The wait is over. The Houston Dash have won a match without Rachel Daly for the first time in four years. The Dash’s 3-1 victory over the Orlando Pride, is about as one sided an affair as you will see in a very competitive NWSL. If it wasn’t for the continuing goalkeeping theatrics of Ashlyn Harris, the scoreline would present a more honest appraisal of the game.
A clamor of Houston Dash players, and a smattering of a few hundred Dash fans, did their best to create a homecoming feel as they greeted their team for the first time this season at BBVA stadium. And what a warm welcome back it would become.
On a humid Houston evening, it was the Pride that had the better of the opening exchanges. Marta, starting on the right of the Orlando front three, outmaneuvered makeshift left back Christine Nairn multiple times. Nairn, a 30 year old NWSL stalwart, has been a quality addition to the Dash squad since she arrived in 2018. However, she has never been a starting left back. Marta let her frustration be known, after she fired over on her right foot from 18 yards. The Dash went unscathed despite the Pride’s running start. “Once we got through that first 10 minutes I thought she was very comfortable.” said Dash head coach James Clarkson after the match.
What will have impressed Clarkson the most in that first half was how the Dash adapted to the Pride’s game plan. They didn’t panic when their usual high octane transitional game didn’t reap rewards. The Dash eventually took what the Pride gave them, which was possession of the ball. No longer waiting for the counter attack, Sophie Schmidt and Kristie Mewis dictated the tempo of the game more than at any other time this season.
The breakthrough eventually came courtesy of Canada. Schmidt saw the space behind Pride defender Toni Pressley and Nichelle Prince read the run with aplomb. Gliding away from any players in white, Prince struck a sweet chip with her first touch that reduced goalkeeper Harris to the mere role of spectator. The crack of the net was met with a sigh of relief, as one of the Dash’s most outstanding players finally got what she deserves.
Nevertheless any half time celebrations were swiftly cancelled when Marisa Viaggiano spun past Hayley Hansen, then cut inside across Ally Prisock and snuck the ball home. A rare lapse in concentration for Hansen, who had kept the Pride quiet until seconds before the half time whistle blew. It was level at the break and Houston only had themselves to blame. Luckily the wasted chances did not come back to haunt them.
Shortly after the restart Groom was dragged down by Viaggiano six yards out, after a scramble in the box. The calm and collected Schimdt resumed duties as the designated penalty taker in the side, ignoring all the distracting techniques that Harris threw at her, and curled the ball into the top left hand corner. This was Schimdt’s third goal in as many games.
It was then Shea Groom’s turn to get in on the action. The icing on the cake of a dominant Dash display saw the fabled midfielder plow the ball home from close range after it had ricocheted in the Pride box several times. The substitutes bench erupted with pure joy. Groom once again spread out her “wings” and was lifted up by her teammates. For the few who were there, witnessing Groom’s unbridled celebrations was the highlight of a triumphant night. The most memorable portrait of the Challenge Cup had come back to Texas. Groom continues to be a transformative player who has galvanised the club since her arrival.
Honestly Shea Groom coming to Houston has been one of the best things to ever happen for the teams I follow. Cannot get enough of her comeback— Hayley Houston Dash CHAMPS (@HayleySnider2) September 27, 2020
By the end of the match the Dash had taken 27 shots, 13 on target and finished with 85% pass completion. All these stats were season highs for the club. A combination of Harris’ dexterity in goal and the Dash forwards’ profligacy in front goal the only reason this wasn’t a record scoring outing too. The Pride tired quickly and it showed. A second half to forget for many of these players. The discerning rookie right back Carrie Lawrence, one of the few Pride players to keep pushing on despite the frustration and fatigue.
No longer the Dash of old, Clarkson has drilled his players well to maintain standards even in an eclectic competition like the Fall Series. Prince’s comments after the match summed up the Dash’s uncompromising performance: “We knew that 2-1 was not going to be good enough...once you get success you want more.”
Here’s three things we learned:
Experience > Unfamiliarity
Jamaican international Lauren Silver was not given the opportunity to start at full back despite there not being another natural full back in the side. Clarkson has now shown a reluctance to give the younger, less experienced players, a chance at both the Challenge Cup and the Fall Series. Beyond just the situation in the back line, Katie Stengel and Bri Visalli have been the first to get minutes in the front three. Even Megan Kelly was subbed on before Jamia Fields against the Pride.
Winning is the most important thing to Clarkson. The club’s mentality is transparent now and we have to trust this core group to shift and adapt in the line up. Perhaps if performances drop, opportunities will come. The Dash have two more matches in the Fall Series, will we see new signings and deeper members of the squad feature?
Off The Pitch Responsibility
We are still in the middle of a health and humanitarian crisis. It is difficult to grasp the pressures, stress and anxiety that the players suffer from. Watching the Pride last night it was obvious to see that the game took place under worrisome circumstances. Pride keeper Harris was honest about this after the match. “We’ve got players on our team that went through a pretty traumatic experience,” Harris said. “Households were separated; children were testing positive. There’s a lot of emotional trauma that our team went through, and I’m not going to sugarcoat that we still have players who are not 100% after testing positive for COVID”.
The Dash will feel eased by their consecutive negative test results, but it’s impossible to know if the match should have taken place after one of their squad tested positive. Two Orlando players, Sydney Leroux and Kristen Edmonds outright refused to travel because of it. We all want sport to happen. But is this the type of competitive environment we want to see?
Away from COVID, both sides stayed in the locker room while the national anthem played at BBVA. The Dash also took the field wearing shirts that said: “You don’t have to be Black to be outraged”. The players have found their voice and are choosing to use it.
Cece Kizer Turning Heads in Norway
Away from a fine first home win of the season for the Dash, I wanted to quickly shine a light on exported loanee Cece Kizer, who made her debut for Koboltn yesterday. The former Ole Miss Rebel played the full 90 mins, and scored the equaliser after the Norweigan side came back from 0-2 to snatch a point against second place Rosenborg. Kizer has extended her contract until 2022 and should have a bright future in orange.