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North Texas Two Step – All Brakes, no Gas

FC Dallas’ second-team stumbles down the stretch – is their form recoverable?

Since we last met, North Texas SC’s form has nose-dived with a late lead lost at home to Tucson and two losses on the road out east at Chattanooga and at Tormenta. And look, we’ll discuss some of the “why”s underneath those results below, but I want it said out front that, as a fan, I left this three-game stretch more hopeful about this team than I came in. That’s mainly because NTSC’s second half in South Georgia was maybe the best half of soccer they have played all year. Did Eric Quill give them a “you’re benched for the rest of the year if you don’t hustle your shoes off in the final 45min” at halftime? I don’t know, but their level of intensity and cohesion was ultra-high and sustained. Such a bummer that some good last-ditch defending by Tormenta (and some poor finishing by NTSC) kept them off the scoresheet.

Apologies that this is a few days late. I went WAY too far down the fantasy technical director rabbit hole last week.

What’s with all these new formations?

NTSC, being a developmental second team within a larger club, doesn’t tend to get too crazy with its formations. In fact, since I started covering NTSC in more depth at the beginning of the 2020 season, they started every game in a 4-3-3. Color me shocked, then, when Quill rolled out a very clear 4-4-2 at Chattanooga and then a 3-5-2 at Tormenta. In the first game, they shifted back to a 4-3-3 around the sixtieth minute in what seemed like a pre-planned move to coincide with substitution patterns, and in the second they shifted in about the thirtieth after giving up two goals.

There are tactical reasons to use one formation or another. A three-player backline can stifle two-striker attacks more easily. Playing a 4-4-2 rather than a 4-3-3 gives up bodies in the middle in exchange for protecting the fullbacks. The 3-5-2 can, with the right amount of discipline, provide width without sacrificing solidity in the middle.

The issue for NTSC is they haven’t really used these different formations much, and that can lead to some awkward moments on the pitch. Both of Tormenta’s goals were the result of bad coordination by NTSC’s defense, first allowing space in front of the back three and then space behind. Having rarely played in a two-striker system this season, Gabriel and Jacquel struggled to coordinate their movements in the first half-hour. Here’s one example:

I’ve changed my tune on these types of experiments quite a bit since lambasting the coaching staff for the NER2 game. Believe me: I understand there’s a difference between changing style/philosophy and changing formation, but some of the players from this team will play for the first team, and what’s clear is that the club values flexibility in its first-team players in both role and position. Better for the kids to look silly and make mistakes now than in a tense away game at LAFC next season.

Defense doesn’t win championships, but it will get you a lot of results

Those two goals NTSC gave up at Tormenta, both of which I put at the feet of the unfamiliar formation shift, were notable. It was the first time that NTSC had conceded more than a single goal in a match since the away game in Richmond at the beginning of July, more than two months and ten games prior. In that run, NTSC conceded seven goals in ten games (or nine in 11 if you include Tormenta). Prior, NTSC had conceded 17 goals in ten games and gave up more than one goal in five different games.

What caused the defensive glow-up? It isn’t the venue: NTSC played six games at home in the first ten games and only four in the last eleven. The cause isn’t possession: NTSC actually had 56% of the ball in the first ten games and only 50% in the last eleven.* The cause isn’t passing accuracy: NTSC’s opponents have completed more of their passes overall and more of their passes in NTSC’s defensive third since the Richmond game. The cause isn’t shots: NTSC’s opponents averaged ten shots a game in the first ten games and eleven in the last eleven. Shots from inside the 18-yard-box are also up.

The cause, as best I can tell, lies somewhere between the shot and the goal. NTSC’s opponents are getting a little more than one fewer shot on target per game; the percentage of their shots that end up on target has fallen to 27% from 41%. In part, that’s explained by NTSC defenders blocking 21% of opponent shots compared to 15% in the first stretch of games, or about 0.7 more per match. Opponents are also converting fewer of the shots they do get on target (30% vs 40% earlier in the year). That’s not because of NTSC’s GKs, however: in both the first and second half of the season, NTSC is giving up almost exactly as many goals as post-shot xG, per ASA (by the way, Shutler has kept out about three more goals than expected, almost perfectly balanced by Sanchez, who has let in about three more goals than expected).

The cause (or most of it) is two-fold.

  1. In the first ten games, per ASA, opposition shooters were accurate enough so that their psxG was more than three goals higher than their xG (17 v 14) – they were painting the corners. In the last eleven, their psxG was one goal lower than their xG (8 v 9) – their shooting was worse than average.
  2. NTSC started mostly preventing high-value opportunities. The per-shot xG NTSC allowed fell from .132 to .094, meaning each shot was about 4% less likely to go in.

While that improvement has helped NTSC to build a record-breaking unbeaten run, it hasn’t helped to spring NTSC up the standings. Defense gets results, but offense wins games, and NTSC has scored only one goal in their last four matches.

*All such stats exclude the Tucson away game for which no tape exists and we only know the score.

Burnt Ends

  • Shout out to Derek Waldeck for being a not-so-quietly crucial contributor to this team from his spot at LB. For someone who wanted to add end product this year, leading the team in assists and being the tone-setter for getting forward aggressively is pretty good. He’s the talisman of a group of players that may not make it to the first team but add a lot to NTSC in terms of on-field leadership and mentality – is there room for one or two such players to stay with NTSC (like Bayern II)?
  • I said it after the game away at New England. I’ll say it again: the announcer USL1 used for the Tormenta game doesn’t do his simple homework. Please stop giving him NTSC games, USL.
  • It cropped up a few times earlier in the season (most notably at Greenville), and now it’s cropped up again: Kazu, though he has a lot of quality both on and off the ball, makes hot-headed decisions that could put his team in a bad position. Against Tormenta, he shoved an opposition player leaving the field in the 90’. Keep your head, kid.
  • Across four games with Chattanooga, the Red Wolves led for 70’, NTSC led for 105’, and the game was even for 215’. NTSC went 0-2-2 in those games. That’s not normal.
  • Let’s check back in on NTSC alum Ronaldo Damus at Orange County SC in the USL Championship, shall we? He’s scoring three non-penalty goals per four games at the moment, tops in the league among significant minutes-getters. He’s also third in the league in npxG+xA per 90, and seems to be breaking into the top squad for Haiti at the international level. A very positive success story for NTSC to point to going forward.