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Dash advance to NWSL Challenge Cup final: 3 things we learned

The Dash beat the Portland Thorns 1-0 to advance to Sunday’s NWSL Challenge Cup Final.

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Semifinal - Houston Dash v Portland Thorns FC Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

“They say, we’ve won and we’ve lost. But that’s not what I see. So look what we got. Look what you taught us. And for that, we say...…thank u, next.”

Doubter’s will doubt, but the Dash are going to Dash on. All the way to the NWSL Challenge Cup final. The revered Portland Thorns fell to the Houston Dash 1-0 on Wednesday afternoon, thanks to a valiant Rachel Daly header with 21 minutes left to play. The last remaining former NWSL champion are now on their way home from Utah. The Houston Dash’s outlandish shot at a first title is still alive and well.

Resembling the majority of the knockout matches in the NWSL so far, the opening semi-final was a cagey affair with neither team showing the quality that had been on show in earlier matches. The Dash edged a first half that played out like many expected; Bri Visalli, Shea Groom and Kristie Mewis pressing high on Portland, forcing them to rush their passes. The Thorns kept their cool but could not create.

For the second game in a row Nichelle Prince was the Dash’s brightest star. Starting on the left wing, then swapping wings with Visalli in the middle of both halves, she was impossible to pin down. Former World Cup winner Meghan Klingenburg was turned in and out by the Canadian in a tortuous first 40 minutes for the Thorns.

The Thorns’ resolute Kelli Hubly and Emily Menges, in the center of defense, had steered them through a disappointing opening phase to the match. If any team looked to be growing into the game coming out for the second half, it was the Portland Thorns. Creating very little but dominating possession, it felt like only a matter of time until the Dash would tire and they would start to attack.

Nerves were seeping in and legs grew heavy as the match passed the hour mark. We awaited with anticipation to see who could gamble and snatch victory. Visalli’s shot from inside the box was blocked by Morgan Weaver. A corner. Mewis stepped up and hooked the cross deep to the back post. An unmarked Sophie Schimdt then knocked the ball back towards goal with a thud. Off the crossbar, a scramble for the rebound, Daly bowed her head with five Thorns players between her and the goal. Even if she had been positioned 3-5 yards further back, she would’ve reacted first. This was Daly’s moment. No one was taking it away from her.

Thank u, next.

Here’s 3 things we learned from Houston’s historic semi-final win:

Score, score first

Ok, this one seems obvious. Daly’s 69th minute match winner was the first time the Dash have scored since “Air Groom”. It put to bed a frightening streak of 372 minutes without Houston finding the back of the net. It’s relevant that every game in which the Dash have scored the first goal, they have won in 90 minutes (Dash 2-0 OL Reign, Dash 1-0 Thorns). In my opinion, Clarkson is aware of this. We have seen them come out firing in the past two matches, bossing the first 45 minutes, catching the team off guard with their direct pressing style. This approach is risky and clearly wears the team out. The win today is even more impressive because they were able to persevere beyond their early salvo. Daly’s goal in the 69th minute was the latest they have scored in a match at the Challenge Cup to date.

This is obviously not just a Dash issue. Of the 15 matches with goals, 13 of them have been won by the team that have scored first. No team has won a match after going a goal behind. Whether it’s the overloaded schedule, fatigue due to a truncated preseason or low morale against hardship; matches are nearly over when the first goal goes in. Even if the Dash do concede first in the final, they can look at the fact that they are one of only two teams to come from behind and take something away from a match. The first goal is huge.

Hanson held it down

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Semifinal - Houston Dash v Portland Thorns FC Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The flip side of the Dash struggling to score goals is the defense stepping up. I want to highlight Hayley Hanson in particular for praise. The useful midfielder was in her element today, playing with a confidence and discipline that was infectious. Encapsulated in her early challenge on the Thorns’ forward Morgan Weaver, she stood firm, predicted the run and robbed the winger cleanly. Watching Hanson swiping the ball from the feet of Thorns players, was like observing a lioness herding her loose cubs back to their pride. Nature was just taking its course. Klingenburg’s frustrating afternoon was in large part due to Hanson dominating.

Under Clarkson last season, she featured a lot at right back in a leaky Dash back line. Even so, I would never have guessed that after Hanson was moved to right back, the Dash would be yet to concede a goal. But here we are. I also love the chemistry she has under Katie Naughton, who in Megan Oyster’s absence, has become an important leader at the back. Similarly, Hanson’s assured nature helped Ally Prisock excel in the middle. Who needs a traditional right back?

Pride for Houston, no matter what happens

The wholehearted comments by the Dash captain, in the post match, gave this win a welcome perspective. “Everywhere in the world is struggling with this pandemic, the city of Houston is going through a tough time. For us, this win was for them.” Hope beyond the everyday struggles is a gift that sport gives us. This team is truly playing for their fans and the city of Houston. They are acknowledging the hardships and uncertainty taking its toll on the country. It is a privilege for them to have the opportunity to be safe, to do their work, to compete and entertain. They know that. In turn, they want to show up for those who have not had that advantage.

In making the final, the Dash have given their fans another 4 days of anticipation and of escapism. The reputation of the club is being rewritten in real time during the Challenge Cup. A new standard, a new culture. It is poignant that Shea Groom has gone from claiming she was ready to “hang up” her cleats to now confessing she’s found a “home” in Houston. This team cares and they play like it. Even if they don’t bring home the trophy, we’ll be proud.