It’s not always been easy to be a Houston Dash fan. The club has never made the playoffs, and last season had a run of seven consecutive games without a win. Despite that, the organization believes in head coach James Clarkson, and empowered him to make significant changes to his squad during the offseason.
Sofia Huerta, Amber Brooks and Kealia Watt were among the big names traded, with Shea Groom, Megan Oyster and Katie Naughton replacing them. Those changes could cause not only a big change in the way the team plays on the field, but its locker room chemistry as well.
“When you have a team with such a long history of struggles, it can certainly be useful to turn a new leaf,” says Charles Olney of Actually The Dash and Backline Soccer. “This is also a chance for Clarkson to make it his team, since a lot of the key players are now folks he brought in, or players who only preceded him by a little while.”
Clarkson’s next order of business is proving that the moves he’s made have turned the team into one that star players should want to play for. The Dash has had Whitney Engen, Carli Lloyd, Meghan Klingenberg and Morgan Brian on the roster during its history, but it is now, for the second season in a row, the only NWSL team without any USWNT allocated players.
“We want to attract national team players, we need some national team players,” Clarkson says. “If we can elevate our profile in this tournament and that helps us attract national team players, that would be a massive success.”
Houston is not a popular pick to make a deep run at the NWSL Challenge Cup, but I do think this team has a very solid starting XI, perhaps for the first time in its history.
Let’s watch a fun player’s highlights
Kristie Mewis got better with every game as last season progressed, and the Dash are counting on a few more plays like this one going forward.
Houston has all of its players available.
No matter which players rotate in, I think the Dash’s personnel is best suited to a 4-3-3.
Not many! I’d be surprised if we didn’t see this exact XI and formation multiple times.
Clarkson wouldn’t give me a straight answer on whether Daly will play through the center or on the wing, but he said she’s been scoring a lot of goals in scrimmages, so I’m going to take a guess. Groom is a good player through the center, but with a lack of wide options and Mewis at her best when she has space to operate, I think we’ll see Groom out wide.
Houston has more experienced options than rookie Bridgette Andrzejewski at right back, but I think she’s the team’s long-term solution at the position, and no one else is good enough in the role to justify blocking her. “If Andrzejewski can slot in at right back successfully, it could make a big difference,” Olney says. If she’s not up to the speed of the game, though, I could see Naughton or Oyster filling in at fullback while Ally Prisock starts at center back.
If Mewis needs a rest or Clarkson wants to shift into a more attacking formation, expect to see a lot more of CeCe Kizer in the attacking midfield spot.
How do the Dash play?
Houston didn’t have many significant style of play, or even quality of play identifiers last season. It was better than Sky Blue FC and Orlando Pride at everything, but not as good as Utah Royals FC or Washington Spirit at anything. It was on an island, neither a terrible or good team.
The Dash were the most direct team in NWSL, though. It had the fewest dribbles, but completed a decent percentage of the ones it did try. It had the lowest shot volume, but better Expected Goals than the awful teams.
While many coaches play lip service to pretty football, I have a lot of respect for the Dash admitting it has different principles.
“We’ve had a big focus on making sure we’re better defensively, and then from being in a good defensive position, how do we then become effective in attack,” Clarkson says.
Houston might be taking some cues from North Carolina. “They want to be a team that everyone hates playing,” OIney says. “Not in the sense of being Allardyce thugs or anything, but they certainly see physicality and dedication as some of their strong suits, and recognize that they’ve found the most success when trying to be disruptive.”
Count on internal improvement
Everyone has young players that it expects to get better with more playing time, but the Dash is a team that genuinely can count on internal improvement to get better than it was last season.
Mewis is the most obvious example. She was slow to get back to top form while coming back from her ACL injury, but was the Dash’s best player by the end of the season. “You watch her now and she moves better, she’s fitter, she’s stronger,” Clarkson says about Mewis. “She had a really good end to the season, and we’re expecting really big things from her. Her role and responsibilities are now really clear for her.”
Kizer and Prisock should be much bigger contributors in their second seasons as well. Clarkson has been especially impressed with how much Kizer — who was a dominant scorer and creator at the University of Mississippi — has improved physically since becoming a professional.
“She’s improved incredibly,” Clarkson says of Kizer. “When you talk about developing young players, there’s a great example. Over the next couple of years, I really think she’s going to come to the forefront. She’s really good on the dribble, she’s got a great eye for the pass. When she makes runs in the final third, you can see it’s something we didn’t really have last year, a proper dribbler to open things up. And you can see the difference in her on the physical side, and her ability to deal with the training load.”
Talking about what both Kizer and Prisock had to improve to become solid pros, Clarkson says that “some of it was just speed of play and the affect that has on their decision making. With learning that, their confidence has gotten better. And now they feel like they’re a real part of the team, in the top 15 of the squad, and they make an impact every single day.”
Nichelle Prince is a secret star
Last Saturday, Nichelle Prince announced that her father had passed away. She took a brief leave of absence from the Dash, but Clarkson says that she has decided to go to the Challenge Cup in Utah, and that she wants to play.
“We made it clear that it was her choice, we didn’t want to put any pressure on her because this is a tough time to be going through,” Clarkson says. “But she wants to be part of it, so we want to give her the chance.”
Prince certainly won’t be subjected to any criticism if she decides she’s unable to play, or if she doesn’t play up to her normal standard. But her normal standard is excellent, and if she feels capable of performing, she’ll be a big difference-maker for her team.
She only played four times for the Dash last season, but they were four excellent games, where she was a constant scoring threat.
“I thought she was on fire, she started the season really well,” Clarkson says. “She had a good World Cup, then she got injured.”
But Prince is physically back to full fitness, and has been training well. “As we’ve been going through this three week period, she’s been fantastic,” Clarkson says. “She’s a proper game changer for us.”
Prince has always been extremely popular among fans and teammates, but has had her Dash career plagued by various setbacks. If you’re looking for a player to get behind at the Challenge Cup, Nichelle Prince might be the one for you.
What’s a successful tournament for the Dash?
Other teams might be looking at the Challenge Cup as a chance to develop young talent and gear up for 2021, but the Dash want to win some games now. It hopes it has reached a turning point for the franchise.
“We want to demonstrate the progress and improvements that we’ve made,” Clarkson says. “This is a big year, with the expansion draft coming up. We want to put on a good show and prove this is a place where players can get better, and a great destination.”
Now, that doesn’t mean success is about lifting the trophy or bust. No one’s expecting the Dash to upset North Carolina. But Houston can’t fall flat — it wants a competitive group stage showing, and probably needs to win its quarterfinal to feel really good about where the team is heading.
Dash vs. Royals — Tuesday, June 30
Dash vs. Reign — Saturday, July 4
Sky Blue vs. Dash — Wednesday, July 8
Spirit vs. Dash — Sunday, July 12