The first-ever USL League One hat trick pushed North Texas past Chattanooga.
Ricardo Pepi is good. We knew that going into the first-ever match for the North Texas Soccer Club’s (NTSC) in USL League One. Their Saturday night clash against Chattanooga Red Wolves, another brand new side, was not as close as the 3-2 scoreline might suggest. This is primarily due to some defensive gaffes by the Red Wolves, but nothing should be taken away from Pepi’s or NTSC’s play.
From kickoff, NTSC pressed high, running frantically at the Red Wolves defense and playing direct. Too direct according to coach Eric Quill (see post-match comment below). Yet, it was this direct play that led to the first professional goal of three netted by the 16-year-old, Mexican/American from El Paso on the night.
Get head coach Eric Quill's thoughts on our first-ever @USLLeagueOne win!
— 🏆 – North Texas SC (@northtexasSC) March 31, 2019
Pepi made a direct run looking to get in behind as winger Oscar Romero chipped the ball into the box from the right wing. The pass itself wasn’t perfect, but defender Kendall-Moullin lost track of the aggressive Pepi, who poked it away and past Chattanooga keeper Alex Mangels.
Although Pepi gets full marks for goal-scoring acumen, the rest of the NTSC’s young team also needs credit. Chattanooga remained narrow in an attempt to compress the pitch, allowing their full backs to add their width particularly when not tasked with a defensive marker. This style allowed NTSC to get the ball wide to their wingers, particularly Romero #7, to be dangerous. While Romero wasn’t always dangerous in the final third, his three key passes lead to two of Pepi’s goals, although he was credited with only one assist. Romero’s movement into space was key on the second strike.
Alfusainey Jatta #6, the 19-year-old Gambian midfielder also provided three key passes, one leading to a Pepi shot. Jatta’s play was a classic performance of a holding midfielder. One could designate him as a 6 or 8, but basically, Jatta was the pivot allowing NTSC to get forward or to the wing. While Jatta’s final third passing completion was spotty, he played simply in the midfield, losing only 3 of several dozen passes in his defensive half for a solid 84% pass completion rate. Jatta also won 8 of 10 duels as the midfielder had a solid performance.
Pepi’s striker’s instinct was on full display for his final and decisive strike. Although, it was aided by a weak header from Chattanooga right back Richard Dixon toward his keeper. As a lesson to every striker in the world, keep the pressure on during such situations, as the ball did not quickly end up in Mangels’ possession and instead Pepi was able to deftly sombrero the keeper and finish off his hat-trick.
Pro debut hat trick? Sure why not.
— USL League One (@USLLeagueOne) March 31, 2019
Although Chattanooga’s defense can be directly faulted for the final goal, the other two can be attributed to good hustle and team play by NTSC.
Chattanooga, however, did not give up. The last minutes of the match opened up with changes on both sides. Chattanooga central midfielder Steven Beattie’s 84th-minute strike was a beautiful long-range effort after North Texas failed to control the ball after an ineffective defensive clearance. Good hold up play from Eamon Zayed allowed him to set up Beattie.
NTSC goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer could have done better, as his feet were set and he was facing the ball when Beatie shot, but the bending ball found the near post. It’s possible Maurer saw the ball late as it traveled between two defenders. But, there is no denying the shot accuracy.
Chattanooga did not give up either, with right-back Dixon heading home a long, back post cross from Vangjel Zguro in stoppage time. Dixon was completely unmarked and the NTSC defense seemed to have been ball watching instead of focusing on the possibility of a far post run. However, there was little time left after the restart for the Red Wolves to complete their come back.