Since we last met, North Texas SC lost twice by a combined five goals to zero at Greenville and at home against Chattanooga Red Wolves. Apart from the final 15 minutes of the first half, the 4-0 scoreline at Greenville was a fair summation of how the home team controlled the game. To give you a flavor of NTSC’s struggles, they had 12 more clearances than Greenville, which would have been their biggest differential all of last season, indicating just how much emergency defending NTSC was doing deep in its own half. Against Chattanooga, NTSC was intercepted once per 19.5 passes attempted, their worst such rate in any game over the last two years – the Red Wolves pressed NTSC into oblivion, especially in the first half.
Playing the embodied game
Look, there were a lot of factors and moments that led to NTSC getting run off the field at Greenville a few weeks ago, but NTSC’s typical size deficit manifested itself particularly powerfully in that game. On a minutes-weighted basis, the average Greenville player was 6’2” and weighed 168lbs, vs the average NTSC player at 5’9” and 157lbs. Per the league, NTSC players lost their 1v1 physical battles at a 3:2 rate, and as a result, the Triumph controlled 75% of the match.
Chattanooga was more subtle. NTSC, for one reason or another, chose to play out from the back mainly on their left side. While they didn’t enjoy much success (more on that below), almost every time they did string a few passes together, a Chattanooga player would step in and make a seemingly innocuous foul to stop the move and allow the visiting defense to reset into a block. Check out the below graphic from just the first half of that game – green pentagons are fouls won by NTSC, and red pentagons are fouls conceded.
This isn’t exactly a new tactic. Last season in their game against one another, the Red Wolves out-fouled NTSC 21 times to 12. Back in the 2019 season, the prevailing wisdom early on was that, if you could impose yourself physically on the young NTSC, they would fold. That team quickly made their opponents pay for that assumption. This year’s version has to find a way to do the same.
Whatever NTSC’s solution is, the referee has to do a better job enforcing persistent infringement: Redzic and Hope, NTSC’s two best dribblers, were fouled five times each in a little more than 60 minutes.
A case study: why coaches value defenders who can play with the ball
It seems like there’s a prevailing counter-narrative that modern soccer’s emphasis on a CB’s ability to pass and dribble in ways we typically associate with graceful midfielders is overdone. Why can’t defenders just be defenders? Go back and watch the Chattanooga game if you want to see why coaches prize that kind of on-ball ability.
JJ Parra, the skyscraping Columbian loanee who started at LCB, lost possession in NTSC’s half 14 times in his hour of play, by my count. You can see most of those in the chart and the video compilation below. He started the game alongside Alisson, taking the place of Mikey Maldonado, a diminutive CDM by trade who’s something like seven inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than Parra. And that matters! We just talked about playing physically above. However, Maldonado (i) wins way more duels in the air and on the ground than his frame should allow, and (ii) might be the best passer that’s ever signed an NTSC contract. In a game where NTSC’s possessions got choked out before they left the defensive third, his technique and nous were sorely missed on the backline. Maldonado’s going to play professionally for a long time (there’s one bonus M&M disguised pass at the end of the Parra comp).
And look, presumably Eric Quill and staff know all this and are doing the best they can with the roster they have. They chose to start Parra having seen him in training for weeks. That said, the difference in NTSC coming out of the back with Parra instead of Maldonado was stark. There are other options in that spot if M&M is needed in midfield – we saw Gomes against Chattanooga, and both Ramsey and Easton from the U19s could warrant a look there.
It’s absolutely worth noting that I spent the first quarter of last season singing the praises of a CB that got benched and cut before the eighth game. Take anything I say about defenders with a grain of salt.
This will come as no shock to you, but Matthew Corcoran is probably going to be a Homegrown player for FC Dallas. It is increasingly difficult, now that Redzic and Smith are first-teamers, to find players that earned significant playing time for NTSC during or prior to their age-17 seasons who were not signed as homegrowns. The only counterexamples are Jonathan Gomez and David Rodriguez, and they’ll both be in leagues of a higher level than MLS by the end of this year (probably).
- I’m starting to think that Hope is on some sort of a minutes restriction. In each of the first three games, Quill has subbed him out with 20-30min left in the game despite Hope playing well relative to the attackers left on the field, IMO. Either there’s some issue with his fitness or health, in which case he’ll start going full 90s in due course, or there’s some part of his game that makes him relatively expendable, which would mean I need to pay closer attention.
- Should we be worried about the offense? NTSC did get shut out two games running, and the underlying metrics don’t paint too pretty of a picture, especially given NTSC has played two of its three games in Arlington. That said, there’s a real gap in finishing luck across the first three games: NTSC’s PDO over that period is 0.94, and its actual goal differential is about a goal worse per game than its expected goal differential. Both of those will probably revert to the mean over time. Luck evens out … usually.