The beer is flying, the confetti angels are still sculpted on the grass and the Houston Dash are Challenge Cup champions. The first to ever do it. This collection of misfits, passed over by other teams and disregarded by the “experts”, have answered their critics in the most emphatic way possible. The same old Dash? No. A new dawn.
It was a chaotic start to the final. Chicago were punchy right from kick off. Less than one minute in and the first chance of the game fell to Savannah McCaskill at the back post. However, she was unable to reel it in for a decent effort on goal. Soon this would become a theme for the Red Stars forward.
After just a mere three minutes, the game then took to its first significant twist. Houston cleared their lines, Bri Visalli claimed the ball in midfield and handed it off to Kristie Mewis. Rachel Daly then took a step back towards her own half, drawing in the indomitable Julie Ertz in the process. Wasting no time, Mewis and Daly suddenly exploited the huge space vacated by Ertz with an outlandish give and go. Knocking it on past the right back, Kayla Sharples, Mewis burst into the box. Sharples, making no attempt to play the ball, could only pull down the midfielder. A penalty to the Dash.
The match had barely begun. Armchairs had no grooves yet from their spectators, the ebb and flow of tactics lay unestablished. The biggest penalty kick in Dash history was to come. It felt like an eternity between Mewis being pulled down and Sophie Schimdt stepping up. The experienced Canadian did not blink. Alyssa Naeher hurled herself to her right and Schimdt coolly slotted it into the left side of the goal. 1-0. An idyllic start for Houston.
Obviously, the final was still young. The Dash now had to settle any nerves that come with an unexpected lead. Chicago’s response was led by the formidable Bianca St. Georges, who slickly traversed the entire length of the pitch at will. In the 14th minute, she found space out on the left, cut in on her right and whipped in a dangerous ball into the six yard box. Jane Campbell panicked, charging for the ball, she punched it directly into the ground. The rebound fell to McCaskill, whose fruitless header could only ding the outside of the post.
Houston’s perfect start came to end when Kristie Mewis was forced off with a thigh injury with 15 minutes of the first half still to play. Initially trying to play on through the strain, Mewis looked broken leaving the field in tears. By half time, the Dash had managed to dampen Chicago’s fiery retort, dropping deeper and snuffing out anything that resulted from the Red Stars’ competent build up play.
One of the biggest talking points pre-match was ex-Dash player Kealia Watt, facing off against her former side for the first time. An anonymous first 45 minutes from the Red Stars forward was soon forgotten as she began to unnerve Oyster and Katie Naughton. First she thrashed at a well executed McCaskill pass, the Red Star’s first shot on goal; then she turned provider as Grace Hill’s more demanding low drive from 18 yards was gathered by Campbell.
Watt’s excellent hold up play helped bridge the gaps between the Chicago front three. The Red Stars soon won a free kick right on the edge of the box just before the hour. Hill slalomed past two Dash players, only to then be firmly brought down by Oyster. McCaskill was elected to take it, she hovered over the ball and cracked a pure strike over the wall. The curling effort forced the save of the match from Campbell, who tentatively palmed it over the crossbar. It was much better from McCaskill, but the missed chance epitomized Chicago’s afternoon.
As victory edged closer and closer for Houston, so did the tension seem to gather in equal increments. So often the heroine, Daly cut a frustrating figure after missing the most guilt edged Dash chance of the match. In the 74th minute she again dropped away from the box to help out a surging Nichelle Prince. A quick one-two, and Prince was set free inside the box. She cut it back to Daly, who arrived perfectly on time to meet the ball 10 yards out from goal. The Dash captain scuffed her effort wide from goal. A dreadful effort by her own high standards.
The Red Stars were unable to gather much momentum. The Dash mentality shifted, one was deemed to be enough for James Clarkson. Watt, who had started the second half so brightly, was soon contained by Allysha Chapman who no longer had any intention to try and push forward for another Houston goal. In the 87th minute, Erin Simon replaced Prince, once again the Dash’s brightest attacking player, and the final defensive block was up.
The fear soon fizzled. There was to be one more moment of brilliance from the Houston Dash. Desperation had pushed the Red Stars forward and with nine of their team inside the Dash half, they lost a costly 50/50 on the halfway line. Groom tapped it to Daly, who waited one beat, took a touch and spun a through ball beyond the last remaining Chicago defender. A determined Shea Groom galloped towards the advancing Naeher, calmly prodded it past her and side footed the ball into an open net. It was sealed. Goodnight, Chicago. What is your beverage of choice? Fill the cup.
Groom may have delivered the most iconic moments of the Challenge Cup, Daly may have won the MVP, but this is categorically a team triumph. Everyone showed up and they showed up together.
For the Dash there was nothing left to say, because they had left it all out there on the pitch. A picture can say a 1000 words, but a trophy? I’ll have to think about that.