NCFC Wins “Most Improved”
I’m a big underdog guy. I love David taking down Goliath stories and seeing small things become great. That’s probably part of the reason I have such an affinity towards NCFC. They get a lot of flack for their performance last season and just their general ethos of prioritizing young academy players. Despite making it to the USLC playoffs in 2019, they’ve struggled to replicate any sort of good form. Last year, NCFC finished the season in 12th place in the League One Standings with a goal differential of -20. They faced 452 shots (FOUR HUNDRED AND FIFTY TWO) across 28 games, and conceded 50 goals. That concession rate was not a huge difference between the teams at the bottom of the table, but 50 goals shipped in a season isn’t GREAT and conceding 452 shots is certainly not ideal. On top of their defensive struggles, they really struggled to create despite having some high quality creative players like JayTee Kamara. They actually performed as expected, pretty much matching their expected goals on the season with 30 goals. Even though they converted their chances on par, they created the fewest big chances in the league with 42 and yet were 7th in the league in Big chances missed with 27. That’s not a good combination. That being said, looking a little deeper at the numbers behind their season, things weren’t all bad. There were some encouraging signs that show signs of life and encouragement for the future for NCFC fans. Let’s take a look:
First off, we know that NCFC didn’t create a lot of chances. The encouraging thing about NCFC on attack is that they were above average at converting their shots. Theoretically, their tactics freed them to get into good positions to score. When they did, they did better at conversion than alot of the clubs in the league. On defense, we see that NCFC did have a *slightly* above average opposition goal conversion rate. That being said, when you face as much pressure as the NCFC backline did on a regular basis (faced 50 more shots than the next highest team in L1), it’s amazing what they accomplished. Theoretically speaking, they were no easier to score on than Greenville or Chattanooga. This is obviously a more complex situation and simplifying it to just these numbers ignores tactics, defensive shape, etc. that gave each team their numbers, but that’s still quite an encouraging set of statistics underlying their season. On top of that, they did a really good job of converting the smaller number of corners they were able to muster. They far out performed what they were expected to when they won corners and this is a great sign for them heading into the new year. The numbers that NCFC put up make corners an incredible weapon for this team to have in a really competitive league. If they can put up those efficiency numbers at a higher rate of chances, they will be even tougher to deal with.
All these numbers tell us about last year, but we want to know what’s going to happen THIS year. So, for the next few minutes, I want to take a look at how their signings improve some aspects of their game.
Last season, keepers for NCFC dealt with a pretty interesting problem. An average of 18.5% of the shots they faced were headers. This was the highest average headers faced for a goalkeeping core (only including players who played over 500 minutes) in the entirety of USL League One. Their aerial duels were lacking and this caused a lot of problems. Max Flick is a great CB (I wrote about him for my first ever article at length here.), but the defense as a whole struggled to cope. Enter Jordan Skelton: Former Tormenta and Des Moines Menace Player and aerial duel extraodinaire (take a look at his highlights here). Jordan was a statement pick up for a growing NCFC team. At Tormenta in 2020, Skelton won 70% of his aerial duels on the season. That’s not a fluke or a percentage that just makes him look good despite not going for aerial duels that often. In 2020, only 2 other defenders won more aerial duels than Skelton (44 out of 63). One other thing I love about Skelton is how he communicates and organizes the back line so well. If you watched him at De Moines last year, you could constantly see him communicating with the other defenders and helping them keep shape. His strength in the air as well as his great organizational/leadership skills make him a great addition to an NCFC defense that includes another new signing— former (and now current) teammate Christian Young, El Salvador international Nelson Martinez, and many other high quality options (Flores being one of those).
This is an interesting bit. Despite the return of many players, a key name will be missing on the creative end: Jay Tee Kamara.
Arguably, one of the more talented players in League One, Kamara will be a huge miss and maybe a bit of a blessing in disguise for a midfield in need of solidity. While he was one of the most prolific dribblers in the league (no one competes… other than possibly Damian Rivera), his desire to take people on sometimes got his team in trouble in central positions. This is especially important considering his INCREDIBLE creative ability didn’t help them enough (not really his fault) to outweigh how much he lost the ball. Losing the ball per 90 more times than anyone else on the team, he basically lost the ball every three touches. While his talent is undeniable and he’s got a place in higher leagues very soon/now, NCFC will definitely benefit from some more security on the ball this year. Obviously this risk-reward balance is inevitable for a creative player like him, but I’m not sure it’s something NCFC can afford in the middle of the field at the moment, as central areas were the source of greatest joy for opposing teams facing NCFC. The signing of Raheem Sommersall and the returnees in Pecka and Arriaga will hopefully be the start of a great midfield in 2022, but I’d imagine they’re looking to bring someone else in. I’m wrong all the time though, so we’ll see. Maybe we’ll see them continue that academy to first team pipeline that is such an important part of their ethos!
The front line was a big issue for NCFC in 2021. Wingers and strikers consistently struggled to turn possession in the attacking half/final third into chances. Below, you can see how only one NCFC attacker was even average at getting into good positions when they shot. It was not ideal. This year , NCFC are LOADED with attacking talent that will likely turn a below average attack into an absolute force of nature. In Showkat Tahir and Jaden Servania, you have incredibly creative players who are incredible dribblers and creators. Their ability to act as a magnet for defenders on the ball seems to open up so much space for teammates and both of them have a decent eye for goal. You can see below how Showkat does an incredible job of opening up space for his team by wiggling through 2 or 3 defenders and therefore creating a chance for his team. Also, signing Servania from Birmingham Legion feels like a coup and NCFC should be absolutely thrilled to have acquired such a high quality young player. Both of these players are incredibly intelligent, able to find and make space for themselves and their teammates while also being able to work pretty well without space. I won’t speak on it today, but there’s a lot to be said for having players who can open up space via dribbling that really makes a team more dynamic and lethal.
Along with their wide talent, NCFC have acquired two top quality strikers for the League One Level. First up is Garret McLaughlin. McLaughlin spent the 2021 season at Toronto FC II after spending some time in the Championship. This season, he had a pretty decent return rate in a team that finished just outside of playoff contention. He had an above average conversion rate, which is quite good considering he had 10 “big chances missed” on the season. I’ve talked multiple times about why that isn’t really a worrying stat for me unless it’s accompanied by a lack of goals/ conversion rate, but as you can see below McLaughlin is well into the top half of strikers when it comes to his Goal Conversion Rate. Not only that, but it’s hard to find a striker who got into better positions to score than him. His xG per 90 is incredibly high, partly due to the tactical set up of TFCII, but also because he’s just good. As you can see below, he averages about .19 xG per shot, which basically means the positions he gets in imply that he’d score a goal almost every 1 out of 5 shots. That’s quite a good return rate. Obviously, for a striker to truly thrive at NCFC it’s important that they improve on the number of chances they create this year.
The other striker is Nicolas Molina from UNCW and West Virginia United. Last summer, Molina was the Golden Boot winner and League MVP for USL League 2 scoring 16 goals in 13 matches. While I can’t really find stats to compile for his time in League Two (any data worth using is very hard to come by at that level), watching him play makes him look like quite the prospect for NCFC. While he is *quite* tall, his frame doesn’t prevent him from being good with the ball at his feet and connecting the build up. He’s pretty good in the air and is another one of those players that just seems to be in the right place at the right time. He had an incredible conversion rate in USL2 last season and rightfully won the award for the most valuable player in the league. This feels like a HUGE pick up for NCFC and while you never know until they’re there, I’m excited to see him play.
Now, obviously I don’t know how good this team is ACTUALLY going to be. I don’t know if i’m going to give a team a rating based off of pre-season signings, but I’m really encouraged by what they’ve done to address the issues of last year and create opportunities for more youth to make the jump to the first team. With the return of the young goalie Nicholas Holliday and many other young academy players ready to impress, i’m confident that we’ll see major improvements from the team in Raleigh. I’d keep an eye out on this young team that has seen players make international appearances, train in Germany with big clubs, and so much more.