Houston Dash and the NWSL Challenge Cup: A New Hope
The Dash have never made the playoffs. The Challenge Cup is a unique enough thing that no result here will technically break that streak. But this is certainly still their best chance to make a run for the last four, or even the finals. And there's a lot of reason to be optimistic. Last year was all about technical improvements. Now, the team are hungry to consolidate those gains and start producing serious results
James Clarkson, back for his second year in charge of the team.
26 points, 7th place
Player you should know:
Houston’s star player is Rachel Daly. The England international has been with the Dash for five years, and will be leading the front line this season. Daly scored ten goals in 2018, earning her a spot on the league’s Second XI. She’s among the best in the world at creating a shot in the box, and in recent years has also developed the more physical aspects of her game. Houston’s fortunes in this tournament will depend a lot on how many goals Daly can manufacture.
Under the Radar:
Haley Hanson is entering her third season with the Dash, and is poised to become one of the best players in the league. She is versatile—capable of playing in the midfield or defense—but is best-suited to the holding midfield role. She’s already world-class at disrupting opposition possession, and her ball control and vision have also taken significant steps forward. If she’s able to settle into the role, Hanson could be the core around which the entire rest of the team revolves.
Over the years, Houston’s offseason moves have generally ranged from perplexing to awful. This year has been a major exception to that rule. The team traded three of its most famous players—Kealia Ohai Watt to Chicago and then Sofia Huerta and Amber Brooks to the Reign—but managed to get exceptional value from both deals. Megan Oyster and Katie Naughton will now anchor the backline and provide a massive upgrade to the defense. Shea Groom will bring the same kind of on-the-ball skill that Huerta offered, while also skyrocketing the team’s grit quotient. Katie Stengel, acquired from Utah, provides a completely different look at center forward—something the Dash often needed last year when pace wasn’t getting the job done. Maegan Kelly was a sneaky-good pickup. She’s not a flashy player but is a legitimately top-level goal-scorer, something she’s proved in multiple leagues. Top draft pick Bridgette Andrzejewski could be a game-changer on the right wing or at right back. And they added depth, with solid backup options like Brianna Visalli and Erin Simon.
If it sounds like I’m gushing, it’s because this was a truly excellent offseason. They revitalized the starting XI by adding new strengths and patching up holes, and then also significantly strengthened the support infrastructure.
What makes them exciting:
The Dash probably won’t have a ton of possession this year, but they have the potential to be an absolutely lethal counterattacking unit. Their ideal world is to score first, then sit back and simply wait for opportunities to pick apart the opposition. They should also be a solid team right out of the gate. Despite some significant roster developments (see above), their game plan is clear and the new players should integrate well. For a franchise that’s never made the playoffs, there is some real excitement about the expectation of finally getting some knockout soccer to show off.
Utah Royals - June 30
OL Reign - July 4
Sky Blue FC - July 8
Washington Spirit - July 12
Houston got a break with the updated schedule, swapping out matches against both of 2019's finalists for presumably easier games against Utah and OL Reign. The result is a schedule that isn't easy, since there aren't any pushovers in this league, but it's about as straightforward as you could reasonably hope. Washington and the Reign have excellent rosters but may need time to gel, while Utah and Sky Blue have defensive issues and will be missing some key national team forwards. None of these games are guaranteed, but if Houston want to show they're a serious challenger, they really should manage at least six points from this group.
Why they could win the Cup:
Houston should be difficult to break down, and their counterattacking potential makes them a tricky opponent for even the best teams in the league. And unlike past iterations of the team, there really aren’t any glaring weaknesses here. So it won’t take anything shocking. They’ll just need everyone to play up to their potential. If they can get strong tournaments from the players that make up the team’s spine—Campbell in goal, Oyster and Naughton at center back, Hanson and Mewis in the midfield, and Daly at striker—they have the capacity to beat anyone.
They also may have some help from the intangibles. The locker room dynamic is excellent, with everyone seeming to be fully committed to the ethos of working hard for the team. And unlike some other teams that might need time to develop a rhythm, the Dash have a clear system that should let them hit the ground running.
This is a team of good players, but not one of superstars. That can be a potential advantage—if everyone can manage to pull together—but it can also be a risk. There just isn’t much experience here with playing on the biggest stage. In an elimination match against a team full of USWNT starters and NWSL playoff regulars, the psychological tables could turn quickly. Sometimes you play best when you don’t face any expectations. But sometimes you fall apart. Either could happen with the Dash this year.
My heart tells me this team has at least one playoff win in them, but my head cautions that the likeliest result is probably a hard-fought quarterfinal exit.
The Dash are the only team in the league without a USWNT regular on the roster. It's obviously not great to miss out on players from the best team in the world. But it also helps situate the team in terms of personality and style. This is a team that wants to fight for every inch, extract every chance, do whatever it takes to find an edge. You can take your champagne superstars; the Dash will out-run, out-kick, and out-hustle them. If that sounds like your jam, you may be ready to jump on the Dash bandwagon.