Unclogging the pipeline – the next FC Dallas / North Texas SC hurdle

FC Dallas created North Texas Soccer Club to be a step in player development that would bridge the Academy to MLS.  Not every player is ready to sign and play in MLS at 15 to 18 years of age.  Some of them need a place to play until 21 to 23. A place that can offer better coaching and better play than the NCAAs.

And yes, the Tanner Tessmann dual soccer/football commitment to Clemson was the trigger for finally putting these thoughts on paper, but they’ve been percolating for some time and I have talked about this topic with my patrons over the last couple weeks.

It’s only been a single season but FCD/NTX is now facing the next hurdle to unclogging the pipeline. Something they have yet to accomplish – signing a player to a North Texas SC contract, developing that player, and then signing them to an FC Dallas Homegrown contract.  

“But wait,” I can hear you thinking, “what about Ricardo Pepi?”

“He doesn’t count,” is my answer. Pepi was always destined for a Homegrown deal. He’s is a best in his year, and maybe even more, talent. He was going to be an MLS Homegrown. Period. FC Dallas was smart enough to use him to garner publicity for their new feeder club.  But if NTX didn’t exist, Pepi would have been a Homegrown anyway.

I want to be clear, this post isn’t a criticism of FCD and NTXSC. They are doing fantastic things with this pipeline, it is to be commended. I’m just laying out the landscape as to what the next step is and why it’s a hurdle that’s not so easy to get over.

There are two components to this pipeline blockage. Issue one leads to issue two, as you will see.

No Players from NTX to FCD, Yet

So far, no one has signed to FC Dallas from North Texas SC. As I mentioned above, Pepi doesn’t count in my book.

And before you say this is a garbage take, let me tell you that I’ve had multiple current Academy parents mention to me the very same thing. That Pepi can’t really be counted as showing NTXSC is a pathway to FCD.

NTXSC-Champions-13sm
Arturo Rodriguez, USL-1 Final MVP, shields off two Greenville defenders in the USL League One Final won by North Texas SC, October 19, 2019.(@CMARCHO | Craig Marcho / 3rd Degree)

North Texas SC just had a USL-1 crushing season winning the title fairly easily.  They had the MVP, Young Player of the year, and assist champion in Arturo Rodriguez as well as the Golden Boot winner in Ronaldo Damus.  While he didn’t win an award, team captain Brecc Evans was a force in the back for NTX. 

Yet none of the three has signed nor looks likely to sign.

Frankly, the FCD roster is pretty full. All ten off-budget roster spots are already taken.  

Damus is still quite raw and Rodriguez plays a position FCD is loaded.  Evans has the best shot given the team’s need for center back depth but will need to earn a senior roster spot. (Unless something changes on the FCD roster.)

Now, as I said, it has been just one season. Damus and Evans are 20. Rodriguez is 21. The answer to this issue may just be time.  A second season with NTXSC is no big deal. Or perhaps they will get a look in the spring and beat out someone for a spot on the FCD roster.  

But bottom line: no progression signing has happened yet and the Academy kids and parents I have talked to aren’t convinced it will be a common happening.

Convincing the Best Talent to Sign with North Texas

Of former FCD Academy players, so far North Texas SC has signed one player out of college (Brecc Evans), a college grad (Cesar Murillo – no longer with the team), one player still in the Academy (David Rodriguez), and a couple kids who were Academy grads who kicked around a couple other places and didn’t go to college (Oscar Romero, Arturo Rodriguez, Ronaldo Damus, and Hector Montalvo – the last no longer with the team). 

There’s been just one signing from a player graduating from the Academy who passed up a college commitment to play for North Texas SC – Imanol Almaguer who had committed to play college soccer at Northern Illinois.

That’s not a bad list, right?  So what’s the problem?

What’s missing are the very top tier Academy players, the ones who in the past were Homegrown signings.  FCD wants them to sign with North Texas instead.

I divide them into two groups in my thinking.

Dante Sealy
Dante Sealy takes part in North Texas SC training. (North Texas SC Communications)

Group one – the players who aren’t ready for MLS but FCD really wants to keep a hold on and stash away. They are mostly U17s. We often refer to them as “protect your investment” signings. Previous examples are Dante Sealy, Bryan Reynolds, Paxton Pomykal, and Jesus Ferreira.

So far, David Rodriguez is the only example of this with North Texas. 

Side note: I do wonder why a few more kids age 15 who know they aren’t going to play college soccer aren’t jumping on this kind of deal. Sign a three-year contract and get paid to play till you are 18 and can then sign anywhere in the world seems a no-brainer to me. Money? FCD only offers deals past age 18? I need to ask around.

Group two – players who mostly come out of the U19s ready to get some level of minutes with FCD but still need lots of PT. Previous examples of this kind of player are Edwin Cerrillo and Thomas Roberts. I also include Ricardo Pepi here. These are the guys FCD will, going forward, want to sign to an NTX deal to get tons of minutes early on with an eye to a promotion to an MLS Homegrown contract a half a year or year in like they did with Pepi. 

The problem is FCD can’t infinitely sign Homegrowns and loan them to North Texas as each one that isn’t on the off-budget is a salary cap hit. As mentioned, the off-budget portion of the FCD roster is full. I’m told MLS clubs can only write one loan a season off their cap and this year that will almost certainly be Pablo Aranguiz.

Side note: The above is pending the new CBA coming this winter that might change all kinds of roster and cap rules.  That could be a factor in why FCD/NTX isn’t signing anyone yet.

So pending any potential roster rule changes – which sometimes happens in MLS without anyone hearing about it – FCD needs to convince the best Academy kids to sign with North Texas instead.

And so far they have been unable to. 

Dante Sealy refused to take an NTX deal and ended up a Homegrown. Diego Letayf was offered an NTX deal before he left for the Tigres Academy, an offer he obviously turned down. I’ve been told of three other players who have turned down North Texas offers in the last few months as well.

Update: I just heard of another two players that turned down NTX offers. That’s now six of late including Letayf.

letayf_subint

Why are Academy Kids Turning Down NTXSC Deals?

That’s the million-dollar question. While every kid is different, I do have some thoughts.

The bottom line, a North Texas SC contract is perceived as having less value than an NCAA scholarship.

On straight cost value alone, a full four-year ride is worth roughly $100k up to mid $200k depending on the school and in-state vs out of state. But a decade ago Forbes said that if the player graduates the value is in the neighborhood of $2 mil.

How can we expect the typical NTX contract – which can run from a semi-pro style $1k per month up to about $40k for the season – to compete with that?

It doesn’t.  Unless the player wins the pro career lottery.  So it’s a gamble. A gamble by the player on himself, but still a gamble.

Jonathan Gomez
Jonathan Gomez rushes upfield with Greenville’s Evan Lee in pursuit in the USL League One Final won by North Texas SC, October 19, 2019.(@CMARCHO | Craig Marcho / 3rd Degree)

Clearly to me, the answer is FC Dallas needs to offer more money. If these deals are – as FCD wants kids to believe – the same as Homegrown deals then they need to pay the same.

That means $80k to $120k plus college assistance.  You want Homegrown level talent to sign? Pay them.

North Texas has no salary cap – although it does have an internal club budget – so there’s no salary worry on that front.

Complicating matters – in desperate attempts to win I assume – I hear some schools are starting to offer full four-year scholarships to high caliber talent if the kid will come and play just ONE season of college soccer. The NBA-like one and done. (Don’t ask me which ones, my sources didn’t say.)

That can be very tempting for a young player. Play just one season and then go pro with the scholarship in the back pocket if the playing career doesn’t work out.

Now we all know that in its current structure playing college soccer reduces your chance to be a pro, although the proposed two-semester soccer season will help. Currently, playing with someone like NTXSC or signing with a foreign club (or it’s Academy) is clearly the better way to develop. 

But in the US the college system is really entrenched with a lot of inertia, particularly in the minds of parents who might not be soccer savvy. Taking the college ride is about more than playing, it’s about education and the college experience. It’s an American tradition if you will.

Update: I’ve found out that FC Dallas does indeed include in the NTX contract offers to Academy players the same school set up through SNHU that the MLS Homegrowns get. So credit to the club for including that opportunity for the kids.

The Roster Overload is Only Going to Get Worse

Let’s look at the FCD U19s and U17s. There are a bunch of players right now that already fit into the above potential signing categories.  

[1] Sign and Stash/Develop – U17s Jonathan Gomez and Justin Che are the two I see so far at that age level, there may be more down the line. With the U19s it’s Seth Wilson (Clemson commit), Kevin Bonilla, and Nico Carrera (Louisville commit).  All three of these u19s I see as pro players down the line and all three graduate in May. That’s five players that already need NTX contracts in my mind.

[2] Ready for light MLS minutes but needs development PT – U19s Tanner Tessmann. Tessmann right now is the prize.

No way do all six of those players fit into the FC Dallas MLS roster. And the U15s and U14s are even more loaded.

Four FCD U20s
Tanner Tessmann, Thomas Roberts, Johan Gomes, and Kevin Bonilla (left to right) with the US U20 team, September 2019. (3rd Degree)

Plus in any given age bracket I could list 5 kids or so I’d be happy to see get an NTX deal rather than go to college if they wish it. Of the current U19s, I personally would give contracts to Gibran Rayo, Beni Redzic, Michael Sosa, Malik Henry-Scott, and Cesar Garcia if they wanted to stay.

The Elephant in the Room

Let’s talk about Tanner.

Tessmann is the best player currently in the U19s. He was the DA Playoffs MVP last season. In my opinion, he’s as ready for a pro soccer career as an Academy player can be.  He’s already become a common starter for North Texas with 9 starts and 16 games played mostly over the 2nd half of the season.

If FCD were to sign him to a Homegrown deal, he would spend most of 2020 playing for North Texas – probably starting every game – because there’s not really room for him on the MLS roster right now and he needs pro playing time. 

If he were to sign with North Texas the result would be the same.  The only difference might be some late-game MLS mop-up minutes which if he was only on an NTX deal he could get by playing in the US Open Cup.

But here’s the kicker… Tanner’s dad is a lifelong friend of Clemson Head Football Coach Dabo Swinney and works for Swinney’s All In Foundation. Swinney gave Tanner a Clemson football scholarship as a placekicker even though Tessmann has never played American football. There is a massive pull toward attending Clemson, Tessmann calls Swinney “Uncle Bo” for goodness sake.

Check out this quote from Swinney on Tessmann, “I had the inside track because I’ve seen him his entire life. And he’s one of the best athletes. He could go play D1 basketball. He could probably start at receiver at Clemson. He could probably play safety at Clemson. He’s a six-foot-two phenom. He can fly. He’s as good an athlete as I’ve ever seen.”  Read this whole article or listen to Dabo down below, he’s gushing on the kid. 

We’re talking about a lifelong relationship here.  How is a $40k North Texas SC contract going to compete with that? 

It’s not.

So if FCD wants Tessmann, I am willing to bet you it’s going to take at least the money of a Homegrown contract.  Even that might not be enough to get him.

8 Comments

  1. Would FCD offering a scholarship to SNHU online or a UNT Frisco move the needle at all? I don’t think the club would be opposed to educating players as we all know pro careers don’t always work out.

    1. Every bit helps I’m sure. In a way, that kind of add on is just a way to put more money in, even if the club is getting it through a barter. Might just be the icing on the top though, not sure that’s a fix.

  2. Would the most likely candidates to sign with NTSC likely then be international players looking to get a foot in the door of the American soccer structure? I’m thinking guys like Damus, Jatta, Danso, etc.

    The remainder of the roster would then be FCD Academy players and FCD “loans” .

      1. I also really enjoy the Dabo Swinney comments as a retort to the cliched “what if this country’s best athletes played soccer” argument.

  3. This is a MLS issue that is negatively impacting a club like FCD who are trying to do things the right way. A maximum of 10 roster spots for HGs may be more than enough in 90% of the current markets. However, in a talent rich area like Dallas, its not enough. My wish is that the new CBA addresses the negatively impactful rules that have been on the MLS books. The fact that FCD may not be able to find a spot for a kid like Tessman at the moment, doesn’t mean some other MLS club can’t use him, and doesn’t mean his talent is not HG worthy. The league needs to adopt some kind of loan provisions or internal transfer fees where the best young Americans are afforded opportunities to play in MLS, even if they can’t get into their youth clubs MLS side. If Tessman was at a European club and had 6-8 midfielders ahead of him, they would sign him to a deal in which his wages was equal to his talent, then loan him to another club where he can play. They could retain his rights or negotiate a transfer fee into the loan deal. We need to get out of our antiquated way of doing things and join the rest of the football world in the 20th century.

  4. (1) I have to think the new CBA and roster rules will include expanded rosters. Increasing numbers of MLS players are common call-ups for their national teams, and MLS is adding in-season competitions like the Leagues Cup and the Campeones Cup. Both of those evolutions of the league put a strain on clubs even before opening up the potential for injuries like SKC last year. You could maybe solve that by loading the back half of rosters with veterans like Jacori Hayes (see below), but if the league still wants to prioritize developing younger, homegrown players, then they need to make room for those players on the roster. Put another way, to rephrase a comment above, FCD shouldn’t be penalized for producing too many pro-level players.
    (2) With Santos coming in and moving Acosta to the 8, I really don’t see the value of having Jacori Hayes on the roster instead of a player like Tessmann. Hayes has proven to be at least a solid backup midfielder and maybe a decent MLS starter given the right circumstance, but he’s now at least 3rd on the depth chart at the 8 behind Servania and Acosta, and maybe the club wants to move Paxton there this season too. If I were FCD, I’d trade Hayes for whatever I could get for him, sign Tessmann and give him the ~300 minutes with the first team that Hayes would otherwise get.

  5. Another thing to take into consideration for Tessmann and Letayf to a certain extent, is the fact that when they and their representatives sit back and look at the club, they see Santos, Acosta, Pomykal, Ferreria (who played centrally much of last year), Cerrillo, Servania, Roberts and Hayes, all central midfield players. That is a long list of players that an Academy kid will need to pass before they get the opportunity to get any minutes.

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