It is rivalry week, as struggling FC Dallas hosts bitter rivals Houston Dynamo in the first game of the 2024 Texas Derby.

Let’s look at three things FCD must do to beat Houston at home on Saturday.

1) Something Has to Change

As the great Steve Davis noted in his excellent Substack article earlier this week, it really looks like it is time for something to change on the field with FC Dallas. I’ll try my best not to rehash things, but as Steve noted, Nico Estevez has, to this point, pretty much set his team up the same way in each of the 8 games played so far. The one exception is when the team went down to Austin, where he moved away from the 3-4-3 and into a 4-4-2. But outside of that game, Dallas has stuck with the same general shape and, for the most part, the same personnel. Sam Junqua and Dante Sealy have started every game on the left side of the defense, Sebastien Ibeagha has started every game he’s been available, Liam Fraser has been a mainstay in central midfield, Paul Arriola has been either behind the striker or at wingback, and Petar Musa is basically written in ink up top.

There are a handful of players who have gotten very limited opportunities in 2024 due to a variety of reasons. Marco Farfan has missed games due to injury and has yet to debut in 2024. Tsiki Ntsabeleng, Bernie Kamungo, Herbert Endeley, and Ema Twumasi have played varying amounts of minutes, but none of them have gotten a real extended run in the team.

After the loss last weekend against Colorado, Estevez had some pointed post-game comments, seemingly calling out certain members of his starting group for poor performance and lack of intensity and praising his substitutes. With that in mind, it seems clear that Nkosi Tafari, who returned to the team as a sub in the second half in Commerce City and brought strong play and intensity, has earned his starting spot back. Dante Sealy, who had previously played at least 80 minutes in every game, was hauled off after just 55 minutes in Colorado. With Marco Farfan seemingly finally back from his multiple injuries, that could be a spot where we see some change. Eugene Ansah had a decent run alongside Petar Musa, but he lacked quality against Colorado and was hauled off at 55 minutes along with Sealy, who was replaced by Logan Farrington, who seems due for another start.

Steve also posited the idea of not only changing personnel but also changing formation. A lot of FCD supporters would love to see this. The 3-4-3, at this point, feels like a failed experiment. The idea was to generate more goals and scoring opportunities by getting more numbers forward. Still, Dallas has the lowest xG in MLS (funny enough, Houston is right above them), and only the lowly Revs have scored fewer goals in MLS. The 3-4-3 has also apparently broken things defensively, as Dallas’ resolute defensive record from 2022 and 2023 has all but evaporated. Their 12 goals conceded isn’t a terrible number, 6th best in the Western Conference, but it isn’t among the best in the league like the last two seasons. Eye test-wise, players simply don’t look comfortable in the 3-4-3. By my count, it forces at least 3 players in the regular lineup out of their preferred or best positions: Sam Junqua, Dante Sealy, and Paul Arriola.

If there was a time to make the kinds of wholesale changes (or in this case, maybe reversions is the better term) and move back to the 4-3-3, maybe this is the time to do it. This week feels like a huge moment for Estevez and his future. The Hunts are not typically quick to pull the trigger on firing coaches, but Dallas hasn’t lost to Houston at home since 2011. A bad result on Saturday might be the end of the line. Seeing what Estevez and his staff roll out with their backs against the wall will be fascinating.

2) Intensity, Intensity, Intensity

This is cliche, and I feel a little silly putting it here, but rivalry games almost always enter what many call the “tactics-free zone.” Coaches can set up teams however they want, but at the end of the day, players have to execute and make plays, and that is amplified in rivalry games like the Texas Derby. Dallas has struggled all season long to start games and start second halves.

Dallas has scored the first goal just one single time in 2024 and started the first four games of the season getting scored on in the first half. After a couple of scoreless draws, they got scored on in the first half again in Colorado and then conceded the game-winning second goal very early in the second half. These kinds of lulls in intensity simply can not happen against Houston. The Dynamo, with Ben Olsen at the helm, will absolutely be up for this game.

This is the first season in recent memory where Houston is clearly the superior team, and they’ll relish the chance to get their first win in Frisco since 2011. If the Burn aren’t up for it from the first minute and can’t match and surpass Houston’s intensity, they will lose.

3) Lean on the Leaders

This is one of the worst starts to an FC Dallas season in club history, and this game on the weekend is a huge moment in the season. It could be a turning point, the point at which the team got it together and pushed forward, or it could be a continuation of a terrible season. This is a moment where the team’s leaders have to step up. Paul Arriola, Maarten Paes, Nkosi Tafari, Asier Illarramendi, and Jesus Ferreira, if available, all need to step up not only in their performance on the pitch but also emotionally and mentally. At some point, Maarten Paes will need to step up with one of his characteristic diving saves. Paul Arriola will need to do the dirty work running up and down the wing. Tafari will have to face multiple big challenges. Illarramendi has the unenviable task of dealing with Hector Herrera. Ferreira (if able to play) has to step up, shed the poor body language, trust his teammates, and get involved in chance creation.

Obviously, the entire team needs to step up here, but Dallas really needs its top players to play like top players. If they can come through, this team is capable of beating the Dynamo.

Will the Burn pull off a much-needed win over their in-state rivals this weekend?

PHOTO: FC Dallas

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