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Ten fun facts to get you pumped for the 2021 USL League One Season

Is this post just an excuse for us to play around with a new USL1 data source? We’ll let you decide.

A brief peek behind the scenes: I started covering North Texas SC for Big D Soccer last year and, having a somewhat analytical bent, decided to try to collect some stats on the team. Unfortunately, the only place that had them was the league website, which is not built to facilitate analytics.

This year, that all changes. American Soccer Analysis has added USL League One data to their online widget. There are some counting stats that I will still scrape from the league website, but now we’ve got access to advanced stats via direct export to Excel.

But first, a brief intermission to talk new signings.

The first was Bernard Kamungo, a star high school player at Abilene High who immigrated to the US from Tanzania just a few years ago. He’s about as old as Gibran Rayo and Brazilian trickster Alejandro, but new access to high-level coaching and competition could supercharge his development. Although he seemed to operate in a box-to-box midfield role for The Eagles, that in no way dictates where he’ll feature for NTSC – the difference in levels could completely change how he is best deployed. One thing that shouldn’t surprise you at all is that Bernard is a lefty - southpaws make up a much higher fraction of FC Dallas’s external recruits than they do of the wider population.

The second was Mikey Maldonado, a UPSL standout who played at St. Louis Community College after high school. He’s another positional question mark - listed as a defender in NTSC’s press release; seemed to play mostly LCB at STLCC, but was oddly productive in terms of goals and assists for that spot; used all over the field both as a forward and midfielder during his time in UPSL in San Antonio; he’s apparently been working at the base of midfield for NTSC. Who knows how Quill is going to deploy him? A little on the older side for NTSC, Maldonado was born within a month of Reggie Cannon and Eddie Munjoma, which may be why he only got one guaranteed contract year (whereas Bernard got two).

Like the signing of Nicky Hernandez last week, bringing in Bernard and Maldonado solidifies NTSC’s commitment to fostering the best talents throughout the region and, beyond that, legitimizes the open tryout process (which should increase interest in the same).

The third was Campbell Camel and FCD draft pick Thibaut Jacquel. We discussed him a little with the rest of the attackers earlier this preseason, and it’s not a surprise to see him end up with NTSC, though he’ll likely be the oldest player on the roster by more than a year (hence the one year contract). He’s been productive in preseason play, Eric Quill spoke highly of him after the draft, and the club needed another option on the roster at ST once Damus left. Look for him to start game one as the team’s “#9”.

The fourth (I promise we’ll get to the data in a sec) was FCD’s GK draft pick, Colin Shutler. A highly accomplished college GK, Shutler entered the club at a somewhat awkward time for a young player at the position. The first team has three trusted options between the sticks - Maurer, Zobeck, and Phelipe - the latter two of which are unlikely to be on the roster in 2022 (Zobeck’s contract is up and Phelipe’s loan will end). Thus, Shutler can bide his time with the second team for 2021, splitting starts with Academy option Antonio Carrera, and then step immediately into the first team next preseason assuming he keeps his head above water.

Okay, with that out of the way, here’s TEN COOL THINGS I LEARNED ABOUT NTSC IN THE ASA USL LEAGUE ONE DATA

1. We’ve talked about G+ before, but the basic idea is it boils down to all on-ball actions to how they change a team’s probability of scoring and conceding across multiple possessions. Among players that played more than 450 minutes in a given season, the best for NTSC by G+ across its first two seasons was … Eddie Munjoma in 2020 with +0.22 goals added per 96 minutes compared to the average USL1 player. He was third in the whole league in that timeframe too. By comparison, Bryan Reynolds added +0.03 goals vs average in 2019. The worst for NTSC? Alex Bruce in 2020, with -0.16 goals subtracted per 96.

2. Taking the position and direction of a player’s passes, ASA can compare them versus all the passes in its dataset and score how often the player completes passes relative to average. The player to do the best by that metric over NTSC’s existence was forgotten man Imanol Almaguer in 2019 when he connected on 5.3 more passes per 100 than average. He also completes 7.1 more passes per 100 in the final third. Lookout: Ima might end up playing a ton of minutes for the team this year. Worst by that metric was, again, Alex Bruce in 2020, who completed 7.7 fewer passes than average. The good news is that he’s in good company: the next three lowest were two Ronaldo Damus seasons and Ricardo Pepi in 2019.

3. The true Passmaster for NTSC, however? That’d be your favorite player, and mine, Edwin Cerrillo, who attempted 102.5 passes per 96 minutes in 2019, 35 passes (!!!) more than the second-place mark, his 2020 season. He completed more passes than expected both seasons too. For a player we usually think of as needing to add more nuance in possession, those are shocking numbers.

4. Y’all got any more of them MLS goalkeepers? Kyle Zobeck and Jimmy Maurer put up the best and second-best shot-stopping records in USL1 over their first two seasons. Zobeck, in particular, nearly let up only one goal for every four the average GK would have conceded based on the shots he faced. NTSC is almost certain to rely on new faces between the sticks in 2021 – let’s hope they’re closer to the dark green lines than the light green ones.

5. Lookout for NTSC on set pieces this year. If you pare down to just dead ball situations (corner kicks and free kicks), no USL1 player from 2020 is better at getting the ball on the net than hulking defensive midfielder Alisson dos Santos Correa, who averaged 0.7 shots and 0.12 xG per game in those circumstances. The aforementioned Alex Bruce is fourth on that list with 0.4 shots and 0.10 xG.

6. There is nothing, I repeat, nothing more fun to watch than a gifted dribbler embarrassing the defenders trying to stay in front of him. Tekkers, baby. Thankfully, NTSC has a well-earned reputation for fielding highlight reel hounds across the pitch. If you cut down G+ to only the parts having to do with dribbling, the top two seasons in USL1 history are from NTSC players. Iconic winger Richard Danso takes first by scoring +0.14 G+ just from dribbling in 2019, and Beni “The Chef” Redzic takes second with a score of +0.13 in 2020. Hopefully, we get more of this in 2021. Wait, what am I saying? This is NTSC. one legendary technician leaves the club? Two more rise up to take his place:

7. How much of a pain in the rear is it to play against a given team? My favorite way to answer that question is what I call the Misery Index (I don’t think there’s a formal name for it). The Misery Index shows, per game, how many passes your team completes above expectation combined with how many passes their opposition fails to complete versus expectation. In essence, teams that score high on the Misery Index are both (1) good at doing what they want to with the ball, and (2) good at stopping their opponents from doing what they want to with the ball. It’s as much a measure of style as quality, but it does correlate highly with how good the team in question is, which is why the historically terrible OCB squads show up so low in the graphic below. The most miserable team to play against in USL1 history? 2019 NTSC, of course. In 2020, Quill’s squad lost some facility with the ball but continued to stifle the opposition against it. Like seeing your enemies suffer? North Texas SC might be for you.

8. The two biggest breakout attackers in 2020 for NTSC were young Academy wingers Beni Redzic and Collin Smith, who benefited from a sudden lack of bodies on the wings after the pandemic took hold. Although we saw a lot to like from both of them (both were beloved by G+ for their dribbling), one area that both will have to improve is their finishing. If you compare their xG (which takes into account where the shot is taken, whether it’s a header or a kick, any defenders screening the goal, etc.) to their post-shot xG (which adds the placement of the shot to all the other factors), their shooting skills lowered the goals they’d expect to score by about 0.3 per game combined versus average (they’re the worst and third-worst players by this measure in NTSC’s history). The good news? Differences between pre-and post-shot xG values tend toward zero over time in the vast, vast majority of cases.

9. I am an avid proponent of meaningful games against high-level competition as the gold standard tool to aid player development. USL League One is in a great spot for NTSC in that regard. It’s a high enough level that NTSC gets a serious challenge every game, but not so high that NTSC loses every game and spends the last few months of the season outside of playoff contention. Though there’s a vein in the fanbase that seems to think NTSC rolls through the league with ease, there are tons of teams that can more than hold their own against Quill’s side, none more so than NTSC’s nemesis and honored foe in Greenville. Honestly, USL1 will be more competitive than ever in 2021, if only because OCB is no longer there to get maimed every week.

10. Just because it fits my personal brand, the last tidbit has to do with future (and current) superstar Ricardo Pepi. Among players with a reasonable number of minutes, Pepi is still tops on the all-time USL1 xG+xA leaderboards with 0.8 per game in his 2019 season. Not the most ground-breaking bit of analysis, I know, but it serves to reinforce a key point. It’s great that NTSC can help guys like Nicky Hernandez make it to MLS, or launch Brecc Evans’ career in USL, but the number one priority is growing stars. If you can find/make one Pepi (or Tessmann or Che or someone even further out on the tail of the distribution), you can fund a dozen or more replacement players. This year, I invite you to go star-gazing with me – follow along with NTSC in 2021.