, agility, balance, leaping, etc.), which could cover for his growing pains as he continues to learn to play defense. Training with Bayern to cap off his time as a youth player is not a bad way to polish some of his rougher edges as he transitions into the professional game. You can find a fairly comprehensive look here.