Passive Resistance: North Carolina FC
North Carolina FC is just past the midway point for the season, and in dead last in USL League One. At 12 points, they are well short of the mark of 19.8 that I predicted would be a safe number to be on track for the playoffs at this stage of the season.
What’s the problem?
There’s so many things that can be pinpointed, from player performance to bad outcomes in key matches. In the end, though, the fundamental issue is that the system NCFC plays is not set up in a way that would make the team successful.
This is best illustrated through field tilt, the amount of time the ball spends in particular points in the field (regardless of possession). Right now through 15 games, the ball has been in the opponent’s defensive third just 20.7% of the time.
That’s bad, but it’s meaningless without context. Here’s the Attacking 3rd tilt for every team in a top 5 European league for the last 3 years (courtesy of FBRef), with North Carolina included.
Yep, you’re reading this chart right. NCFC’s 2021 performance is worse than any team in a top 5 league in the last 3 years, despite those leagues having no enforced parity.
Essentially, the problem is that NCFC is the most painfully passive team in the league/country(/world?). Despite having the ball roughly 50% of the time, they are completely incapable of keeping the ball where the opponent has to worry about it.
This is a biggest issue on the defensive end. With the ball always being close to NCFC’s goal, their defensive performance has been abysmal. Here’s how their defensive ELO rating has changed over the course of the season:
They may have been saved from being the worst defense in league history (Orlando City II stand up!) by virtue of starting at the mean of 1500. They’ve plummeted since. It’s not that the players individually are bad defenders; it’s that teams get chance after chance as NCFC fails to progress the ball to dangerous areas.
This is a matter of tactical setup. At this stage, I’d be happy with cynical long balls at Robbie Kristo before pressing high up the field or booting it out of touch near the opponent’s corner flag. Anything to break up the constant and demoralizing beatings.
Is It All Bad?
Actually, no. When NCFC gets it into the final third, they’re not terrible. In fact on the whole their offense is in the squarely mediocre range.
Yeah, they’re near the bottom of the group right now, but historically not bad for an offense and most teams are clustered pretty close. In fact, NC is pretty efficient in the final third, taking the second fewest final third passes to generate xG in the entire league. North Texas is number one, but just barely. (They’re second to last in opponent final third passes per xG, though.)
Some individual performances have stood out as well. Jay Tee Kamara is near the top of the league in terms of value added. He’s met expectations with 5 assists on 5.02 xA, and leads the league in xA. He’s great at finding teammates in dangerous positions with a league leading xA per Key Pass of 0.19.
Cole Frame has also been deadly in front of goal when giving the opportunity. He’s taken 7 shots, put 6 on target, for a post shot xG of 2.07. A big driver of that is taking quality shots with a pre shot xG/shot of 0.17. Read Jamon Moore and Carlon Carpenter’s artice on Where Goals Come From to get a better idea of why that’s such a big deal.
Kristo and Albadawi have helped the team look better since returning from injury as well. I think the pieces are there, but something has to be done to get the ball into dangerous areas more frequently. That’s Bradford’s biggest task but also one of the things he’s made the least progress on so far this season.
Where does NCFC go from here?
At this point, only the playoffs can salvage the season. Here’s what we’re looking at, with the current ELO rankings used to predict likely outcomes of the games remaining.
Realistically, NCFC is looking at 26 points in 13 games to make the playoffs. They’re only more likely to win than lose in just one according to this predictor. It would take an absolute miracle to make the playoffs, or even to break 20 points.
It can start this weekend. North Texas has had the best offense in the league for two years running, and if NCFC lets NTX have the ball in their own third it’s going to get ugly fast. Press hard, kick it long, play Barnsley style kick and chase. I don’t expect pretty soccer anymore (watching the first game against Chattanooga, my wife commented that it was the worst game she’d ever seen). I just want to see some life.
Other than that, it’s time to start planning for next year. First thing on the list needs to be finding a new identity (and if that means new people in charge, that may be what it has to be). I like Bradford — he seems committed to this team. I hate being negative. All that aside, the parts are not working, and something has to change.