USL: North Carolina FC 2020 Season Preview – scout report
We only managed to get the smallest of tastes of the new USL campaign getting underway before it was cut short due to the current situation in the world. However, we can still get excited for its return and a competitive season that will come with it.
In this tactical analysis, we will look at North Carolina FC. Under Dave Sarachan, the former United States Men’s National Team manager, the team will look to continue in a positive trend in 2020. A 9th place finish in the 2018 season that meant narrowly missing the playoffs was followed by a much improved 7th place finish last term. This campaign, the opening match had NCFC hosting Louisville City FC. In a tight encounter that NCFC came out on the losing end of a 1-0 scoreline, there were reasons for hope and high ambitions from the side out of Cary, North Carolina.
Lineup and general tactics
Throughout his time in charge, Sarachan has opted primarily for a 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1 formation. The decision between the two would depend mostly on the defending needs for the team. As we will talk about in the coming sections, there are benefits and issues with North Carolina’s use of each of them.
Robert Kristof is the usual player elected to lead the lineup top. Sarachan also looks to call on Donovan Ewolo in this position at times when a player with more speed is needed, but he is normally deployed out wide instead. Manny Perez is the brightest prospect in the side and is currently with North Carolina on loan from Celtic FC. The tricky winger has a huge part to play in the tactics Sarachan uses that we will look at.
Benjamin Speas is capable of playing all throughout the midfield. Often we will see him play in a wide midfield position when the side are playing a 4-1-4-1, but when the formation is transitioned into the 4-2-3-1 he is their normal number 10. Deeper in midfield, Graham Smith is a mainstay in the team. No matter the structure being used, he is the sole pivot or part of the double pivot for North Carolina. His defensive awareness allows him to stay well-positioned in both setups and give his side structure.
The full-backs are often given the freedom to move forward when opportunities arise. D.J. Taylor is a mainstay at right-back, and he gives Perez plenty of support in attacks down this side. However, as we will look at a little later, the full-back setup can be seen as a potential issue when defending.
Sarachan’s side is built on the basis of defending strongly and then looking to build their attack from this. One of the main factors in North Carolina utilizing the 4-2-3-1 is to emphasise this ideology and give the side more defensive assurance.
When defending in the 4-1-4-1 formation, there is a clear structure that is visible to see. Smith sits directly in front of the back four, and the two number 8’s work in trying to keep passing lanes into this centre area blocked off. The striker is typically rather active. The point of North Carolina’s press is not to win possession back in high areas, but to force the opposition into holding their possession in areas that are non-dangerous, such as in the high and wide spaces.
There have been issues that have arisen with the use of the single-pivot formation. Look specifically at a match last season against New York Red Bulls II, there were holes in this set-up that were exposed but not capitalised on. With the sole pivot and two other central midfielders further forward, the space to look to find is in the half-spaces on either side of the deep midfielder. Recognising this, New York went with a very narrow formation. Bringing the wingers inside into these half-space areas, it allowed them to look to receive possession in behind the midfield and look to combine quickly with the striker.
In the image above, we can see New York in possession making a pass forward that finds an advanced midfielder. You can see in this example that once this pass is made the entire first line of midfield for North Carolina is taken out of the match. New York placed two midfielders on either side of Smith in this area of the pitch to give forward central options in this area.
Smith attempts to recover but at this point, New York has already beaten North Carolina’s midfield structure. In this image, you are able to see the narrow formation the visitors are implementing in their attack. Both outside attackers are tucked in close to the striker and are able to take advantage of this space in behind Smith.
Following this idea, the 4-2-3-1 system goes towards solving this issue. With the second deep midfielder alongside Smith, they are able to protect more of this space. The lone midfielder joins the striker in building their initial press. North Carolina switched to this structure in the second half after New York took advantage of this space multiple times in the first half. This is a common theme we have seen from the side.
In the second half of this match, North Carolina shifted their midfield and included the use of a double pivot in their structure as you can see below. With this, they were able to take away these passing lanes to the inside forwards New York were finding so successfully in the first half. Using this tactic they were able to safely secure their lead.
This structure was key, and will continue to be so, in North Carolina’s opening match of this campaign against Louisville. With two holding midfielder, both look to fill gaps when their side are defending deep. In the image below, you can see a Louisville attack down North Carolina’s left side. The left-winger of the visiting side makes a run across his full-back which drags him inward. Recognising this, Smith moves out to cover the widest player and give his full-back support in this wide area.
When this avenue is closed out, Louisville looks to work an attack down this right side of the pitch. A midfielder drifts in behind the NCFC full-back as you can see below. Quickly Andre Fortune acknowledges this movement and drops into this space to allow the full-back to continue to offer support in the wide-area while not leaving his side exposed in the half-space.
Attacking through the channels
In the attacking phase of North Carolina’s game, they are very focused on the wide areas. The wingers are encouraged to look to move forward in these channels as soon as possession is won. With the speed of players such as Perez and Ewolo, they have the ability to get in behind the defence. Immediately when possession is won this type of opportunity is focused on. Perez, in particular, is very quick is moving onto the last line of defence and bursting forward as soon as a ball is played.
In the image above you can see NCFC looking to move forward after they won possession in the middle third of the pitch. It quickly comes out to Taylor on the right side. Perez recognises this and moves to the touchline in order to create some separation between himself and his defender. Taylor moves it on into this space for Perez who takes his defender on immediately. He pushes him back all the way to the opponent’s penalty area before the full-back puts in a tackle that fouls Perez.
When this opportunity is not there, North Carolina look to establish their attacking structure. When in possession, they most often will use the 4-1-4-1 system, with the two advanced number eights moving forward to get close to the striker. The defensive line looks to move through the pivot in Smith who then looks to open up the pitch and play into these advanced midfielders or to the wings. If the opponent is pressing high a second midfield will drop in to form a double pivot and provide the side with more passing options in this initial stage to aid in moving up the field into the opponent’s half.
North Carolina work into a 2-3-5 formation when they have established themselves in the opposition’s side of the pitch. They look to work in vertical lines that prioritise moving into the wide areas and creating numerical superiorities in these areas. Two players look to occupy these vertical spaces. When an opportunity is identified, a third will move into these areas to look to create superiority. We see this specifically in the wide areas. With the winger keeping width, the full-back and central midfielder will work in tandem in keeping the side’s central numbers while also assisting their winger. The full-back will mix between holding width and moving inside to protect against counter-attacking depending on where possession is being held. Once play is moved into the winger, the full-back then looks to move forward quickly to provide an overlap. The central midfielder will also move to show for a passing option on the inside. The point of this is to isolate the winger with his opposing full-back to take advantage of the speed and ability these players possess.
In these wide positions, crosses are commonly used to get service into the striker in the box. The likes of Kristof and Lomis before he departed the club are a major presence in aerial duels and represent a major threat for opponents.
Below you can see NCFC holding possession off of a throw-in on the right side of the pitch. As the player in possession recognises the defensive presence the opponent has in this area of the pitch, he looks for an outlet and plays a cross-field pass into Taylor on the right side.
Immediately NCFC has an abundance of room and it is quickly pushed forward into Speas in the right-wing position. He lets the pass run and finds himself in behind the defence. In the middle Kristof has positioned himself on the shoulder of the far centre-half and once the winger has beaten his defender, the number nine makes a darting run in front of his marker to create space to receive a cross.
Alternatively, North Carolina will use the strikers to switch the point of attack. They look to do this by having the striker drop deep to receive a pass from a midfielder. These passes centrally will oftentimes attract the opposition’s defensive structure into this area. This gives Sarachan’s side another opportunity to get their wingers isolated in the wide areas and create opportunities through this.
In the image above, Guillen from the left-back position made a pass into the feet of Lomis. The big number nine controlled the ball once it arrived to him and turned to move towards the right side of the pitch. Here we can see the space available for NCFC to exploit. Lomis makes this pass out wide to the winger who holds up possession for his full-back Taylor to make an overlapping run before sliding him in behind the defence.
Lomis uses his intelligence to make a late run into the box following his movement to hold possession up with his back turn to goal and arrives in acres of space to receive Taylor’s cross and fire North Carolina into the lead.
Counter-pressing and rest defence
A number of North Carolina’s potential issues come from their rest defence structure. This comes from the focus on creating overloads in the wide areas. With the full-backs looking to stay in the wide areas to help in the attacking phase. However, this can leave the two centre-halves and the lone holding midfielder exposed to counter-attacks.
In the image above you can see an example of a situation where NCFC held possession deep in New York’s half. When possession was lost, they were not properly set up in their rest defence to restrict the away side from being able to counter immediately. A long ball is played through the centre of the pitch from the deep corner of New York’s own half. A ball such as this should be a simple one to contain or intercept. However, the full-backs in North Carolina’s system were too wide, and despite the attempt to move centrally, the right-back was unable to cut off this ball into the New York striker.
Now, the striker is left with plenty of space to run and a 1v1 situation between him and the goal. The striker is able to beat his defender before putting his effort over the bar. While it went unpunished, this highlighted the issue of North Carolina not being set up soundly in their rest defence.
Looking to help solve this, restricting one of the full-backs and forming a back three would allow North Carolina to be better set up in their rest defence when possession is lost. Below you can see an example of this structure in action. Both full-backs would have the ability to look to get forward. However, when one is pushing forward in support, the other tucks back in to form this back three. This leaves North Carolina with at least four players back in defensive positions to be able to deal with any danger on the counter.
This last line of three will allow Sarachan’s side to have more success in stopping sides from getting forward extremely quickly. As we showed in the image example above, New York was simply able to get forward with their front two too quickly for North Carolina to reset their defensive structure. This back three will give them more of an ability to shut down this central area and push the counter-attacks out wide and allow their side to recover. Smith at the holding pivot position can direct the attacking players in the direction he has the most help and then from there he can be aided by the wide centre-half in blocking off any forward movement from this position.
Sarachan’s side is well-positioned to have another run for a playoff spot this campaign. A narrow play-in round loss last season will have left a sour taste in the club’s mouth and they will be eager to look to improve upon this in the upcoming season.
In this scout report, we broke down North Carolina FC’s primary offensive and defensive structures. This insights into these tactics show us that the North Carolina team have the makings of a solid side in the USL. With a couple of defensive tweaks to further improve their ability in this area that we viewed in this analysis, NCFC will be a difficult team to beat in this upcoming campaign.