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Dash take on Royals in Challenge Cup quarterfinal

After a 3-3 draw in the preliminary round, the Dash get a rematch with Utah Royals for a spot in the semifinals.

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Day 2 Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

The bubble struggle was clear for all to see as the Dash limped through their second consecutive loss. Coach James Clarkson will hope that mental space will be the remedy for defeat ahead of their quarter-final match against the Utah Royals. Shea Groom echoed this sentiment in yesterday’s press conference, saying: “we needed to get a good day of rest...stepping back on the field, we took it very light.”

Mirroring the Dash’s own record (1-2-1) in the preliminary round, albeit with more squad rotation, the Royals also come into Friday’s match off the back of consecutive defeats. The Royals have no new injury concerns to worry about. Contentious USWNT star Kelley O’Hara, is also in line to make her first start of the tournament. This will be the second meeting between the Dash and the Royals at the Challenge Cup, after the two teams played out an exhilarating 3-3 draw in game one. Another unpredictable goal fest would be welcome.

When: Houston Dash play the Utah Royals Friday July 17th at 9:00 PM CT

Live stream: CBS All Access in the USA/Canada and available on Twitch worldwide

Here is how the Dash can make the semi-finals:

Prove People Wrong

A change is going to come. The long time losers have to re-write the script. Whether it is personal grievances (Katie Stengel), an inability to find a team to call home (Shea Groom), injury recovery (Kristie Mewis) or wanting to flip a narrative you’ve embodied season after season (Rachel Daly); the Dash have to start proving people wrong. That extra motivation will be needed in order to get over the line against the Royals. Leave everything out there on the pitch Friday. In many ways the Challenge Cup has played out exactly like a Dash season in microcosm. If you were to expand their current record of 1-2-1 into a 24 match regular season, you would get a record of 6-12-6. That is almost identical to Clarkson’s debut 2019 season, when they finished with a record of 7-12-5. A promising start, a misguided middle and a flat finish. In order to win, the Dash will have to get back to playing with a chip on their shoulder.

Pester The Passer

In my opinion, the Utah Royals passing statistics can be misleading on the surface. One has to read between the stats, interpreting the players styles, in order to form an assessment of the numbers. The Royals may have ended the preliminary round ranked last in passing completion with 67%, but this is largely because they ranked first in the average vertical distance of each pass with 9.5 yards. Much like the Dash, the Royals strive to get the ball forward. They attempt something ambitious, regardless of how foolish the outcome could look.

When you compare OL Reign’s Allie Long with the Royals’ Vero Boquete, you start to see these passing stats unravel. Long’s 91% pass completion is the best of any player at the Challenge Cup (with over 200 minutes of game time). Despite the accuracy, she has 0 key passes, 0 assists, 0 expected assists, 27% of her passes go forward and she averages 4.1 yards per pass made. In contrast, Vero has 8 key passes, 2 assists, 0.96 expected assists, 48% of her passes go forward and she averages 8.5 yards per pass made. Vero’s panache embodies the Royals’ desire to take chances on a killer pass, the statistics demonstrate the benefits of playing that way. It also helps having someone as tenacious as Amy Rodriguez playing in front of you. Unlike the Washington Spirit and Sky Blue, the Royals are not a possession focused passing side. Even so, this does not mean that they are a bad passing side. Get tight to Vero and disrupt her passing lanes.

Get Crosses In

Headers win games against the Royals. Furthermore, last minute headers win games against the Royals. Their last two matches have both been 1-0 losses, inflicted by headed goals in the 91st and 85th minute respectively. Despite one being a low in-swinging cross and one being a high out-swinging cross, the goals have a lot in common. They both come from attacks on the right wing and neither goal is from a counter attack or in transition. In both cases the Royals had the time to get their defenders in position when the ball came in. Both Yuka Momiki, for the Reign, and Savannah McCaskill, for the Red Stars, place their crosses about five yards in front of where their teammate is. This is what helps Bethany Balcer and Casey Short get momentum and a step on their defender as they correctly predict the flight of the ball, evading the marking in the process.

In the final two games the Dash struggled to pack the box. As the team has tired, so have the surging runs from midfield. Daly has become frustrated. The more isolated she gets from the midfield, the more she begins to start tracking back deeper downfield to claim the ball. Even though Daly is a weapon in the air - opening her account for the season with a header against the Royals - I would like to see Stengel help relieve the stress on Daly as a target in the box. Stengel has won 100% of her aerial duels so far and can be the difference if the Dash can whip it in from wide areas. Daly turned provider for “Air Groom”, perhaps we’ll see Groom return the favor with a crossing assist in the quarter-final.