The Houston Dash contrived to throw away a 3-1 lead, with just eight minutes left to play, but still managed to leave the Zion Bank stadium with their heads held high, earning a point in a 3-3 draw. The Royals had initially taken the lead when a revitalized Diana Matheson tucked home a clever first time pass from Amy Rodriguez.
On the stroke of halftime Veronica Latsko managed to breach the Royals’ left channel and latch on to a hopeful Katie Naughton long ball. Latsko slid the ball across to Rachel Daly, who took a touch and lashed the ball home from close range. The Dash had brought it level at the break.
Within just three minutes of the restart, the Lioness had doubled her tally. Daly nodded the Dash ahead with an emphatic header from a Kristie Mewis corner. The momentum had officially swung in the favor of the Texas team. 20 minutes later, Dash debutant Shea Groom finished off some impressive build up play by Katie Stengel with an insouciant swing of her left boot. The outstanding effort sailed past the Royals keeper, Abby Smith, with an air of triumph.
As the game wore on, the Dash dominance would dissolve. There was drama still to come. Megan Oyster found herself deflecting the ball with her arm in an unnatural position and the Royals were awarded a free kick on the edge of the Dash box. The metronomic Vero Boquete dispatched the set piece with ease, bending the ball around the right hand side of the naively positioned Dash wall. Now trailing by only one goal, the Royals’ rookie head coach, Craig Harrington, turned to his rookie midfielder, Tziarra King, for the final twist in the tale. The North Carolina State alum capped off an NWSL debut to remember as she evaded her marker and valiantly headed home Boquete’s cross at the back post.
And breathe...now that it’s over, what can we take away from the Dash’s stunning opener?
Rachel Daly Can Be Clinical
What a performance. The captain’s box score affirms a magnificent display. Last season the Dash were at the bottom of the NWSL in goal conversion rate, with 10% of their shots ending up in the back of the net. Despite James Clarkson’s direct style of play, Daly only attempted two shots during the match yesterday, scoring both. In fact during her 74 minutes of play, the England international only took a total of three touches in the Royals’ penalty box. Daly was incredibly efficient, executing the few chances she had with aplomb. We can’t obsess over this one match too much and the concept of her maintaining this level of performance is highly unlikely. As a team the Dash scored three goals off 11 shots, a conversion rate of 27%. This is the sort of economical range range we could see Daly settle into as she progresses in the tournament.
Uniting The Defense Will Take Time
This abbreviated off-season has made improving the Dash defense a tricky proposition. Sloppy passes invited pressure, the back line failed to stay aligned and set pieces exposed a lack of organization. Naughton and Allysa Chapman will be disappointed at how they were caught out for the Royals opener. For Dash fans it was déjà vu. Neither defender knew who was tracking Amy Rodriguez when Lo’eau LaBonta played the pass of the match and exploited the Dash space behind the defense. I don’t blame Megan Oyster for giving away the free kick that led to Vero Boquete’s goal, I just find it hard to believe that Jane Campbell or another defensive figure will be satisfied with how the wall was positioned. Similarly the defending on Tziarra King’s late equalizer was erratic. Naughton allowing the ball to bounce in the box is not good enough and Cece Kizer, who had only just come off the bench, appeared unsure of who she was meant to be picking up.
Substitutions Change Games
We’re only four matches into the Challenge Cup and the importance of game management and squad depth is clear to see. Fatigue and tactical adjustments are changing games. 50% of the 12 goals scored so far have come after the 67th minute of play. Only one goal - Rose Lavelle’s opener vs the Chicago Red Stars - has come before the 35th minute. Clarkson will have to get his changes spot on to maximize opportunities and protect his team’s weaknesses. Despite the late capitulation, I thought Ally Prisock made an impressive 18 minute cameo against the Royals. Replacing an uneasy Erin Simon at right back, Priscok had 17 touches, completed every single one of her passes, had one clearance and one loose ball recovery. The esteemed Sophie Schimdt also looked composed, having replaced Daly after she had tweaked her groin. On the other hand, Kizer was meant to be marking King for the final goal and Christine Nairn seemed rusty when attacking the goal.