It’s the hope that kills you. Did the Houston Dash get too complacent or too confident going into game 3? I don’t believe so. Did Sky Blue FC raise their level after an anonymous first 180 minutes? It would appear so. By the time the ref blew the whistle, mercifully ending the match, we’d witnessed a Dash deconstruction. Air Groom had been grounded.
At 17 minutes Ifeoma Onumonu picked up the ball in the middle of the park and carried it forwards, sucking in the Dash center backs towards her. Ally Prisock failed to stay in line with the rest of her defenders and allowed Paige Monaghan to have a few yards of onside space in behind them. Onumonu waited until Monaghan had ghosted past the Dash’s back line and then gracefully played her through. Monaghan treated the incoming Jane Campbell as if she were a training cone. She knocked it past her with one touch and slotted it home into the open net with another. 1-0 Sky Blue.
Minutes later Onumonu struck the top of the cross bar with a bullish swipe from 10 yards out. Imani Dorsey then piled on more pressure, from a direct free kick, when her tremendous effort cannoned off Campbell’s near post. Sky Blue attacked in waves and the Dash were caught in the undertow. Defenders Gina Lewandowski and Estelle Johnson were exceptionally calm and unphased as Dash midfielders broke the lines to try and put them under pressure.
What would end up being a decisive blow came on 33 minutes. The brilliant Jennifer Cudjoe lofted a through ball towards Onumonu, which unsettled Campbell. The Dash keeper quickly felt provoked into charging out of her box to clear the ball. The shaky clearance fell perfectly to Naho Kawasumi, who settled the ball deftly with her right foot and then instinctively curled the ball into the open goal from 40 yards out. An outstanding seamless bit of skill. 2-0 and game over.
Despite numerous personnel changes, the Dash offered very little in reply. A few mazy dribbles from Kristie Mewis and some embers of attacking football from Nichelle Prince were about it. In a league as balanced as this - NC Courage aside - the biggest truth from Wednesday’s one sided 2-0 loss to the Sky Blue is: respect the opposition.
Furthermore, expect the unexpected. It was never going to be a revolution overnight for the new look Dash, but after two matches we had thought they had established some consistency. Across all of these preliminary matches we’re seeing a wide variety of line ups, performances and outcomes. The Dash and Sky Blue are no exception.
Here’s what we learned from the Dash’s first defeat at the NWSL Challenge Cup.
Picking Up The Runner
The Royals, like Sky Blue, were similarly keen at testing Megan Oyster and Katie Naughton’s uncommunicative back line. So far Oyster and Naughton have definitely improved the Dash defense. They have also gone two matches without conceding from a set piece, which looked to be an issue after the Royals match. However, there is too much uncertainty when through balls are played behind the line of defense in open play. One of Oyster or Naughton needs to take the lead in order to ensure that a tighter offside trap is kept in the first phase. In the second phase, players need to be more aware of which runner they are marking. Whilst Diana Matheson’s goal for the Royals had more ball and player movement than Monaghan’s opening goal last night; both goals exposed the Dash’s lack of player awareness. Against the Royals, Allysha Chapman was caught out in phase one with Erin Simon and Oyster unclear in phase two. Last night Naughton closed down the ball, which left Prisock at fault in phase one and Oyster again unaware of Monaghan ghosting through on goal. Oyster and Naughton are experienced NWSL players. Their intensity and leadership is already there but perhaps the understanding is still to come.
Playing From Behind
Prior to last night, the Dash had played with a goal deficit for only 11 minutes at the Challenge Cup. In their first match, against the Utah Royals, the Dash had a similarly shaky start to last night. However, through Rachel Daly’s heroics they quickly turned it around. Despite going behind in the 35th minute, they were 2-1 up by the 47th minute. The most dominant spells for the Dash have been when they have the lead. Their pressing style is perfect when the opponent is rushing the play and doesn’t have a lead to protect. The Dash’s fast break helps grow their confidence when they score. They savor hustling their rivals off the ball and disrupting the rhythm of the match. Against Sky Blue, the Dash totaled their highest number of passes thus far, 379, and their highest passing accuracy completion rate, 76%. Despite having more of the ball, this only resulted in one shot on goal, which was a tame Daly long distance skirmish in the 10th minute.
Clarkson will have to set his sights on trying to establish alternative tactics once the opposition has the lead, has surrendered possession, and the Dash have to be the ones to meticulously break down a determined defense. Safe passes inside and Daly dropping too deep alleviated all pressure on the Sky Blue box. Mewis and Prince aside, it was a toothless display going forward. Credit must be given to Sky Blue fullbacks Midge Purce and Dorsey who shut down the Houston flanks. Cudjoe’s all action midfield play similarly stifled any flow Shea Groom and Hayley Hanson tried to establish.
Dash head coach, James Clarkson, made four changes to the starting line up. Erin Simon was brought back in to replace Chapman at left back. Hayley Hanson was preferred to Sophie Schimdt at the base of the midfield. Christine Nairn and Cami Privett were the two ill-fated wide options in for Bri Visalli and Katie Stengel. With a siphoned pre-season, and only three days rest between matches, the strength of the overall roster was always going to be scrutinized. For the first time last night we saw the drop off. Standards dipped potentially because of fatigue in the players who were starting their third match in a row (Campbell, Oyster, Naughton, Groom, Mewis, Daly) or due to the lack of quality in the first time starters (Nairn and Privett). Experimentation is crucial. Intriguing tweaks and optimistic options is what the preliminary matches are all about. The poor result last night is educational, not detrimental. Clarkson will undoubtedly rest some starters and give more members of the roster an opportunity to impress against the Washington Spirit. The Dash are still ascertaining the strengths and weaknesses of certain players within the squad. In spite of the poor result, the Dash have helped establish who can have an impact in the latter stages of the Challenge Cup.