Fireworks littered the early night skies beyond Zions Bank Stadium but they remained distant embers in comparison to the iridescent performance of the Houston Dash; a joyous 90 minute blur of fast paced counter attacking football. Could the Dash faithful and James Clarkson have seen this coming? Of course. Saturday evening’s confident 2-0 win over the OL Reign was about executing a plan. The uneven match played out as if it had been the final draft of an extraneous screenplay writing session by Rachel Daly, Kristie Mewis, and Shea Groom.
The Dash continued to line up in a 4-3-3 but made a few select personnel changes. Erin Simon made way for Ally Prisock to return at right back, Sophie Schimdt replaced Hayley Hanson in the “water carrier“ role and Bri Visalli made her Dash debut as relief for attacker Veronica Latsko.
Not long after kick off, it all clicked. Reign keeper Casey Murphy was put under slight pressure by Groom and had to rush her kick. Her ensuing clearance was poor and landed behind her left back Kristen McNabb. Visali smelt blood. The Dash debutant stole the bobbling ball from McNabb, and charged forward. Her dribbling drew in Allie Long and Lauren Barnes so that the moment they began to close in, she then fed the ball to Groom on the edge of the box. Serene and composed, Groom laid the ball off, to the approaching Mewis, with an audacious back heel flick. Mewis obliged, rifling the shot into the left hand corner of Murphy’s goal. There’s less accomplished works of art than this in the Menil.
If the OL Reign thought they were going to get off lightly, playing against their ex-player, Groom had other ideas. In the 54th minute, whilst under pressure from Reign forward Darian Jenkins, Ally Prisock managed to shield the ball, keep possession and find an outlet in Schimdt in the middle. Schimdt took one touch and unleashed Daly out wide. Daly killed the ball before taking an intelligent second touch that knocked the ball into the space behind a lagging McNabb. The Dash captain looked up and then knocked in a perfect swooping cross. The Reign center backs tracked Katie Stengel, meaning Groom arrived unopposed. The Houston #6 took flight and buried the header with ferocity. Once again there was something so telepathic about this goal. A frightening sense of togetherness.
OL Reign offered little in response and before long the match felt inevitable. Nichelle Prince was a welcome late substitute, having only just linked up with the rest of the Dash squad this week. It was encouraging also to see Daly seemingly fit enough to start and play the full 90 minutes. On the charge and starting to connect, here’s what we learned from another exciting Dash display.
Attack in transition
As predicted the Reign bossed the possession stats, having 58% of the ball and attempting 118 more passes than the Dash. Allie Long and Shirley Cruz were again unable to connect with their forwards, predominantly shifting the ball around the defense and midfield. The Dash let the Reign have the ball in ineffectual areas, then they would choose a focus point, communicating the right time to close down a run and when to press in an area they can pounce on. Often you saw Daly and Stengel split and press the fullbacks, with Mewis or Groom coming up through the middle to press the center back or goalkeeper. It is Groom who starts the initial press for the first goal, on Reign keeper Murphy. It is startling how it is just eight seconds between Visali intercepting the ball and the ball hitting the back of the net. Clarkson will be thrilled with how his team performed in transition. This quickness and mutual connection between players is something often attributed to top sides like NC Courage or Borussia Dortmund. Let’s hope it remains a common trait in burnt orange.
Goals from midfield
One of the most impressive aspects of the win over the Reign was the supporting role that Daly played. After the Royals match, I was worried that the Dash would be overly reliant on the England international, especially when it comes to converting chances. Daly managed just two touches in the opponent’s box against the Reign, down from three against the Royals and she volleyed her only chance of the game wide. However, this altered the Dash’s chances of winning. The Dash registered 4 shots on target for the second consecutive time. This is because the players behind the forwards have stepped and created a balanced attack. Stengel and Daly’s brilliant work rate can help draw in defenders and encourage midfielders to step into the unoccupied space. Exemplified in the second goal; the ball is shifted from defense, to the midfield and then to Daly in attack. As a wide forward she can shift seamlessly from being a goal taker into a goal maker. Mewis and Groom’s late runs can then give the opponents’ headaches.
Ally Prisock is first choice
Houston persevered with little push back. The team’s overall work rate should be given the credit for the clean sheet rather than just one or two defensive standouts. That said, the defense was completely unchanged apart from Ally Prisock at right back. By no means do the Dash go from conceding three to then conceding zero just based on Prisock, but I think the defender excelled once again. Daly’s lone chance of the match came from a Prisock cross after she overlapped on the wing. Prisock’s calmness under pressure was also essential in the build up to Groom’s emphatic header. Even though the Reign were toothless, failing to register a single shot on goal, there was a moment of trepidation in the 79th minute when Prisock recovered to put in a key block against Jenkins who had a sight of goal. I’m sure we’ll see more of Erin Simon in this tournament but Prisock has impressed in one of the few contested defensive positions.