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Dash take down Royals on penalties to reach semifinal

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After a 0-0 draw, it was Jane Campbell to the rescue as the Dash beat the Royals on penalties to reach the Challenge Cup semifinal.

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Quarterfinal - Houston Dash v Utah Royals FC Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

It wasn’t easy but they held it down. The Houston Dash survived a frenetic quarter-final with the Utah Royals and reached the NWSL final four for the first time in the club’s history. After it finished 0-0 in regulation, the Dash took it all the way to a penalty shootout and triumphed 3-2 in a series dominated by the greatness of goalkeeper Jane Campbell.

As midnight back in Texas got closer and closer, it was unclear at times whether the Dash were in fact going to turn into pumpkins by the time the match concluded. The contest was disorderly from start to finish. The kick off having to be retaken for encroachment was a sign of things to come. Nichelle Prince and Bri Visalli, both called back to the starting line up to flank either side of Daly, were the only two stand outs in orange. In the 16th minute, Prince’s intelligent vision picked out Visalli’s diagonal run, catching the Royals back line napping. With Visalli through on goal, Royals keeper Abby Smith brought down the Dash winger. A yellow card and a free kick were given, the first of many dubious calls.

Visalli turned provider in the 38th minute as she intercepted a poor clearance in the Royals back line. Visalli slipped the ball through to Prince, who delicately created space with a touch of her left foot, before then curling a shot against the post with her right. Whilst the first half had glimpses of quality, the second half quickly became jumbled and unruly. Utah coach Craig Harrington brought on Katie Bowen for Kelley O’Hara, which soon snuffed out Prince’s radiant display. Neither team excelled with the ball. Both teams were hasty and quick to foul and disrupt the rhythm of the other. The Dash back line were resolute without the ball but nervy when in possession. The forceful Amy Rodriguez never quite got a sight of goal but did well to destabilize the Dash defenders.

It was poetic how the match began and ended with Vero Boquete facing off against Campbell. After less than two minutes, Vero swerved in a menacing free kick from 45 yards out. Campbell, blinded by the infamous glare of the Utah sun, flapped at the ball as it bounced just inches wide of the Dash keeper’s post. 154 minutes later, the Spaniard lined up once more from a dead ball situation. Except now there was the whole tournament on the line. The outcome at the death would be the same as at the start. This time with more conviction, Campbell cuddled Vero’s weak spot kick and was quickly embraced by her jubilant Dash teammates. It was over. The Dash had done it.

Here’s 3 things we learned from the Dash’s win over the Utah Royals

Grit and determination

In five matches the topsy-turvy Dash have shown a little bit of everything. Amongst the chaos of their performances, the Dash’s standout attribute has been their mentality. They are bullish. Imbued with guile and a dazzling dogged persona. Rachel Daly, beaming with pride, said in her post match interview, “we are a very emotional team on and off the pitch...our character came out tonight and that’s the most important thing”.

It was the “off the pitch” drama that had dominated the build up to their quarter-final. Performance trainer Matt Besemer, who the Dash had let go of and removed from the bubble, was revealed to be in a relationship with Katie Stengel. Hours before kick off Clarkson and/or the team had seemingly banished Stengel for a post on social media that read: “I’m sorry that I trusted girls who I know gossip about others personal life”. Stengel did not even make the bench for the Royals match. Her stint in Houston now looks to be finished.

Few teams could play such an emotional game, under extremely emotional conditions and be successful. The Dash’s hive mentality pulled them through. They appeared to rally rather than recoil. Having already battled the pressures of COVID-19, the BLM uprisings for social justice and the NWSL bubble; the team added behind the scenes workplace romantic quarrels and somehow still came out on top.

Bad refereeing

Where to begin. The NWSL’s already checkered reputation for poor refereeing was only further blemished after last night. Danielle Chesky’s decision to give a free kick, rather than a penalty, when Abby Smith upended Visalli in the box was indefensible. Smith not receiving a red card for the challenge is defensible, yet still questionable. The rule was changed a few years ago so that the last player fouling is not an automatic red. The ref must use their judgement to decide if the last defender was denying a clear goal scoring opportunity and/or not committing an honest attempt at winning the ball. Smith undoubtedly was trying to win the ball, whether Visalli was through on an open goal is debatable. What only added to the disarray was the linesperson also raising their flag, for offside, in the build up. Another puzzling decision waved away.

The match became like a whirlpool. Swirling into chaos, with no way out. Chesky had lost control and could not regain the faith of the players on either side. Bad fouls were not dealt with early on, which meant no precedent was set for the players when they lashed out. After correctly booking Kristie Mewis for a grapple in the ninth minute, it wasn’t until the 77th minute we saw the next yellow card. At this point, it was too late for Chesky to regain control of the feisty affair. Tempers boiled over as Megan Oyster was slammed to the ground as she shielded the ball out to go out for a goal kick. She left immediately from the field to go to the hospital to examine a suspected cracked rib. Chesky then began to overcompensate, booking Tziarra King harshly, for what was her first foul of the match. A confusing rhythm was established that left the players even more perplexed. Allysha Chapman then ended the game putting a biting challenge on Vero, who had already locked horns with Visalli for a late challenge 15 minutes prior. Chesky’s performance adversely affected both teams and the match as a whole.

Don’t take a penalty against Jane Campbell

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Quarterfinal - Houston Dash v Utah Royals FC Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Campbell is much more quietly spoken than her co-captain Daly. She’s harder to read. There is an assuredness to the way she conducts herself, something stoic. It’s as if she doesn’t have to present herself as confident, because she knows her confidence on the inside. Campbell’s performance in the penalty shootout epitomized this. It is the stuff of immediate legend, sealed in NWSL lore forever.

The leap to prod away Rachel Corsie’s penalty is goalkeeping technique at its absolute finest. Hawk-like, Campbell watches the Scotland captain as she begins her run up. Her first step on the goal line in rhythm with Corsie’s penultimate step before the ball. It was a well struck penalty but Campbell’s athleticism is equal to it. It is as glorious as any goal you will see in this tournament. Psyching out Vero, one of the most talented and experienced players on the field, in the final moment was quite a climax. Campbell gestured with her right hand to the right post, before mischievously pouncing to her left. The Spaniard will have a sleepless night contemplating her effort into the early hours.

Shootouts are a nerve wracking cocktail of luck, level-headedness and skill. Campbell’s gift was being able to mix all three brilliantly. I’ll leave you with her own words: “penalty kicks, I love them”.