Less than 24 hours after the Washington Spirit and Sky Blue FC got the NWSL Fall Series underway, Rachel Daly was making her debut for West Ham United in the FAWSL. The apperance marked her first domestic football match in her home nation for nine years.
The Houston Dash captain played the entire second half as the Irons secured a respectable 1-1 draw at home to Tottenham Hotspur. Having played no football for 42 days - since the NWSL Challenge Cup final - the rust Daly showed was understandable. Due to COVID-19, Daly had to spend a further 14 days self-isolating before linking up with the rest of the West Ham squad. “She’s only been with us a couple of days so I kind of threw her in at the deep end” said head coach Matt Beard after the game.
Daly entered the fray at halftime with the score still 0-0, playing as the center forward in a 4-3-3. Whilst this formation choice may mirror the way James Clarkson deploys her for the Dash, the subtle differences in pressing from the front rendered her high energy running fruitless.
With the Dash, often Shea Groom, Kristie Mewis and then one of Nichelle Prince or Bri Visalli would help pinch in the opposition full backs, West Ham relied upon mostly only tenacious central midfielder Kenza Dali to push forward and help Daly press in the middle.
West Ham’s 4-3-3 was fluid and duplicitous. When Spurs had the ball in their own half, it often functioned more as a 4-4-2, where the midfield would flatten and Dali would then surge forward, assisting Daly, to act as a roaming defensive player. When they won the ball back, they flipped back to 4-3-3, with the central forward was once again flanked by wide attackers.
Initially the Hammers fell behind, when Grace Fisk headed into her own net from a Lucy Quinn corner. However, heads didn’t drop and it took only four minutes for the East London side to respond. Canadian international Adriana Leon smashed in a stunning strike into the top right hand corner, after she had glided past a couple of Spurs defenders on her way inside from the left wing. The equalizer was undoubtedly the most brilliant moment of the match.
A personally frustrating first 35 minutes for Daly was in part due to the domineering Kerys Harrop, who was marking her in the middle of the Spurs defense. Harrop was glued to Daly after her introduction, leaving the Dash captain without a single shot or chance created.
The turning point for Daly’s performance was in the 80th minute. Head coach Matt Beard decided to shuffle his forwards. Swedish teenager Nor Mustafa replaced Alisha Lehman in the front three, which sent Daly out to wide left and Leon swapped to wide right. Quickly Mustafa’s presence helped free up space for Daly in the channels. No longer bearing the responsibility of being the focal point, Daly played her best football in those final 10 minutes out wide left.
Once she had the space to play into, Daly’s crossing ability and confident close control was on display. West Ham were unlucky not to score a winner when Ruby Grant struck wide in the dying moments.
What has made the Dash so successful is their cohesion. Daly embodies this team mentality. I’ve got your back, if you’ve got mine; no matter what. West Ham had seven players, including Daly, making their debut on Sunday and it showed.
The trust will grow in time. Despite looking a bit off the pace early on, it was impressive to see how well Daly linked with Mustafa and Grant once they had been introduced. It is going to be fascinating to watch how Daly’s game adjusts and grows in England.
Daly will play a further nine matches for West Ham United and then is scheduled to return to Houston in 2021.
You can watch the FAWSL on the FA Player (no subscription required) with certain games being broadcast exclusively on NBC/NBCsports app.