FRISCO – North Texas SC reached the midway point of its inaugural season with a 0-0 draw at home to Greenville Triumph SC on Sunday, July 7. While the match itself was uninspiring, the first half of North Texas’ season has been anything but.
Sitting five points clear at the top of the table, Sunday’s draw was the first time North Texas was kept off the score sheet all year; and the first time in eight attempts that an opponent had earned a single point at Toyota Stadium. Further, North Texas sports the league’s two top goal scorers, Ronaldo Damus and Ricardo Pepi, who combine for 16 of North Texas’ league-high 28 goals this season. The team’s achievements earned head coach Eric Quill recognition as League One’s midseason Coach of the Year.
“It’s gone really well,” Quill said on the first half of the season. “I think that a lot of guys have shown a lot of growth. Obviously, the storyline of the first half was Pepi, and Ronaldo has taken over the attacking storyline so that’s been refreshing. When you lose a guy like Pepi and wondering who’s the next guy up, and it was Ronaldo who’s taken that job and run with it.”
Sixteen-year-old Ricardo Pepi lit up League One early on with a debut hat trick, followed up by four goals in his next six games before being rewarded with an MLS contract from FC Dallas. While losing a player of Pepi’s quality would be a blow for most teams, his progression helped prove the value of the North Texas SC project.
Not only did Pepi successfully move from the FC Dallas’ Academy to its first team via North Texas SC within the space of six months, but North Texas was able to mitigate his departure with another Academy product: Ronaldo Damus. The Haitian forward scored six goals in the five games following Pepi’s absence en route to taking the upper hand in the Golden Boot race.
North Texas’ achievements this season are made even more impressive considering the player turnover within the squad. Coach Quill has yet to field the same lineup more than once this season, and a total of 39 different players have made the matchday squad. While Quill has led his everchanging squad to the top of the table, the constant chopping and changing wasn’t something he — or his players — were accustomed to before the season.
“It’s something that’s very different than what I’m used to,” Quill said. “But the saving grace is the amount of depth we have in this organization, there’s guys in our U-19s and U-17 [Academy teams] that haven’t even gotten an opportunity but they’re training with us and getting better and better.”
“It’s a challenge,” captain Brecc Evans added. “You practice with different guys all week and come gameday it’s a different face, but we’ve done an adequate job so far. You have to adapt and adjust to it and communicate, but at the end of the day, that’s how you become a better player: finding different solutions on the field.”
While the policy of roster rotation may not be ideal competitively, it serves a vital purpose for the FC Dallas organization. Five players — John Nelson, Ricardo Pepi, Bryan Reynolds, Thomas Roberts and Brandon Servania—played for North Texas before going on to make their MLS debuts. Similarly, a total of 12 FCD Academy players have earned invaluable professional minutes in League One so far. The balance of fielding a competitive team and focusing on player development is the centerpiece of the staff’s coaching philosophy.
“The biggest thing is we’re trying to win a championship but also trying to be focusing on individual development,” Quill said. “We don’t want to lose sight of what the individual needs, but we also want to make sure that we’re performing for the organization and winning championships—that’s the goal of what we do here as a team but there’s also individual goals as well. We want to mesh those as much as possible.”
The dominance of North Texas’ young squad over the first half of its inaugural season is a testament to the talent within the FC Dallas Academy, and moreover to the years of hard work and investment that fostered it. The accelerated progression of Ricardo Pepi from the Academy level to MLS is proof of the viability (and necessity) of North Texas as the stepping stone for FC Dallas’ brightest talents.
“Overall, the success we’re seeing in the league on and off the field is a credit to everyone working on and involved with this project,” the club’s general manager Matt Denny said. “The culture we are creating here is something special. Not only are we top of the league with one of the youngest teams, but we are doing it the right way, built around the philosophy and foundation that the whole organization is committed to. I know the team and the coaching staff are still taking it one match at a time, knowing we are focused on developing and providing opportunities for our players and that’s how we will achieve our goals.”