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Houston’s Ultimate X-Factor: Melissa Henderson

Melissa Henderson’s retirement may be the clearest sign the club will never be the same.  

Trask Smith

If Randy Waldrum’s departure wasn’t the foremost signal of a new era for the Houston Dash, the retirement of fan favorite Melissa Henderson last week may be the clearest sign the club will never be the same.

Henderson’s second and final retirement from soccer bookends the career of an exceptional individual whose lively personality, faith, and high work rate resonated with fans. Her retirement in itself was a selfless act that provided the Dash with an available roster spot for Carli Lloyd’s return.

Henderson’s final professional season likely didn’t go as well as she could have hoped for. The 27-year-old struggled to earn playing time amongst Houston’s deep attack, as the offseason addition of forwards Nichelle Prince and Sarah Hagen drove her further down in Waldrum’s lineup, eliminating her previously held starting role and even her potential to be a super-sub.

To understand the composition of the Dash and the importance of Henderson and Waldrum means venturing even beyond the club’s inaugural roster.

The player-coach relationship that existed between the pair began with her arrival to South Bend, where the former 2007 Gatorade National High School Player of the Year blossomed into one of the top players in Notre Dame women’s soccer history and earned two-time All-American and three-time first-team All-Big East honors. An impressive feat at a program that has seen the likes of Kate Markgraf, Shannon Boxx, Katie Thorlakson, and Jen Buczkowski to name a few.

The crowning achievement of her standout college career came in 2010, as she led the Fighting Irish to their first national championship since 2004, second under Waldrum and third overall title. After a regular season where the forward scored 17 goals and added 11 assists, Henderson continued her strong performance in the postseason to be named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Offensive Player and led the competition with 3 goals and 4 assists. In the Cup Final, Henderson assisted on Adrianna Leon's 62nd-minute game-winner to lift Notre Dame over the Stanford Cardinals.

That same year, Henderson and Alex Morgan finished as runners-up to Christen Press for the MAC Hermann Trophy. Her place among two individuals often regarded as generational talents puts into perspective the dominant ability she once had.

Henderson represented the United States at nearly every age level and trained with the senior national team ahead of the 2012 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament, but like so many players she never earned another call-up above the U-23 level.

Her professional career began under a cloud of uncertainty, the forward was selected second overall by Sky Blue FC in the 2012 WPS Draft but never played for the club as the league folded three weeks later. Notably, the three players selected directly after her Stephanie Ochs, Cami Levin, and Sarah Hagen were each at one point her teammate in 2017.

Over the course of her five-year professional career, Henderson never regained the form she'd displayed in college. She spent the inaugural NWSL season with FC Kansas City playing alongside an attack led by 2013 NWSL MVP Lauren Holiday, generated through the creative play of Erika Tymrak and held together with a phenomenal backline anchored by Becky Sauerbrunn and Leigh Ann Brown.

Following FC Kansas City's second-place regular season finish and playoff disappointment, the club signed Amy Rodriquez, a move that significantly altered Henderson’s role with the club.

Waldrum brought the Garland, Texas native back to her home state via trade midway through the 2014 season and the rest is history.

Henderson retired without a regular season goal in the NWSL, a peculiar stat for an individual who placed 32 out of her 39 career attempts—on goal. The impact she had throughout the NWSL was seen in the outpour of support she received after her announcement, a shared acknowledgment that Henderson is indeed irreplaceable.