It started with a bang. And, to be honest, the bang never went away. The Houston Dash fell to the North Carolina Courage 4-3 in a topsy turvy affair that, despite the seemingly low stakes, was a raucous classic that will live long in the memory. The loss means that the Dash’s four year wait for a victory without Rachel Daly goes on.
One of the most consistent players at the Challenge Cup, Allysha Chapman, was unrecognizable when she recklessly slid in the box and gave away a penalty in the 18th minute. With a yellow card brandished, captain Abby Dahlkemper swept the spot kick home neatly.
However, the Courage’s early goal betrayed the flow of the match. The Dash’s tempo and tenacity controlled the early proceedings and it wasn’t long before they got their reward. Shea Groom pinched the ball from the Courage defense before neatly playing in Veronica Latsko for the equalizer.
It took just another 10 minutes before Groom was once again upsetting the Courage’s rhythm on the ball. This time Kristie Mewis benefitted from the Groom’s rugged build up play. Mewis slamming the ball home cleanly at the near post with her left foot, after Groom had ridden two challenges and out muscled Kayleigh Kurtz. The Dash appeared peerless as they walked off 2-1 up at half time. Their sheer dominance off the ball prompted this ill-fated tweet at the break:
Anyone seen Debinha? Asking for the Dash.— Dynamo Theory (@dynamotheory) September 12, 2020
The Courage, who were not in their usual 4-2-2-2 formation, adjusted at the half. Head coach Paul Riley moved Debinha in from her role out wide and placed her back at “10”, behind the front two of Lynn Williams and Danica Evans. Suddenly it all clicked.
The longer you watch football, the more you believe you’ve seen it all. The illusion that there will be no surprises is what makes the magic of such phenomenal goals so alluring. In the 52nd minute Debinha set the record straight. A harmless throw in became a game changing moment. The Brazilian nochalanting nutmegging rookie Bridgette Andrezejewski before thrashing the ball into the top right hand corner from 25 yards. 90 seconds later Chapman received her second yellow for a poorly timed hack on Meredith Speck. It was then that hope seemed to vanish. But it didn’t.
Against the run of play, the now 10 player Dash launched a long ball up to substitute Katie Stengel, who gracefully hooked it back to Sophie Schmidt on the edge of the Courage box. With a wild swing of her left boot, the ball was buried into the top left hand corner. From the purity of that strike, you wouldn’t have guessed it was Schimdt’s first ever goal from open play for the Dash. Houston had the lead once more.
A match this fluid and fun is nearly impossible to contain. When the Dash’s capitulation arrived you could not criticise their endeavour. The unlikely dream ending was not to be. As legs tired and the Dash got pulled out of shape, the Courage’s best players excelled. Rylee Baisden, who had only come on in the 79th minute, exposed a big whole on the left side of the Houston back four. Sliding the ball into the middle, the ball found Williams who lent back and hooked her shot high into the net. Katie Naughton and Ally Prisock deserve credit for keeping Williams quiet until then, but the goal was a devastating lesson in soft marking.
A mere four minutes remained of the 90, when the winner eventually came. Baisden’s corner flew in and whilst Naughton dealt with the first ball, Debinha dispensed with the second. A skimming volley that zipped off the turf away and left a hapless Jane Campbell with little opportunity to make a save. The Dash had said a lot, but the final word was Debinha’s.
Three Things We Learned:
Nichelle Prince Is Elite
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The most technically adept and gifted moments that the Dash had, with the ball, came from the player wearing number eight. Once again Prince had a stunning first 45 minutes but came away with nothing to show for it on the final match report.
At the Challenge Cup it was a combination of the crossbar, fine goalkeeper and profligate teammates that foiled the Canadian from making the impact she deserved. In this game, it was solely the other players dressed in white that kept her from that elusive assist.
Not only does Prince have the incredible skill to constantly turn her defender inside and out, but her final ball has improved. Prince could easily have ended this game with three or four assists. None of her deliveries were over hit. After blazing past Peyton Perea or Abby Dalhkemper, she was able to cut the ball back with intent or slip it purposefully onto the penalty spot.
A flood of apologies would’ve arrived this morning I’m sure, from Groom and Latsko, after some of those chances that were not taken. We can only hope her star continues to burn bright, because Prince is playing some of the best soccer of her career.
Prince with the nice run to the end line for Houston, but Groom's shot sails way too high! #NCvHOU pic.twitter.com/stgU1jOif9— The Equalizer (@EqualizerSoccer) September 12, 2020
The High Press Is Here To Stay
In James Clarkson’s season and half tenure as Dash head coach, we’ve seen a lot of high pressing football. This style of play suits Rachel Daly, this style of play suits the Dash. Against the Courage it was turned up a notch even further without their captain.
Especially in the first half, the Dash’s high press had the Courage spooked. Even incredibly experienced national team players - like Dahlkemper - were unable to keep poise under the duress. In Daly’s absence, it was Groom who led the charge. Of course in order to be successful, the team needs to press in unison. Groom was able to hound and direct her teammates to aid her. Riley’s decision to field a back three made this easier to instigate.
First Prince and Latsko would split wide to cover two of the three Courage center backs. Then Groom pushed up through the middle from her position in midfield; she was extremely effective at predicting where the passing out of the Courage defense would go. At times even Mewis joining in as a fourth pressing attacker and reaping the rewards. No heavy touch went unpunished.
.@sheabayy2 forces the turnover and @V_Latsko12 taps it home! #HoldItDown pic.twitter.com/nAPmpUUWKo— Houston Dash (@HoustonDash) September 12, 2020
Payback In Houston
It is not just Houston fans that feel it. Even after the unexpected joy of the Challenge Cup, the records of old leer over this Dash team. In the post match press conference, Haley Hanson was candid when she said “this game left a bad taste in our mouth and we’re going to be even more motivated for the next game.”
Having never beaten the Courage before, to come so close and let it slip will sting. “We’re not satisfied, that’s for sure...we’re not just a one-off team that won the Challenge Cup. We are a competitive playoff team and will be for many years to come” said Hanson defiantly in the aftermath of the 4-3 defeat.
Figuring out what the NWSL Fall Series means in the grander schemes is difficult. Understanding what it means to the coach, the players and the fans is straightforward. It’s about building a culture and maintaining standards. Attaining collective growth as a group. Installing a sense of pride to wear the shirt. The unwavering effort shown by Hanson and the Dash, even in defeat, was extremely encouraging. When the Courage play the return leg in Houston, they better be prepared.