We’ve got a start date: “on or about May 8” and as early as April 10. North Texas SC will begin preseason later this month, officially starting the countdown clock for Eric Quill, Matt Denny, and company to finalize their roster and hit the ground running. One key piece to that is ensuring that NTSC maintains its spot at the top of the offensive charts in USL League One. In 2021, that means new faces on the forward line and tons of competition.
Names to know (for now)
Unlike in the midfield, NTSC has plenty of questions along the forward line. When Arturo Rodriguez returned to the team mid-year, he mostly started as a winger – he’s now at Phoenix Rising. Ronaldo Damus has led NTSC in goals in each of its first two seasons – he’s now at Orange County. The only players returning are Bruce, Rayo, Smith, and Redzic, who were all good in spots last year, but none of them have proven to be consistent difference-makers at this level. What’s left in the FC Dallas Academy ranks are mostly players that are very young or who stepped up into starting roles after more highly rated prospects moved up the organization.
It will help this year to have more access to first team players as the club does a better job planning around quarantine periods. Also, the club’s scouring of the college ranks could provide the second team with some auxiliary talent to keep the level high. Three names in particular have the potential to really juice this attack.
Thibaut Jacquel: Playing for the Campbell Camels, Jacquel was a decorated and productive attacker over his three seasons in South Carolina. A tall, gangly athlete, Jacquel filled a free role positionally in college, picking up the ball all over the field in transition while still getting into the box to finish off attacks as well. Quill apparently likes him as a striker, but my guess is he would be most effective on the LW in a role somewhat similar to Pepi’s when he played in that spot in 2020 for the first team. Like the rest of the draft picks (including Montes De Oca below), it’s unclear if Jacquel will play with FCD or NTSC or some other club in 2021 until they sign a contract one way or another. The Camels will play their season this spring, which means that Jacquel has the option to go through that and then join the club in the summer (though the fact that his player profile has 404’d suggests to me he’ll be joining FCD immediately).
Giovanni Montesdeoca: The pre-eminent goal-scorer of the mid-decade FCD youth teams that produced a few championships along with Weston McKennie, Reggie Cannon, and others, Montesdeoca returns to the club after a stop-start career with UNC. Though a ST with the FCD youth, he played as a hybrid ST/10 in college, leveraging his short, stocky, Aguero-ish frame to find space and service in and around the box. While he could play in a variety of spots in the attack, I think Montesdeoca would be most valuable to Quill & Co as a different style of #9 than incumbent Alex Bruce.
Kalil ElMedkhar: Barring another winger being brought into the first team before the season (definitely possible) ElMedkhar will probably be competing for a spot on the bench with homegrown Dante Sealy. Should he lose out on that battle, the Kentucky attacker would likely log quite a few minutes with NTSC in 2021. He’s big (listed at an almost identical size as Tanner Tessmann), he’s got quick feet, and he produced a ton of goals in college. Given how FCD got him, it would be disappointing if he wasn’t very effective for NTSC early on.
As a final post-script to this section, NTSC has been heavily linked to 18-year-old Mexican-Brazilian dual national LW Alejandro from Brazilian club Cruzeiro, apparently in exchange for a cut of any future sale. Alejandro, who looks like a mirror-image of Ajax star Antony, would be following a very similar path to the one that brought current NTSC DM Alisson to the club from the youth leagues in Brazil. Should the move be finalized, it would be a fantastic continuation of NTSC’s role in expanding the funnel of talent that can matriculate to the first team (especially since FCD might now have an ongoing partnership with Cruzeiro). As far as the player himself, I’m torn between the fact that he’s a highly coveted recruit for Mexico’s U20s and that he couldn’t get a sniff with the first team for a mid-table Serie B squad (roughly equivalent to a bad MLS team or a good USL-C team). We’ll see, I guess.
How it might play out
With all that said, if you forced me to predict a front three for the season opener, I’d go Kalil Elmedkhar on the left, Gibran Rayo on the right, and Thibaut Jacquel up top. KEM seems like a fairly obvious choice given the amount invested in him – the only way he doesn’t start is if he’s injured or good enough to make a re-shortened bench for the first team, which I don’t expect. If you listen to the Quill interview linked above, it really sounds like Jacquel was “his choice” in the draft, so it might take something unexpected from the other options to unseat him. That leaves the right side, and, because I’m a Sealy stan and expect him to be with the first team, that leaves Rayo as the incumbent. His versatility opens up a ton of options for movement and combinations in the final third.
Storylines to watch
How often will the FCD players come down?
There’s a chance we get a NTSC forward line in some game in 2021 of the same flavor as the midfield in the five-nil home game against Tormenta in 2019 – 100% FC Dallas. You could go Elmedkhar-Pepi-Sealy from left to right and end up with a highly effective, entertaining, and well-fitted attack. However, all three will have eyes on earning their way into the starting lineup or the bench of the first team. Thus, the extent to which they play with the second team will depend to some large extent on how good new FC Dallas attackers Freddy Vargas and Jader Obrian prove to be, and whether Jara’s poor form in 2020 was a true reflection of what he will bring to the club.
Those considerations could send a ripple effect down the structure as FCD players block NTSC players from NTSC playing time, which would block U19s from making the bench for NTSC, which would block U17s from the chance to play up an age group, etc. In these parts, we support competition for spots and placing reasonable challenges in front of developing players, but I worry about how this position group will shake out in 2021.
Finding the leading man
Of the FC Dallas players that are at all likely to come down to NTSC for minutes, Pepi seems the least likely. Considering that two-time team goals leader Ronaldo Damus has moved on and that NTSC went from an attack totally centered around the production of the center forward in 2019 to a far more egalitarian situation in 2020, there’s room for someone new to grab this opportunity by the scruff of the neck.
You can see the options above, but I want to emphasize the diversity in the group and how Quill can use them differently. In particular, I’d group Bruce, Jacquel, and Akem together as big-bodied, line-stretching hold-up artists, whereas Montesdeoca and Sosa are probably more comfortable doing a job like Jesus Ferreira’s last month against T&T. That changes how the defense is shaped for the wingers. As an example, if you’ve got Elmedkhar and Sealy available, maybe play Sosa to pull the CBs forward and support outside-in diagonal runs. On the other hand, Hope might be the every-game starter at the 10, which would fit better with someone like Jacquel or Akem who pushes the defense back to clear out Zone 14.
From the frying pan to the fire
Because of the pandemic, NTSC had less access to players at other levels of the FCD organization than its inaugural year. The most publicized effect was that FCD’s young first-teamers couldn’t bounce down to the second team for minutes as easily as they would have liked. However, the issues extended downward as well. Academy players couldn’t bounce between trainings and games with the second team while also keeping up with their youth responsibilities. The result was a drastic reduction year-on-year in the number of Academy players that made gameday rosters with NTSC. If Academy players played with NTSC, they did so full-time – that was Che, Smith, and Redzic.
Smith and Redzic are both likely to get a pre-season look with both of FCD’s professional teams, but the important note here is that, despite their break-throughs in 2020, both are somewhat less likely to see the field for NTSC in 2021. They’ve got the college guys to contend with now (remember that Anders Engebretsen left the club before the season restarted last year), they’ve got the FCD guys coming down, and they’ll probably have new international signings looking to make it in a new market. How will they respond to all these new challenges? Will they evolve and grow enough to maintain their spots in the pecking order?