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Dash return to action for first time since winning Challenge Cup: 3 things to watch

Soccer: NWSL Challenge Cup Final-Chicago Red Stars vs Houston Dash Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Dash are returning to play for the first time since they held the Challenge Cup aloft at Rio Tinto Stadium in July. This time, it’s going to look a little bit different.

It is not entirely certain how competitive the Fall Series will be or even what exactly the Verizon Community Shield is. We have been informed that the Community Shield will be an 18-match series in which the league’s nine teams are grouped into three three-team pods and will each play four matches. The Dash’s South pod contains the North Carolina Courage and the Orlando pride. Starting in Cary, NC the Dash will play the Courage this afternoon at 2:30 PM CDT.

Following their opener, the Dash will host two home matches: September 26th v Courage and October 4th v Pride. This week the club confirmed that the Dash will be welcoming a maximum of 3,000 fans to BBVA for their two home matches. The Dash will then finish their 2020 NWSL season away to Orlando on October 9th.

Last weekend the Washington Spirit and Sky Blue FC played an engrossing match, which climaxed with a 91st minute winner by Sky Blue attacker Midge Purce. Hopefully the Dash vs Courage tilt can add to the spectacle and keep the high quality soccer flowing.

Where to watch: CBS

Last meeting: Courage 1-0 Dash (9/17/19)

All time record: 0-7-1

Can the Houston Dash get their first ever win over the North Carolina Courage? Will it feel hollow if they do? Here’s three things to watch out for.

Squad Rotation

With a first trophy in the bag and confusion around what is at stake during the Fall Series, we should expect to see some experimentation in the line up. In Utah, head coach James Clarkson rotated his side less than anyone else. Now it is the time to see what the more unknown members of the Dash squad have to offer. All that being said, Clarkson said in his press conference this week, “our objectives are we want to win”. Perhaps victory will still take a precedent over discovery.

Rookie winger Bridgette Andrzejewski played her college soccer at UNC and I’m sure would welcome making her Dash debut back in the Tar Heel state. Canadian striker Meagan Kelly, who averaged a goal every 114 minutes in Italy, could also be another one hungry to get her first game.

In addition to the Dash debutants, we should get a better look at utility defender Erin Simon, who can fill in at either left or right back. Aside from Allysha Chapman, Clarkson has not signed a natural outside back that he seems particularly settled with. Often Hayley Hanson and Ally Prisock have both been the preferred choices to play in that position. Jamaican international Lauren Silver has also now signed a short term deal to audition for the role of outside back during the Fall Series.

Jamia Fields should be provided with an opportunity to stake her claim to be a Dash player in 2021. Now in her second season with the Dash, Fields has only 17 appearances(five starts) in the course of Clarkson’s 31 game tenure. It was surprising to see her get a mere 10 total minutes of play at the Challenge Cup. Perhaps this came down to Clarkson’s perceptions of her pressing ability. Off the pitch Fields appears to be a pertinent personality in the dressing room and she has waited patiently for her chance on the field in 2020. To see Fields score her first NWSL goal is something that I personally would love to see.

No Daly, Some Problems

The last time the Dash lost Rachel Daly, their season took quite a skid. Having won three of their opening five matches of the 2019 season, the Dash captain then departed for the World Cup in France. The Dash did not pick up a single win in Daly’s absence. Their next win came eight matches later against the Washington Spirit, Daly’s first match back in orange. Put simply, last season the Dash’s win percentage with Daly in the side was 41%, without her it was 0%.

Hold on though, it is about to get spooky. If you look back into the Dash record books, the Houston Dash have not won a game without Daly in their side for four years. What’s eerie is that the last time that Dash won a game without Daly was when they defeated the Boston Breakers 4-1 on 9/11 2016. So when the Daly-less Dash takes the field on Friday, it will be four years to the day since they got a win without their talisman in the lineup. It is time to break that spell.

While Daly was away last season, Kristie Mewis, Cece Kizer, Kyah Simon and Jamia Fields were all given two starts at center forward. Whilst Nichelle Prince has been successfully deployed as a wide attacker, I still think she could feature as the focal point of the attack. Prince did everything but score in a dazzling trio of starts during the Challenge Cup. Perhaps moving her into the central role as a replacement for Daly and then inviting Veronica Latsko or Bridgette Andrzejewski onto the wings could prove useful.

Decimated Courage Still Have Flair

Unfortunately for the Courage, head coach Paul Riley has a list of 10 players unavailable throughout the Fall Series. An 11th, Stephanie Labbé - who has said she will not be travelling to away games - will be joining the list on September 19th. The Dash in comparison have just two missing squad players: Daly (on loan) and Kayla McCoy (knee injury).

Former Dash players, now playing with the Courage, Denise O’Sullivan and Lindsey Agnew have both left on loan to Brighton & Hove Albion and KIF Örebro respectively. Forward Hailee Mace has followed them out of Cary by joining Kristianstads DFF.

Most notably World Cup winners Crystal Dunn and Jessica McDonald have opted out of the Fall Series over concerns with the NWSL not implementing a COVID-19 bubble this time around. 2019 NWSL All Second XI stars Abby Erceg and Kristen Hamilton - who scored four goals in one match against the Dash in 2019 - have echoed the sentiment by opting out of the Courage’s four matches. All these absences come after domineering midfielder Sam Mewis departed to sign for Manchester City until the summer of 2021.

So who will the Courage start this afternoon? The good news for the Courage is that Debinha, the Brazilian segundo atacante, will feature for the Courage this Autumn. Debinha is as relentless as she is gifted. The attacking midfielder covers a huge amount of ground and can shimmer from set pieces. In front of her, Lynn Williams will lead the line for the Courage. Williams’ skill set is perfectly suited to devastate a Dash back four that has struggled when the ball is played into the space behind the back line. Williams’ ability to surge into the space behind defenses and then gracefully graft chances from acute angles will be something to keep an eye on.