In just the fifth game of the season, FC Dallas is facing a huge moment in their season as they get set to travel down I-35 for their first matchup against Austin FC of 2024.

I don’t normally love doing predictions. Others who cover the team in far more depth and have more experience, like the amazing Buzz Carrick at 3rd Degree, do it far better than me. But FC Dallas feels like they are at a crossroads and a huge moment in their season, despite it only being the fifth game of the year. At this point, it is obvious what Dallas needs to do to pick up a result in Austin compared to previous performances: the defense needs to be tighter in both open play and on set pieces, they can’t get caught out in transition and the attack needs to gel with players playing where they are meant to be (looking at one Jesus Ferreira here). The bigger question, to me, is how Nico Estevez and his staff will try to solve these issues. I think he has two big questions to decide how to answer before Saturday:

  1. What shape will Dallas play out of?
  2. How aggressively do they want to attack an Austin team that has looked well below par thus far in 2024?

How do you attack Austin?

Starting with the second question as I think answering that gives a good sense of how they’ll answer the first question. Austin has been, in a word, poor to start the 2024 season. They began their season with a loss at home to Minnesota United before picking up three consecutive draws away to Seattle and then in back to back home games against St Louis and Philadelphia before traveling to Orlando last weekend during the international window and losing 2-0 to Oscar Pareja’s side.

On the whole, this isn’t necessarily a disastrous run of results, home draws against the likes of St Louis and Philadelphia aren’t horrible, Minnesota looks to be a top team in the league and, on paper, getting a draw in Seattle seems like a decent result. But Austin has been pretty dire to watch. They only have 5 goals in their opening 5 games and two of those have come from set pieces (both goals scored against St Louis). According to FotMob, their xG for the season is just 3.5, worst in the league (for comparison, Dallas sits just 0.1 higher but has played one less game).

Austin was often criticized in 2023 for being overly concerned with possession while having very little to show for it. Josh Wolff has seemed to respond to that criticism by opting for a more defensive approach and trying to hit teams on the counter, but still has little to show for it offensively. Austin are midpack in possession at just 49% average over their 5 games, but maybe most jarring is how their passing patterns have changed. In 2023, Austin were right around mid pack in average completed passes per game and number of long balls per game, in 2024, those numbers have changed dramatically, with Austin ranked 24th in accurate passes per match and 3rd in long balls per game. There’s a clear tactical shift in how Austin are approaching games.

Some of that is due to new personnel like former FCD winger Jader Obrian, whose pace is a challenge for most defenders in MLS. Sebastian Driussi has also only just returned from injury, making his first start of 2024 against Orlando. Driussi’s return may see Austin move slightly away from so many long balls, but with Austin’s pace issues in defense (Matt Hedges and Julio Cascante aren’t exactly a blazing quick pair of center backs), it seems likely they’ll continue to sit deeper and try to hit teams in transition.

So all that brings us to how Estevez and his team will attack Austin. For Dallas’ part, they have struggled defensively, especially in their most recent contest against Vancouver, where they conceded 3 first half goals. Based on his history, it seems likely that this will spark a strong reaction from Estevez and put a major focus on the defense. In seasons past in Austin, Dallas has largely played a bit more defensively, allowing Austin to control possession and trying to pounce on errors to play quickly and capitalize on gaps in Austin’s defense. With this edition of Austin FC, it doesn’t seem as likely that they’ll play that high possession and passes type of system.

So Dallas will probably have a choice to make: do they try to take control of the ball and continue the high possession style we’ve seen in 2024 so far (Dallas ranks 4th in average possession and 1st in accurate passes per match) or will they do what they can to sit back and try to bait Austin into reverting to their past ways?

Lineup and tactical prediction

The obvious question: what shape do the Burn go with? Dallas started the season in their new 3-4-2-1 shape for the first three games before reverting to a sort of 4-4-2 against Vancouver. On the surface, with the 3 first half goals, it seems obvious that Dallas would revert to what they worked on all of preseason and go back away from the back 4, but the underlying numbers against Vancouver weren’t as bad as they looked. The Whitecaps scored on all three of their shots on target and Dallas generally did a decent job of limiting their opportunities overall. But if Estevez is serious about the 3-4-2-1 being the best shape for his team, surely the international break would have been a good opportunity to continue to work on it?

The other question comes in the form of who is available for the game, most notably the status of Asier Illarramendi. Shortly after he picked up the knock that forced him off at halftime against Montreal and kept him out against the Red Bulls and Vancouver, the word was he should be ready for Austin. Does that mean he is ready to start or ready to play? For his age, Illarra is incredibly fit, I have no doubts that if he is healthy enough to play, he is healthy enough to start, but will the staff feel comfortable rushing him back?

The left side of the field is another big question. Dante Sealy has started all four games, either at left wingback in the 3-4-2-1 or as the left wing against Vancouver, but, other than his game winning goal against San Jose, he hasn’t exactly shined. Marco Farfan looks to finally be fully healthy and ready to play, does he make his season debut against Austin and, if so, does he do so as a wingback, a center back or as a left back in the back 4?

My thought here is that we will see a strong reaction from Estevez and a focus put on the defensive side of the ball. I do think he will return to the 3-4-2-1 as I don’t think he is ready to give up on it yet. But with a more defensive mindset, instead of Sealy and Paul Arriola at wingback, I think we will see Marco Farfan make his first start and appearance of 2024 and Ema Twumasi get the start on the right. This will return Arriola to his position higher up the field next to Jesus Ferreira playing underneath Petar Musa. In midfield, I think they’ll save Illarramendi for the second half and retain Sebastian Lletget, who has been one of the few bright spots in 2024 so far, in midfield. With a more defensive focus on the road, Liam Fraser gets the nod alongside him:

This leaves Illarramendi, Bernard Kamungo and Dante Sealy, all of whom have been regulars to this point, on the bench. If Illarramendi is deemed ready to start, I suspect he’ll start in place of Fraser, allowing him to sit deep and break up attacks while Lletget plays a more forward role. Kamungo and Sealy will be ready to come off the bench to support the attack. Marco Farfan may not be ready to play the full 90, so Sealy may get another run out as a sub at left wing back. Dallas can also easily shift into the back 4 if need be by substituting Junqua or Farfan and sliding one or the other to left back while Twumasi drops back into the right back position, giving Dallas some flexibility if things aren’t working in the 3-4-2-1.

Will it work? That obviously remains to be seen. Ferreira and Musa still need to gel up top, hopefully the international break and additional training has given them the opportunity to do so, and Dallas will have to be sharp on set pieces, something Austin has had some success in. If these things can come together, they can start to right the ship in 2024 down in Austin. If they don’t, the season might be basically over after just 5 games.

How do you think FCD will approach this weekend’s Copa Tejas matchup with Austin? Let me know in the comments below!

Featured Image: Austin American Statesman

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