The 1997 and 2016 US Open Cup champions being their 2023 Open Cup journey in Nashville.

Let’s look at three things to watch if FCD wants to extend their journey past this week.

1) How Much Rotation Will We See?

The Open Cup is typically a big opportunity for the lower end of an MLS roster to see some playing time. This was very true in 2022 for FC Dallas as a number of players made their only appearances or starts of the year in FCD’s two Open Cup games against FC Tulsa and Sporting KC. FCD enters in a more unique situation in 2023 as their high finish in the MLS table in 2022 got them automatic entry into the round of 32, bypassing the round in which MLS teams are all matched up against lower league opposition. Additionally, Dallas are coming into the game not having played a full 90 minutes against St Louis over the weekend, with the game being abandoned after 50 minutes due to rain and lightning that did not let up in time to resume the game on Saturday night. This means the entire squad will be fresher than anticipated, with players who would have gone the full 90 only basically playing a half and the entire bench, which included Alan Velasco, getting the weekend off.

On the flip side, Nashville are coming off a resounding 3-0 win over Chicago Fire FC that saw Ezra Hendrickson’s run as Fire coach end on the following Monday. Crucially for Nashville, they played at home, so they didn’t have to do any kind of traveling. They did play a relatively full strength lineup, minus Walker Zimmerman, who reportedly will not be available for the match against FCD. Hany Mukhtar also played the full 90, so don’t be shocked if the reigning MLS MVP (who scored a hat trick against Chicago), starts from the bench against FCD. Look for Fafa Picault, who seems to have a major grudge against Dallas ever since leaving after the 2020 season, to get a start and have a real drive and energy to his play.

For Dallas, some level of rotation seems clear. Paul Arriola exited the St Louis game in the first half with an apparent groin injury, so he is almost surely out. Alan Velasco has not played since his injury a few weeks ago, but he didn’t get any time against St Louis to help work back from his injury, so it is unclear if the FCD staff will want to thrust him back into a starting role. Sebastian Lletget seems to clear candidate to start on the bench with a big match away to Austin looming on the weekend. Tsiki Ntsabeleng should get a shot at a rare start and Edwin Cerrillo seems a likely candidate to start in defensive midfield. At the back, Sam Junqua will likely look to build on a strong first start against Minnesota a week and a half ago with perhaps Ema Twumasi getting a start at right back, though Geovane Jesus looked excellent in his return to the starting lineup against St Louis. With that match not going the distance, Nico Estevez may feel comfortable giving him the start. At center back, Nkosi Tafari does not seem likely to be ready to start and with a long season ahead, it may be a good opportunity to give Nolan Norris a first team debut paired with Sebastian Ibeagha, but don’t be surprised to see Martinez and Ibeagha rolled out as the pairing. Finally in goal, Jimmy Maurer seems a good bet to get a rare start to give Maarten Paes a much deserved night off.

Ultimately, both teams are going to be working with a rotated lineup and it will be important to see which group of less used players can step up when given the opportunity.

2) Dealing with Hany Mukhtar

The reigning MLS MVP is always a huge handful to deal with, as the Burn discovered on their lone trip to Nashville in 2022, where Mukhtar torched FCD en route to a 4-0 Nashville win and FCD’s worst loss of the season. Whether Mukhtar starts or comes off the bench does not change the fact that the Dallas midfield and defense are going to have their hands full in dealing with him. He is the kind of player that elevates the entire team around him along with being a huge threat all on his own.

FCD may look to utilize the 4-3-3 as opposed to the 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 they have recently been working in, just to get more bodies in the middle of the field where Mukhtar is so dangerous. Look for Mukhtar to be in and around a lot of what Nashville does when moving forward.

3) Contending With the Nashville Counter

Nashville coach Gary Smith’s teams always have a pretty clear philosophy: defend compactly and resolutely and go-go-go when you get a chance to get out on the counter. Despite the stereotypes of Smith’s teams, Nashville play more attractive soccer than one might expect, especially when the aforementioned Mukhtar is involved, but make no mistake, their first focus is defending. They’ve conceded just 6 goals through 11 games in MLS this season, the best in the league. Their 14 goals scored is a bit more middling, though it does eclipse the Burn’s total of 12 goals in 10 games. Nashville have the second lowest possession average in the league at 44.6% (only Minnesota United is lower at 44.0%). Nashville haven’t created a huge number of what Fotmob considers a “big chance” with just 12 (FCD has 14 for reference) but they also haven’t missed very many “big chances” with just 8 missed (Dallas is actually strong here, only having missed 6 big chances). Nashville also rank highly in their “accurate long balls per match” at 8th in the league with just under 30 per game.

The point being here is that Nashville play exactly the kind of style that gives this FCD team fits. They don’t care about having the ball and defend very strongly, rarely getting caught out on the counter themselves, which is where the FCD offense is at their best. When they do the ball back, they attack quickly and try to catch the opposition out. Look for this game to be played with FCD having a lot of the ball but not necessarily being super adventurous going forward to avoid risking getting caught on the counter.

It may not be the most gorgeous game of soccer ever played but if Dallas wants to advance in this competition, they desperately need to be able to handle the threat that Nashville offers here.

What are your thoughts on FCD’s first foray into the Open Cup in 2023?

Let me know in the comments below!

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