As the dust settles on Friday night’s dramatic quarter-final shootout win over the Utah Royals, we begin to look ahead for a groundbreaking semi-final with the Portland Thorns. The biggest match in Dash history looms. Whatever the outcome, the Challenge Cup will always be an important achievement for the Houston Dash, as well as the league as a whole.
Rightly or wrongly we all thought the semi-final would be against the peerless North Carolina Courage, but here we are. Here is a breakdown of the key matchups to look out for as the Dash taken on the Portland Thorns:
Rachel Daly vs Britt Eckerstrom
Every match in the Challenge Cup quarter finals contrived to descend into a goalkeeping showpiece. By the end of Saturday night, all the highlight reels on social media were a melange of physical feats, immaculate footwork and feline-esque reactions. Britt Eckerstrom, initially the Portland Thorns third choice keeper, now arrives in the final four off the back of arguably the best individual performance of any player at the tournament.
Against the Dash, Eckerstrom will have a different task on her hands between the posts. The Courage’s approach of high quantity chance creation - 21 shots, 8 on target vs the Thorns for an XG of 1.77 - allowed the Portland keeper to establish a rhythm. With each audacious save she made, she grew more and more confident as the game went on. She was always on her toes, expecting the next shot to come at any moment.
The reality is that the Dash will not bear down on her goal in the same way. Coming into the game, the Dash only have 7 shots on target in their previous four matches. With less of the ball and less chances being created for Rachel Daly, it means that her goal conversion rate of 20%, is almost double that of Lynn Williams’ rate at 10.3%. On the rare occasion that she does get a sight of goal, she has shown the ability to capitalize. In order to survive larger periods of the match where she is not called upon, Eckerstrom will have to utilize her concentration more than any other part of her game on Wednesday.
Sophie Schmidt vs Rocky Rodriguez
One of the reasons the Dash went from conceding three goals against the Utah Royals in the opener to then keeping a clean sheet against the same team 17 days later, was the addition of Sophie Schimdt. In their first encounter Hayley Hanson struggled to lock down the Royals’ key play maker Vero Boquete. The Spaniard dictated play outside the Dash box and had a huge influence on the game, scoring one goal and assisting another.
In the Dash’s 0-0 shootout victory, Vero was boxed out of her traditional space on the edge of the opposition’s box. Instead she had to veer wide or backwards to find passing lanes. Comparing her heat maps between the two matches, one can visualize the area the Dash successfully pushed Vero away from in the quarter final match.
All that being said, Schimdt’s expert display of positional awareness was when containing a more static traditional playmaker. At first glance, Lindsey Horan, who is struggling with a hip injury, is undoubtedly the Thorns talisman. However, it was only after she went off injured in the quarter final, we saw how Rocky Rodriguez excelled as a creative lead. The Costa Rican’s aloof final ball and ambidextrous control made her troublesome at either end, even snatching the assist for Morgan Weaver’s winning goal.
I expect Rodriguez to not only battle to win the ball outside her own box but to also press up on Schimdt. When handling a more aloof opponent can Schimdt mark as effectively or will it be Rodriguez who gets the better of space in front of the Dash defense?
Nichelle Prince vs Christen Westphal
The brilliant Equalizer website ran an in depth interview with Nichelle Prince this week. I highly recommend checking it out to learn more about her emotional past 12 months; the highs and lows that have populated her life right up until the tournament started. With that in mind, watching Prince make her long awaited return to the Dash starting XI was a delight.
As we wait to see whether Katherine Reynolds will recover from needing stitches in her head, following a collision against the Courage, there’s a good chance that Christen Westphal will be the starting right back for the Thorns in the semis. Westphal’s pace is a good match for Nichelle Prince, so aside from the injury it seems like a good tactical fit for the Thorns. Not since the Thorns’ opening game has Westphal been on the pitch when they have conceded.
Unlocking the Thorns defense will require Prince stretching the play. Prince offers something that the rest of the Dash wide players have struggled to exhibit. A dribbling ability with an eye for goal. Her insightful balance and intelligent touch regularly disorient the defender tracking her. Prince’s zeal for taking a touch, breaking into space and then unleashing a shot is so important in a team that is struggling to manufacture chances. Westphal will have her hands full as Prince is unafraid to take her on and cut in from the left.