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5 unsung heroes from the Dash’s championship run

These 5 players didn’t get all the headlines but were vital to bringing home the Challenge Cup.

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Championship - Houston Dash v Chicago Red Stars Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

I will never get bored of having the Dash on my screen. You hear that CBS?

However, as much I will be replaying “Air Groom”, Rachel Daly’s post match huddles, Jane Campbell’s penalty saves and Kristie Mewis’ beer soaked antics over and over and over again; I want to take a moment to shine a light on the Dash players who are not being interviewed on national television. Who are less visible, but just as vital.

This Dash team needed courage, grit and determination more than it needed finesse. It needed to act as a collective. To credit that collective on mass level is tricky. After all, it is hard to boil 300 minutes of consummate defensive work into one viral gif.

So here are the Unsung Five, who made the first Houston Dash trophy possible.

Hayley Hanson

Minutes: 477

Games (Starts): 7 (5)

When do we start calling her Hayley “held it down” Hanson? The third yeah player came into the tournament as a promising fan favorite but left as the linchpin of a record breaking defense. In particular her performance in the semi-final, against the Portland Thorns, was immaculate. Completely shutting down the right side by recovering 11 loose balls, winning seven of her eight attempted tackles and not giving away a single foul. Quietly getting on with her duties, her 88% successful tackle statistic over the course of the tournament is remarkable.

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Semifinals Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Hanson played the first 13 games of 2019 as defensive midfielder before Clarkson switched her to play right back away to the Washington Spirit. The Dash won that day, snapping a seven game streak without a win. History would repeat itself in microcosm. Initially, Clarkson started her in the opener against the Royals, and the loss to Sky Blue, at the base of the midfield. However, from the quarter-finals onwards she was deployed as the starting right back. The switch coincided with the Dash keeping three clean sheets in a row for the first time since June 2015.

Katie Naughton

Minutes: 630

Games (Starts): 7 (7)

The unofficial captain of the back four does not need to blow her own trumpet, because I am going to employ an orchestra to play an “Ode to Naughton” at the Miller Outdoor Theater every Saturday afternoon from now on. The iron woman played more minutes than any other player at the Challenge Cup and led the Dash in pass completion.

Naughton’s influence on her teammates made itself known after Megan Oyster injured her rib in the 73rd minute against the Royals. While others lost their heads, Naughton kept it cool. The Notre Dame alum gave away only two fouls and picked up just one yellow card in seven matches. As things became more chaotic in games, Naughton would rally and galvanize her teammates. Ally Prisock’s best performance came under the stewardship of Naughton - in Oyster’s absence - in the semi-final against the Thorns. Early issues of a crooked back line were quashed in the knockout rounds. The Dash became impenetrable.

Nichelle Prince

Minutes: 346

Games (Starts): 6 (3)

The bravery. The balance. The breakaways. After the death of her father in June, if anyone had good reason to sit out the Challenge Cup it was Nichelle Prince. I cannot imagine the emotional strain of living in the bubble during this time in world history, before then adding your own personal tribulations to the mix. Prince’s luminous playing style on the pitch, as well as her hopefulness off it, was essential to the Dash’s groundbreaking achievement.

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Championship - Houston Dash v Chicago Red Stars Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

It pains me that Prince’s box score has little to show for it. The stats do not tell the whole story. In almost every match it felt as if she was the most impressive Dash player, yet often she was absent from the defining moments. Deft with both feet and incredibly intelligent at shifting her weight to unsettle defenders, her duel with Bianca St. Georges in Sunday’s final was enthralling. Prince’s width reinvigorated the Dash attack from the quarter-finals onwards. This Prince is a queen.

Sophie Schimdt

Minutes: 487

Games (Starts): 7 (5)

Even in the grueling heat of a Texas summer, I wouldn’t worry about Sophie Schimdt. She’s just that cool. After Amy Rodriguez’ astonishing miss to open the penalty shootout against Utah, it was the un-phased Canadian who stepped up, as the first Dash kick taker, and put her team on the road to success. Reprising her role as the cold blooded penalty assassin in the cup final, Schimdt has put herself permanently into the history books.

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Championship - Houston Dash v Chicago Red Stars Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Beyond her heroics from the spot, Schimdt played a key role in shoring up the Dash defense. When Hanson was used as the holding midfielder, the Dash were more fluid on the ball but struggled to effectively box out the opposition’s creative players. Schmidt brought a seniority to the role, a no nonsense approach. As the tension increased and the contests grew tighter, so did Schmidt’s impeccable decision making. The gall of the Dash was embodied in Schimdt, the ice-cold water carrier.

Bri Visalli

Minutes: 333

Games (Starts): 5 (4)

Several WSL writers shrugged when they saw Visalli make a return to the NWSL. Their reports were a mixture of meandering performances and little confidence in her ability to affect the pace of the game. Visalli has proved her critics wrong. Her transformation from a traditional attacking midfielder into a pressing inside forward-come-mezzala turned the Dash’s defensive fortunes.

Portland Thorns FC v Houston Dash Getty Images

When Visalli was on the pitch the Dash did not concede a goal. Visalli first starred in the textbook pressing against OL Reign, intercepting the ball for Mewis’ opening goal, and after that the script was written. Visalli took Clarkson’s instructions and tactical plan to heart. Whilst only playing 75 minutes of the preliminary rounds, Visalli went on to play all but 12 minutes of the knockout rounds. Not afraid to scrap when necessary, Visalli delivered one of the most emblematic moments of the tournament when she locked horns with Vero Boquete in the heated Utah quarter-final. We see you Bri, we stand with you Bri. We won’t bring up your penalty miss.