Here we go. The Challenge Cup began on Saturday, evoking old fashioned World Cup traditions. The tournament commenced proceedings with a match featuring the current holders of the NWSL title, the North Carolina Courage. It will now start the second day of play with a more contemporary tournament opener: the hosts. With shadowy distant mountain ranges for a backdrop, the stage is set for the Utah Royals and the Houston Dash.
As the Dash attempt to make the final four, for the first time in the club’s history, here are the duels that will define their opening game against the Utah Royals.
Megan Oyster vs Amy Rodriguez
New arrival Megan Oyster will attempt to help resolve a porous Dash defensive unit that conceded 36 goals last season, ranking 8th in the NWSL. Against the Dash, in the 2019 season, Amy Rodriguez scored in both matches at Rio Tinto Stadium. The Houston back line lacked awareness and communication when conceding two almost identical goals. In May of that year, the tenacious Royals forward ghosted between Ari Romero and Clare Polkinghorne, seized on a cutting Vero Boquete pass, and then calmly tucked it away in the corner. On the final day of the 2019 season, Rodriguez patiently stayed onside, waited for Boquete to neatly slip the ball in behind Romero and Amber Brooks and completed the move with another icy finish. If Oyster can keep the back four true, paying close attention to Rodriguez’ incognito runs onto through balls, then the Dash will have learnt from old mistakes. Perhaps not on her debut, but Oyster could be scrutinized if she cannot bring cohesion to the Dash defense.
Sophie Schmidt vs Vero Boquete
The Royals are in a state in flux. New coach Craig Harrington’s tactics may be a question mark but he will be expected to lean on established veterans to help develop the young talent. The exemplary Vero Boquete will be the maestro to compose the symphony. The Spaniard’s vision and spatial awareness gives her the ability to utilize the space that other players’ movement will open up. In 2019, Boquete led the Royals in assists with six. Closing down Boquete, disrupting her rhythm, and reducing the time she has to create incisive passes is the task at hand for Sophie Schmidt. The Canadian, with an astonishing 199 caps for her country, will look to build on a solid but unremarkable first season in Houston. The Dash are well equipped to play on the counter at the Challenge Cup. Schmidt’s ability to unsettle and adjust from defense into attack will be integral to success. Simply put: if the Dash are to capitalize in transition, put pressure on Boquete.
Rachel Daly vs Rachel Corsie
The battle of the Brits. Rachel Daly has been unable to score in all but one of her six contests versus Utah. The only time that Daly did manage to score against the Royals was when Becky Sauerbrunn was unavailable for selection. Her frenetic brace, in the team’s first 2-1 encounter of 2019, stole all three points for the Dash. Now that Sauerbrunn has been traded to the Portland Thorns, Daly will view today’s game as a golden opportunity. The Royals, without their former captain, will lean on the calm, assured and gifted Rachel Corsie to maintain their formidable defensive record. On balance, it is Daly’s pace, and penchant for capitalizing on errors, that will make Corsie and the Royals nervous. Daly torched Corsie for pace in this same fixture last year. I expect a cautious approach from Corsie and the Utah defense. The Royals will look to sit deep and give themselves a yard on Daly, as well as aim to clear the ball quickly to avoid getting caught in possession in their own final third. Any mistake and the ruthless Dash counter attack will be on.