The Houston Dash opened the NWSL Challenge Cup with a bang.
It was clear in Rachel Daly’s brace and goal-line save, in Shea Groom’s superhero-like, flying header or her back-heel assist on Kristie Mewis’s goal against the Utah Royals. The proof was even in the celebrations.
After finishing 7-12-5 last season, the Dash started this year’s tournament as the most exciting team to watch. And they knew a lot of people would be surprised.
“I think we have that perception and this stigma about us that no one really likes us, and I think we came out and we took that to heart,” said defender Erin Simon. “We brought on this whole new style, a completely new team full of new players and we took this identity of just absolute grittiness, and I think we’re taking that to the field.”
The Dash players say they have “a chip on their shoulder,” a phrase they use often to describe the mindset with which they entered the tournament. They felt disrespected: The team doesn’t have a USWNT roster player, it hasn’t made the playoffs in its history and it had a reputation for organizational drama.
Many of the players “have been traded around, four to five teams now,” said Groom, who is on her fourth NWSL team since joining the league in 2015. “We’re ready to make Houston home and Houston a team that is to be feared and someone you don’t want to play against.”
In the first two matches of the Cup, Houston defended better, pressed higher and was newly creative in ways it wasn’t in 2019. The club, helmed by second-year head coach James Clarkson, went through a roster overhaul in the offseason with a focus on fitness, efficiency in the attack and sturdier defense.
Forward Kealia Watt was traded upon her request after spending the previous six seasons with the Dash, three as the team’s captain. But the Dash found plenty of talent to replace their former star. They added Katie Stengel and Groom in the attack and centerbacks Megan Oyster and Katie Naughton. The team signed Simon and midfielder Bri Visalli. Daly at forward and goalkeeper Jane Campbell now serve as co-captains.
“At the end of the day, we’re all one unit,” Campbell said when she received her co-captain armband. “We’re all one voice, and we’ll always work like that.”
Before training began for the 2020 season, Clarkson told the team that everyone, including veterans, would have a clean slate. The team has bought into the system the staff has created and also focused on chemistry during the offseason. The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent shutdowns cut into in-person bonding to gel the new additions with core returners, but with everybody in Houston isolating before training could continue, communications continued over Zoom.
“We really worked on keeping everybody connected, working on individual relationships and getting to know one another much better on a human side rather than just looking at them as soccer players,” Clarkson said. “I said it even before preseason started, that one of the goals this year was to be the best team, not necessarily have the best players, the best squad or anything like that, but the camaraderie, the team spirit. Everything was a huge goal for us because certainly an event like this [tournament], it could be a huge difference maker.”
|Shots on goal||4.3||2.5|
|Tackle success rate||60.6%||69.3%|
|Pass success rate||73.3%||74.8%|
Through four matches in Utah, the Dash have scored five goals, second in the league behind the North Carolina Courage’s seven, on five assists and 22 total shots, including 10 shots on goal. Groom and Daly have two goals each, and Mewis has added one. Houston has conceded six goals, on the same pace as last year’s squad, but it has improved its success rate on both tackles and passes. And in this small sample of games, the Dash are converting a much higher percentage of their shots, though they’ve taken fewer shots on goal per game.
“It was taking us far too many shots on goal to score goals,” Clarkson said, “so just being more efficient in front of goal is really important — it’s something we’ve stressed to the players.”
After scoring five goals in their first two games, the Dash have cooled off considerably — they were held scoreless in losses to Sky Blue FC and the Washington Spirit. Clarkson said they had hit a “mental wall,” citing the stress of the pandemic, civil and social unrest and the pressures of the tournament itself, which includes quarantining at a hotel. They’ve played four matches in two weeks, with limited rotation of their starters, on turf in Utah’s summer heat.
The Dash — and the rest of the NWSL — have a little break now, before the Challenge Cup quarterfinals begin Friday.1 Mewis said the team’s focus during the time off will be on recovery, but she emphasized confidence and trust in her teammates despite frustration with the last two outings.
Campbell is looking forward to using the next few days to put together a product that will help the team advance to the semifinals.
“Pressure’s what you make it. I think it’s gonna be great for us,” she said. “I think we’re up for the challenge. This is such a unique group, such a new group for us. We can’t live in the past as an organization. We’re moving forward and we’ve got such a special group here, and I think this quarterfinal for us will be very, very special.”
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