Isn’t it funny how quickly tournaments go from being box fresh to battle worn?
Only a week in and the NWSL tournament is amok with skill, speculation and storylines. Some teams will feel happier than others but overall I think the whole league will be inspired by the performances on and off the pitch. The Challenge Cup has given top-drawer talents the exposure to dazzle the world. The Challenge Cup has given a platform to players to share their voices. Keep watching, keep marvelling. Now, let’s Dash on…
The Houston Dash will be closely monitoring Rachel Daly’s injury as they concoct the best approach for Saturday night’s clash with the OL Reign. The Dash captain and the recently arrived Nichelle Prince were the only two listed as questionable on Friday’s official injury report. The Seattle side lost rookie midfielder Kelcie Hedge to an ACL tear this week, which added to the already noticeable absences of the dependable Jess Fishlock and former Dash attacker Sofia Huerta.
Squad rotation was always going to be essential at the Challenge Cup. We saw from the first set of second round games, played Wednesday, that there is a difference in opinion in regards to how many changes need to be made. For example, The Chicago Red Stars changed their entire first XI. They played some youthful players, let experienced players catch a breather, and experimented with positional tactics. On the other hand, the NC Courage and Washington Spirit, arguably the best two sides in the Challenge Cup, only made five and four changes respectively.
I imagine James Clarkson will look to keep the same formation, 4-3-3, but perhaps change up to six players from Tuesday’s starting XI. Daly could be the first player we see sit out. Even without the thigh injury, there’s good cause to keep her fresh further down the line, especially with a more winnable fixture against Sky Blue FC this coming Wednesday.
Jamia Fields looks poised to come in to start in the front three, with perhaps Katie Stengel shifting across, from the right side, to play Daly’s position at center forward. Stengel will not be expected to last the full 90 minutes and we should see an an array of combinations featuring Veronica Latsko, Kayla McCoy and Maegan Kelly up top.
At the back, I would be surprised if Clarkson disrupted Katie Naughton and Megan Oyster. Those two players are integral to improving the Dash’s defense short and long term. The Dash needs them to become familiar. There’s also the added narrative of Oyster and attacking midfielder Shea Groom going up against their former team. I imagine both players will be hungry to show everyone in Seattle what they’re missing in this “revenge” game. Keep an eye out for Ally Prisock potentially starting at right back too. Clarkson hinted, in Friday’s press conference, that she was level with Erin Simon for the starting berth.
Contrasting with the Dash’s breathless encounter with the Utah Royals on Tuesday, the Reign opened their tournament with a probing goalless draw vs Sky Blue FC. They say opposites attract, so what might be tactically in store when the sun begins to set at Zions Bank Stadium.
When preparing for Game 2, Clarkson and the Dash will be trying to figure out how much of the ball they believe they will need in order to win. After one match, OL Reign currently boast the highest pass completion in the NWSL with 83%. The Dash currently sit second bottom with just 71% pass completion. The Reign also attempted 98 more passes than the Dash in their opening match. Whilst both teams registered four shots on target in their opening matches, it was the Dash who walked away with three goals to the Reign’s nil.
Losing a passing battle shouldn’t worry the Texas team too much. Conceding possession is fine if you are efficient with your chance creation. Winning the ball back and sparking an attack quickly can make up for those 100 fewer passes in the middle of the pitch. We saw this in action on Tuesday, against the Royals. Veronica Latsko made the most of a long ball over the top for Daly’s first goal and then later on Katie Stengel was industrious at reeling in a direct pass in the channel and laying it off for Shea Groom.
Against Sky Blue FC, the Reign were unable to create chances and make the most of all their possession. They were unable to shift the ball forward. As a result their attackers became isolated and broken off from where they were moving the ball, mostly between midfield and defense. Star studded midfield duo Shirley Cruz (79% pass completion) and Allie Long (94% pass completion), were accurate but not penetrative. Only one of the Reign front three, Darian Jenkins in the 20th minute, registered a single shot on target. On Saturday evening will the Reign be plunderous or ponderous?