The Cream Has Risen
Both inaugural USL League One semi-finals are matches one should find both entertaining and tactically intriguing. These teams have all dropped points to one another. While North Texas ran away with the regular season crown, four of their six losses during the season were against the other playoff sides. Twice, Forward Madison bested the champions and all have put four goals past NTSC. Although North Texas remain the clear favorite, they have to carefully consider how to break down their opponents using their possession heavy, high energy style.
Lansing Ignite vs. Greenville Triumph, Saturday, October 12, 7pm ET
Ignite was 8-2-4 at home this season, including several exciting matches against Madison and Chattanooga. The key for Lansing in this match will be to press as a unit and ensure coverage to avoid conceding on a counter attack. Lansing usually starts in a 1-3-5-2, but with a defensive midfielder. Ivo Cerda has started the past two weeks as the #6, but Kyle Carr also can play that position. I do not think head coach Nate Miller wanted to put in two D-mids in this match, but against North Texas in a final, he has that option.
For Lansing to overcome a very good goalkeeper (Golden Glove winner Dallas Jaye) and disciplined back line of the Triumph, close range shots will be necessary. The front line will need to avoid long range, speculative shots and try to get Greenville out of their tight 4-4-2, which is very good at absorbing pressure.
It is possible Greenville manager John Harkes will ask his team to give Lansing the ball, making it more difficult for Lansing to press and win the ball in dangerous areas. Forward used a similar strategy to win on the final day of the season. Lansing will have to work with the ball, switching the field often to open up space for attackers Elma N’For or Pato to exploit on the dribble in order to get into good scoring positions. The challenge for Lansing defensively is to be ready to defend counter attacks. They could accomplish this by keeping Gomez a bit further back as a defensive midfielder and a pivot to switch the field, and clog up the middle forcing Greenville to outside. Greenville likes to cross, but without Jake Keegan in the middle this strategy has been less intense of late.
While traveling this season, the Triumph are 5-5-4. Staying in solid defensive shape and keeping defensive discipline is key for Greenville. Losing their defensive shape against South Georgia Tormenta the final match of the season cost them second place and a home playoff match. A big question is who will finish the few chances Greenville creates. Scoring has been a challenge the last few weeks, but Carlos Gomez, Cameron Saul, and Omar Mohamed can all be dangerous but have been inconsistent around net.
Greenville may be able to exploit Lansing’s left flank on the counter-attacks. Lansing attacks tends to come down their right side to maximize the play of Nick Moon and Elma N’for both of whom can drive at defenses and are scoring threats. This leaves a lot of space on the Lansing left flank meaning the left center back (often Grant Stoneman) has to cover a lot of ground defensively. Promising attacks are possible should Greenville absorb pressure down their left, and make a big switch to Boland or Mohamed on the right. Exploiting the space vacated by the Lansing midfield who pinch central to support their attacks is key. Tyler Polak may stay home to harrass Nick Moon and Elma N’for allowing Cole Seiler to get forward.
North Texas SC vs. Forward Madison, Saturday, October 12, 8pm ET
NTSC has one single loss at home this season (vs. Greenville Triumph). In Frisco, the team has also drawn three and won 10. The key for NTSC will be to play their game and not get flustered by the psychological tricks played by the more experienced Madison players. If they let the Flamingos get into their heads and break the passing rhythm, it’s going to be a frustrating day.
The primary question for North Texas is who will be available on the game day roster. The semi-finals occur during the international break, so most players may be available. However, Coach Eric Quill may want to make sure that he’ll have a consistent lineup during the dash for the cup. We haven’t seen Ronaldo Damus or Ricardo Pepi in the squad for a few weeks. With FC Dallas making the playoffs, it’s possible Pepi won’t be available for the finals.
Assuming Damus returns (being on international duty with Haiti this is doubtful), NTSC has to try to exploit the wings with Richard Danso and Arturo Rodriguez and get the ball into Ronaldo in the middle.
Arturo Rodriguez against Forward right back Carter Manley will be a key one on one match up. If the outside backs of Forward get pushed high, NTSC will need to exploit the space behind. Forward’s middle is very strong with JC Banks and Eric Leonard guarding the back line. NTSC might consider absorbing some pressure enticing Banks to push forward, leaving Leonard one on on with Damus or Roberts. Otherwise the Texans should use the channels and switch the field to create space.
Forward has a 5-5-4 record away from Breese Stevens this year. Their key strategy will be to disrupt North Texas by pressing when the kids have the ball. Although extremely technical, most North Texas players are less inexperienced in high pressure situations and have sometimes gotten flustered. Pressing and making the game physical can disrupt the NTSC rhythm allowing chances on counters and turnovers in the offensive half.
The Flamingos recent home win against NTSC means very little as the away team played a heavily rotated lineup.
Defensively, head coach Daryl Shore needs to make sure his team keeps the North Texas attack in front of them. NTSC can have the ball and pass it around the midfield, but once the young full backs are high leaving less than a handful of defenders in place, Forward should spring the press. Should they win the ball and quickly counter NTSC’s back line can be unbalanced.
Coordinated pressing will be key to disturb the back line of the FC Dallas second team. Win the ball high up the pitch and break down the channels in transition moments; targeting Paulo Jr and Don Smart. Midfielder JC Banks getting too high might leave too much space for the talent of North Texas to exploit, so keeping him behind the front 4 may be vital to stop NTSC from passing through the middle.
Forward can win by not allowing North Texas death by 1000 passes strategy to lead to more than a few quality chances. Keeping at least one back home to deal with Arturo Rodriguez or Richard Danso down the wings will be imperative. Most difficult, do not give up set pieces within 30 yards of goal, NTSC is quite impressive on free kicks around the penalty area.