North Texas SC, but virtue of being regular-season champions, have home-field advantage throughout the inaugural USL League One Playoffs. They took full advantage of the home crowd (4,067 accounted attendance) and knocked off social media darlings Forward Madison by a 2-0 scoreline on Saturday night.
FC Dallas’ 16-year-old rising star Ricardo Pepi – playing with NTXSC for the first time since August 27th – was the hero of the night scoring goals two minutes apart for the North Texans.
The first half was a hard-fought, defensive battle with only 8 shots between the two sides. Despite a 72% to 28% possession advantage for North Texas, Madison had more shots (5 to 3) as the young North Texas side (average age 20.3) had trouble breaking down the veteran Mingos (average age 26.3).
“[It was a] frustrating first half,” said NTX midfielder Edwin Cerrillo. “Their pressing with their forwards and being really compact… it was tough to break them down. We were forcing things and being caught a couple of times.”
The second half was a different story with North Texas outshooting the opposition 9 to 5. The game truly changed with the 74th-minute substitution of facilitator Oscar Romero who came on for USL-1 leading scorer Ronaldo Damus. That move allowed Pepi to shift to his natural 9-position where he came to life and took over the game.
“We wanted Pepi and Ronaldo [Damus] both on the field,” said North Texas Head Coach Eric Quill after the game. “They are both nines, in the system we play typically it is a little out of position for them, so the relationship there was a work in progress.”
The game broke open in the 76th minute when NTX left back Johnny Nelson made a dribbling run cutting in from the left flank, passing to Oscar Romero who had come into the center channel. Romeo’s attempted give-n-go return to Nelson fell to Pepi instead who took one touch and shot back across his body with a low driven strike.
“The first goal was all Pepi,” Quill gushed of his striker. “What a goal! To go back across the grain and put it in the corner was special.”
The second goal came just two minutes later. This time on a cross from the right by Oscar Romero who had worked an overlap with right back Bryan Reynolds. The cross from deep in the corner found Pepi in the box where he rose above the defense to nod the header back to the front post to complete his brace.
Man of the Match Pepi was the real difference-maker on the night and Quill knows he had a special player in his side. “When it’s on the line, superstars come out and that’s where I think the real eye-popper was tonight. When the superstar came out of the shell and took the game over in that moment.” Unfortunately for Quill and his team, they will have to play the Final without Pepi as the young striker leaves for the U17 World Cup on Tuesday.
Pepi said afterward his standout performance will give him a boost going into the World. “I think it puts me in great form. It just gives me a little bit more confidence and I should be very prepared for the World Cup.”
North Texas will have to rely on USL-1 Golden Boot winner Damus and potential league MVP Arturo Rodriguez instead.
North Texas SC advances to the USL League One Final to face the John Harkes led Greenville Triumph SC at 6 pm CT next Sunday, October 19th, at Toyota Stadium.