“There’s no great love out there for the Dash” said James Clarkson, as he jovially nestled into his chair during the OL Reign post-match press conference. Well James, there was no great love.
In just two matches the Dash have gone from perennial misfits to tournament scene stealers. All over the world NWSL neutrals and soccer thirsty first time viewers are doting on the women in orange. And why wouldn’t they? Titanic music, an ever-evolving slew of stan accounts, Michael Jordan graphics, back-heels, ecstatic celebrations, alternate angles, hang time, team BBQs, guile, enthusiasm, skill, technique and of course goals. Plenty of them. Last season the Dash converted 10% of their total shots into goals, this has risen to 24% for the two opening fixtures of the Challenge Cup. This increases to 38% when you remove blocked shots. Despite an xG of 2.29, the Dash lead the NWSL with five goals scored. Relish the moment Dash fans.
Looking ahead to tonight’s fixture with Sky Blue FC, we may well see another set of minimally changed line ups. The Dash should look to stick with their biting 4-3-3 that has proved so successful so far; Sky Blue are also on course to keep their possessive 4-1-4-1 for the third consecutive match. Both teams made three changes to their starting XI between game one and game two. The Dash have no new injury concerns. Meanwhile Sky Blue have lost midfielder Kenie Wright for the remainder of the tournament, due to an ACL tear in training. Under Clarkson, the Dash have only recorded back to back wins once: 5/5/19 1-0 v Pride, 5/11/19 2-1 vs Royals.
The Houston Dash face Sky Blue FC tonight at 9 PM CT on CBS All Access.
Here is what we’re focusing on:
One of the most talked about topics, since the NWSL resumed, has been Freya Coombe’s decision to play Midge Purce at right back. Eyebrows were immediately raised when the lineup was revealed before Sky Blue’s opening match against OL Reign. After two uninspiring goal-less performances, the early skepticism has been vindicated. The outcry, for Coombe to reverse her position change, has only intensified.
Purce was the second highest goal scorer for the Portland Thorns in 2019, with eight goals, only just behind Christine Sinclair’s nine goal haul. Sky Blue are the only side at the Challenge Cup yet to score a goal. Their 0.64 xG per game also ranks last in the NWSL. They are crying out for someone to provide a spark going forward and it appears that Purce could be that person. In Sky Blue’s opener, Coombe opted for new arrival Ifeoma Onumonu to play up front; whilst in their second match she elected rookie Evelyne Viens to lead the line. The shooting statistics for the new arrivals are damning. In 208 minutes of play, the duo have collectively registered two shots, one shot on goal and an xG of 0.12.
After all it was Coombe who traded for Purce in January 2020, so we have to assume this enigmatic tactical change is to serve a purpose. After two matches, Purce’s 143 touches ranks second for Sky Blue FC. The only player with more touches is Purce’s counterpart at left back, Sabrina Flores, who has 147. Despite the lack of success, it’s clear that Coombe envisions her full backs as essential to creating attacks. Only through more matches will we see if Coombe’s vision for integrating attacking full backs can prosper or perhaps unleashing Purce higher up the pitch was the antidote all along.
Despite Sky Blue coming into the Challenge Cup with a comparable standing and similarly disappointing past seasons to the Dash, they have approached the tournament with contrasting targets. Coombe is asserting more caution in her team’s overall chances and has set her focus on developing young players and consolidating her possession based style. Clarkson focused the Dash on bringing in veterans to help maximize the same style of play from 2019. Sky Blue have refreshed their roster with a handful of improving talents who will take time. Only serial winner McCall Zerboni, who arrived from the NC Courage in January 2020, can be called upon to generate a more senior winning mentality. In the Challenge Cup so far, Clarkson is yet to give a rookie any minutes, Coombe has already given three players their first taste of professional soccer. Analyzing success for Sky Blue will go beyond just their results at the Challenge Cup. This squad is teething.
How a team deals with success is possibly the greatest test of all. Clarkson has explicitly used the Dash’s “underdog status” as motivation for his players. In his first press conference in Utah he exclaimed: “I think everyone in the press predicted we’d finish 9th. Hopefully we prove them wrong”. Game three was always going to be the most winnable of the Dash’s preliminary fixtures. Experts may have fancied the Utah Royals and the OL Reign over the Dash but the same cannot be said for their upcoming encounter with Sky Blue. Especially now that we’ve seen Sky Blue fizzle and the Dash dazzle. The Texas team will now have to embrace the pressure of being the more fancied side. Swagger has looked good on the Dash in the aftermath of Saturday’s 2-0 win over the OL Reign. Taking care of the underdog, rather than being the underdog, is their next obstacle.