Since we last met, North Texas let the Red Wolves off the hook again, conceding the tying goal (again) in the final seconds after battling to protect a 1-0 lead for most of the game. On short rest, they returned that favor to Forward Madison, finally breaking through in stoppage time via a free-kick goal from Jacquel that looked eerily similar to the one he scored in the season’s first game. To round out the tricky three-game stretch, NTSC went back to Omaha and scraped out another draw against the league-leaders on their turf, and even had a compelling case for a late PK waved away by the ref. Kudos to the squad for how hard they have battled in recent weeks to get deserved results away from home.
Eric Quill and company are now firmly above the playoff line by PPG and will likely be favored to get a result in each of their final 10 games barring the trip to Chattanooga midweek next week. Breaking into the top two spots may be too much to ask with Omaha and Chattanooga so far ahead, but NTSC now has a clear path to hosting a playoff game.
Evolution or Regression?
Part of what made NTSC’s inaugural championship campaign so magical was how utterly distinct the team looked with the ball. Tune in and watch the purest distillation of death-by-a-thousand cuts tiki-taka since prime Xavi-Iniesta-Busquets-Messi-Guardiola Barcelona. That 2019 squad remains tops in USL1 history for (all stats in this section via ASA) possession and the Misery Index (they passed through teams like fish through water, but froze the lake when the opposition had the ball) and is on the bottom for vertical passing distance difference (their average pass did not go far forward relative to their opponents). They were unstoppable and methodical.
Each year since the club has become less exceptional stylistically. The 2021 version has a great claim to being the most average USL1 team in history by these measures.
However, it’s not like this new, more milquetoast NTSC is any less effective than earlier versions. Each year NTSC’s underlying stats have pointed to a club in the top quartile of the league in overall quality with an average defense and a top-two-or-three attack.
Does style matter? Should NTSC strive to play with a progressive on-ball style? Or does a more practical, middle-of-the-road approach make more sense as a training ground for a first team that has no real identity?
You may remember Nicky Hernandez joined NTSC mid-week last season and went straight into the starting lineup. His introduction, alongside A-Rod’s, Tafari’s, and Munjoma’s, turned around the season and got NTSC within a point of the championship game. He played almost exclusively in the double-pivot and helped to move possession around (very similar to Blaine Ferri’s job this season).
And yes, Nicky was fine in that role, but almost all his best moments from 2020 were bursts forward to combine in and around the box. Here’s one example:
This season, after earning a first team contract, he started out in that deeper role, but with what seemed to me to be more freedom from the coaches to create going forward. The creative part went well, but the possession part did not. So, beginning out with the road game at New England 2 in late June, they moved him up to the top of the midfield, effectively absolving him of any ball-circulation duties.
Since he’s turned into an open field and final 25-yard dynamo. The coaches look to guys like Bruce, Jacquel, and Hope when they want to sub him off and keep the same skillset. Plus, he’s a dribblin’ fiend. Here are a few examples just from the Omaha game this weekend. You see at least three or four of these skill checks from Nicky every game these days.
His above-level size-speed-quickness combo, technical proficiency, and audacity make him a true problem for USL1 defenses. Going forward, I think he will be an asset for the first team during his present contract, but, crucially, as a pinball-chaos-agent-backup-10, not as a zone-moving CM. That was vice versa when he signed with FCD in the preseason.
- Look, I’m not doing another forensic late-game analysis, and they did do better this time, but NTSC’s late draw at Chattanooga was preventable. Watch the equalizer: Waldeck and Rayo, who otherwise had positive games, allow the Red Wolves to get a cross off from a dangerous area virtually unimpeded.
- North Texas continued adding versatile depth to the roster by signing Devin “DJ” Benton for the remainder of 2021 with an option for the 2022 season. After playing ODP in Birmingham, AL, Benton bounced around a couple of MLS academies before signing with his hometown UAB Blazers. Over two-plus seasons, he played a bunch of games first as a CM and then as a jumbo RB before he stopped making appearances early in the Fall 2020 season – NTSC calling him a defender in their release and his cameo at Omaha both suggest he’ll continue in that latter role. How did he end up at NTSC? Well, as a starter and captain for the Dynamo Academy, he should have been well-known to Eric Quill, formerly the Academy Director for another Houston club. Benton’s not a hugely inspiring signing, but he’s only under contract for about two more months – low downside, and maybe he’s a lottery ticket.
- Collin Smith is a mental mammoth. Maybe he doesn’t have every technical, tactical, or physical trait you’d want, but he is an absolute warrior on the field. It makes me want to root for him.
- I’ve come around a little on the Academy playing time issue. All the recent hoopla around Pepi got me watching some of the 2019/20 seasons, and Pepi, Sealy, Gomez, Che, and Smith, the five players in those years to get significant playing time with NTSC in their age 16 or younger seasons, all very much looked like they belonged physically in USL1. They weren’t titans out there, but you wouldn’t have immediately picked them out as teenagers from the broadcast camera either. When playing with their age groups they were WAY bigger, faster, stronger than their peers, almost to a comedic degree. Maybe that class of ’03 set too high an expectation just because they’re all physical freaks? The below is an FC Dallas U17 game from the spring, and not only do the FCD kids not look like massive outliers, but they’re also pretty much universally smaller than their competition. That won’t fly when you can’t get away without a certain amount of mobility, dynamism, and explosiveness at the USL1 level. More growth spurts are needed.