We’re officially in countdown mode for the 2021 USL League One Season! Erm…I think so at least. North Texas SC was supposed to start preseason this week, but I haven’t seen anything from the team suggesting that’s happened. Maybe they delayed a couple of weeks to stay in line with FC Dallas? Who knows? Not me.
All I know is that I’ve got more excessively (psychotically?) detailed season preview content to put out about the best team in the 3rd division of US Soccer. This week, our topic is those stalwart warriors protecting the goal – the defense.
Names to know (for now)
No position group needed more external support this offseason than the defense and goalkeepers. The only such player on an NTSC contract a few months ago was Derek Waldeck. That meant quite a few new faces were needed, and maybe none so far has been more important to NTSC’s roster than JJ Parra.
Juan José Parra: he’s big, he’s right-footed, he’s about as old as the Reynolds/Tessmann/Roberts cohort, and I can’t find any tape on him at all. Though his playing time for Independiente Medellin’s first team has been minimal, they gave him a single-digit squad number (#2) according to the club’s website, which might indicate their view of him. Of note, Ricaurte was Medellin’s star and captain before he left, but also LAFC’s game-changing CB Jesus Murillo just moved from Medellin as well.
Christian “Kazu” Ferreira: a Brazilian-Japanese (?!?) left-back who’s played extensively in the youth tiers of Brazil and for the Brazil youth national teams. Kazu earned a handful of rosterings with the first team at Coritiba (who were promoted to Serie A while he was there), but never made an appearance. Gremio had him on loan for a year most recently, but he never appeared for their first team either. If you watch him play, the biggest thing that stands out is how comfortable he is in and around the final third, to the point that Gremio used him extensively as an out-and-out winger in their youth sides. In that way, he will contrast nicely with incumbent Derek Waldeck.
Both Parra and Kazu were signed on loan (whereas Alejandro was signed directly with a sell-on), but I remind you that NTSC GM Matt Denny stated before last season (in the context of Monterrey loanee Juan Manuel Alvarez) that loans without buy options don’t make much sense for NTSC. If either plays well enough to impress the club, they will stick around.
Mark Salas: In Salas, NTSC could be getting a tremendously experienced young player. He joined FCD in 2005 in the juniors program, rose all the way through the Academy, winning tons of trophies as a captain along the way. At UNC, he played nearly every minute available to him across three and a half seasons in the most competitive conference in college soccer. He’s a little undersized to be an ideal RCB and a little staid to be an ideal RB, but a very high floor addition to the squad if he ends up with NTSC.
Colin Shutler: A somewhat smaller GK (though it’s worth noting that he’s as tall or taller than Phelipe and GOATbeck, so maybe FCD doesn’t value height in that position so much), Shutler was the heart of two of the better defenses in the ACC in 2018 and 2019. Quill has noted that the UVA GK was the club’s first choice at the position in the draft, in part because of his comfort with the ball at his feet.
As mentioned with the attackers, there’s a chance that Salas and Shutler could be playing with their college teams this spring. There’s also a chance they stick with the first team. We’re still in wait-and-see mode there, even though appears Salas (and Montesdeoca) won’t be back in Texas until the summer.
One final note on additions: NTSC has been linked to El Salvadoran youth national team GK Rodrigo Artiga. A shorter GK, Artiga was the starter for his country’s U20s at the 2018 CONCACAF championships, illustrating a fine ability to get to shots even if he doesn’t seem to catch all that well. While I don’t think he’s all that likely to end up in Dallas, GK is a position of need for NTSC and this is almost verbatim the type of signing I encouraged NTSC to make last year. NTSC should draw top prospects from across central America and the Caribbean, not just this corner of Texas.
Should Artiga and Shutler sign for NTSC and Salas stay in college, I would guess we’re a (hopefully lefty) CB and a RB away from finalizing this position group.
Bonilla and Collodi stand out among the entire roster as two players in unique spots. Bonilla is listed on the University of Portland Pilots 2021 spring roster and is apparently going to be playing with them through the spring season if he returns from injury in time. Collodi is in limbo until the Ivy League resumes athletics in the fall. Both could be available for parts of NTSC’s 2021 season on amateur contracts that maintain their collegiate eligibility (as Bonilla was last year). That oddball situation fits two oddball players within the FCD system. They aren’t prototypical pro prospects, but both were tremendously successful youth players that exhibit tremendous mental and technical attributes. They play with the volume set at 11. Though Bonilla and Collodi may never make it to the first team, I’ll enjoy every game we get to watch of them within the club anyway.
How it might play out
Picking a starting five for opening day at this point is a futile exercise given NTSC will be adding more bodies, but in the face of futility I’d go with Waldeck, Burgess, Parra, and Reynolds. With Bonilla and Salas away for the spring and Munjoma more involved with the first team, young Ty Reynolds becomes the best of the options at RB (though I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Almaguer). Waldeck then becomes the natural starter on the other side to balance Reynolds with a bit more sturdiness than Kazu can offer. Pending another CB signing, Burgess and Parra write themselves into the team as the two first choices in the center of defense (though if Parra doesn’t impress in preseason, watch out for Ramsey to take the LCB spot and Burgess to slide to the right), and I expect them to be in front of Shutler. Whether he’ll be on a first team or NTSC contract is an open question.
Storylines to watch
What even is a fullback anymore?
Who are the two most in form fullbacks in world soccer right now? Not necessarily the “best”, which changes far less often, but the two who are impacting games the most right now. I’d say it’s Joao Cancelo and Rapha Guerreiro. Ask the same question about last season and I’d say Alphonso Davies and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Ask it about the year before that, and I’d say something like Joshua Kimmich and Marcelo.
You might have different answers, but I’d bet your list shares a trait with mine. Namely, there are four or more wildly different ways of playing fullback in there. Davies is a converted winger and attacks in the same way. TAA recalls the wide midfielders of the turn of the century like Ryan Giggs and David Beckham. Marcelo played like a consummate Brazilian 10 who had lost his way and ended up in defense by mistake. Kimmich took his skillset and became maybe the best d-mid in the world. Cancelo is currently emersed in whole-pitch nirvana, and Guerreiro is about as close as anyone I’ve seen to operating like peak Iniesta.
And even though those players have different strengths, they still are flexible enough to cover for and rotate into all these different roles. Check out this moment from Bayern’s January game against Hoffenheim.
Lest you think “well that’s great for the teams at the very top of the game, but FCD doesn’t and can’t ask their guys to do that”, here’s a still from an FCD U19 game in the Fall. I remind you Luchi has said many times that the first team takes its playing style from the Academy, not vice versa.
All that to say you (and clubs, but they probably don’t read this) shouldn’t be taken in by the fads to find “the next Alphonso Davies” or the next Cancelo or the next TAA. Fullbacks are asked to do some of everything in the modern game, so basically anyone with enough positional flexibility can be a fullback. You just have to be creative enough to tailor their role to their strengths (just ask right-footed, target-man, all-league LB Ryan Hollingshead).
Like the list of players above, NTSC has a broad range of profiles to choose from for their fullbacks. Waldeck is a very different player than Kazu who’s different than Bonilla who’s different than Salas who’s different than the Academy guys. NTSC’s quality will hinge, in part, on the staff’s ability to find the players and roles that make these positions most effective.
No team in the FCD structure has fewer dedicated players than NTSC. Usually, they have barely enough bodies on second team contracts to fill out a starting lineup. That means that “depth” for NTSC can mean something as humble as shifting a player from their ideal position to the position of need. Over the course of last season (including pre-season), up to seven different players started games at the four defensive positions, in order from left to right. NTSC started at least six different players at the “8” position and on each wing.
The result of this is that positional versatility is a highly valuable trait for players at this level of the organization. The easiest and best way to get on the field is to be useful in a few different spots. That’s why players like Salas (LB, RB, RCB), Waldeck (LB, CM), Burgess (LCB, RCB), Alisson (CDM, CB), and Almaguer (everywhere, basically) will probably earn a bunch of minutes this year despite not being A-List prospects. The same applies to guys like Rayo, Hope, or Montesdeoca further up the field.
What caused the defensive improvement last season?
As we’ve noted before, NTSC’s defense in 2020 went from catastrophic in the first half of the season to league-leading. The very obvious explanation is a step up in personnel – Bonilla came back, Evans came back, and eventually FCD shared Burgess and Munjoma. The other, less obvious piece is that the team was breaking in an entirely new set of players in the back, which was always going to take time.
That becomes important because NTSC is in a very similar situation this year. Depending on Burgess’ availability and whether Waldeck can hold off Kazu at LB, we might be looking at an entirely new back five. Maybe it’s a meaningfully more talented group compared to the one that started last year, but they still wouldn’t have played with one another before. If that was the problem last year, there’s a good chance it will be again in 2021.