Ah, that most cherished of sports blogging crutches: the predictions post. In case you missed it, this exercise went poorly last year when trying to come up with fun and quirky predictions for the whole league. So, this year, I’m sticking with what I know – NTSC and its players. No more messing around with the Madisons and Tucsons and Fort Lauderdales of the world. This year, it’s all-natural, locally-produced, field-to-table forecasts. Bon appetite!
Just to give you a sense of how close we are to the light at the end of the tunnel, I’m planning on putting up a post reviewing NTSC’s performances in its games this preseason on the 19th or the 20th. Then, on Friday of that week, we’ll do a final roster and starting XI update and count down the five things that excite me the most about this team this season. Then, miracle of miracles, the 2021 season will be upon us at 7:30pm local time at Globe Life Park in Arlington (tickets available here). It’s (almost) here and it’s perfect!
Anyway, here goes nothing.
NTSC-Specific Predictions for the 2021 USL League One Season
Team MVP – Right at the overlap of what my heart is telling me and what my head is telling me sits diminutive playmaker and numerical successor to Arturo Rodriguez Hope Kodzo Avayevu. Yes, there are other newcomers that have more pedigree, but consider the following. In publicly-available film of NTSC training sessions from late in 2019, 16-year-old Hope looked like one of the two or three best players in that championship squad, and he’s a year and a half older now. Head Coach Eric Quill gushed about him before preseason: “Hope is a really different player than anything I’ve worked with in (maybe) my career. He’s just that dynamic. He’s got so many elite characteristics to his game. You’re hard-pressed to find, in a lot of these players, one or two elite-level characteristics. He probably possesses three or four.” Keep in mind that’s a coach that worked with Chris Richards, Chris Cappis, Ricardo Pepi, Tanner Tessmann, and other emerging stars. Plus, as noted, the club gave him the number of the best player in the league’s history. Everything’s turning up Hope.
Golden Boot (leads team in goals) – As noted earlier this offseason, NTSC’s offense went from relying almost totally on its striker to score goals in 2019 to spreading that responsibility all around the forward line and midfield in 2020. If I were a betting man, I’d take the middle ground between those two, which makes the player with the most projected minutes at the ST position an overwhelming favorite for this distinction. Although Alex Bruce is the only returner with real minutes in that spot, I think that player is Thibaut Jacquel. Academy forward Nighte Pickering and another newcomer I mention in the postscript could also earn time depending on injuries or tactical necessity.
Assist King (leads team in assists) – See the above with respect to Hope. I’m thinking he gets to double-digits in the assists column. If Beni Redzic ends up spending the year with NTSC, he’s another strong candidate.
Iron-Man (leads team in minutes) – I’ve talked before about how huge the player pool is for this team. Something close to 50 players have a realistic shot at minutes this year once you sort through the FCD roster, the second team, and the Academy. Considering that and the length of the season, no one is going to play the whole year, but those that see the most minutes are going to be (1) from the NTSC roster and (2) positionally versatile. To me that screams one of Alisson, Almaguer, or Rayo. I’ll go with Alisson.
Defender of the Year – Tough, tough, tough category. Derek Waldeck has been training with FCD all preseason, but highly-touted Brazilian LB Kazu is here to compete for his spot. JJ Parra has pedigree at RCB, but also has competition there from both FCD and the Academy. There’s no real LCB on the roster, and the same is true at RB (though that might be changing – see the postscript). Alisson’s another interesting pick here just because he’ll play a lot at either CDM or CB, but I’m going with GK Colin Shutler. Is that cheating? I expect him to play two-thirds or so of NTSC’s games this season, and he’s got the bonafides to suggest he’ll make an impact.
Academy Player of the Year – The criterion here is the player must start the NTSC season as an Academy-aged amateur. If they sign an NTSC or first team deal during the season, still counts. Justin Che would have won this award in 2020, for example. In 2021, though, rotation is going to play a key role. Wings Collin Smith and Beni Redzic and GK Antonio Carrera are the obvious favorites to find a spot in the squad, but all three have strong competitors for minutes already on the NTSC roster (Rayo, Alejandro, and Shutler, respectively). As such, I’m going with the one spot on the roster where there is no natural solution in place: left center back. We saw Nkosi Burgess there last season, but he’s an injury away from being a key part of the first team if he’s not that already. As such, I’m betting Josh Ramsey gets a lot of time over more awkward solutions like playing Waldeck, Parra, or Alisson in that spot.
FCD Contributor of the Year – So, at the time of this writing, I’ve got the following names as possibilities to flex down (even just for one game) and play with the second team: Dante Sealy, Szabolcs Schön, Kalil ElMedkhar, Pepi, Thomas Roberts (especially as he rehabs from injury over the next month or two), Nicky Hernandez, Tessmann, Burgess, Eddie Munjoma, and Phelipe. Who is the least likely of that group to carve out a consistent spot in the FCD game day squad? With the depth at wing on the first team, it’s probably someone in that position, so I’ll go with The Kentuckian, Kalil ElMedkhar.
Any League-Wide Accolades? – The only one I think is all that realistic is Jacquel and the Golden Boot. NTSC has fielded the most productive offense by a wide margin in each of USL1’s first two seasons. If the team reverts back to the ST scoring every other goal like in 2019, the path to leading the league becomes pretty clear.
Fine! I’ll do some league-wide predictions! Are you happy now?!?
Greenville will win the Supporters’ Shield – they’re the favorites until proven otherwise after their 2021 season. North Texas will earn the other automatic bye to the playoff semi-finals – questions will be asked about parity after a third straight year of functional duopoly. The other playoff squads will be North Carolina FC, Omaha, Forward, and New England. North Texas will ride home field advantage to a second title in three years after Greenville loses as the prohibitive favorite in the other semi.
Postscript: On April 3rd, after their game against Virginia Tech, UNC Men’s Soccer announced that FCD draft picks Mark Salas and Giovanni Montesdeoca were leaving the program. Although it wasn’t stated explicitly, the timing of the announcement in relation to the start of FC Dallas’ and NTSC’s seasons seems auspicious. Both players will probably spend at least 2021 with the second team. Salas fills an immediate need as a versatile right-sided defender. Given the current makeup of the roster, he’s going to get a lot of minutes. Montesdeoca, on the other hand, will have a fight on his hands across the front four spots, especially if guys like Dante Sealy or Kalil ElMedkhar come down for time. Regardless, both would add effective depth to a roster that needs more of it.