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The Houston Dash has been the most enjoyable team to watch at the NWSL Challenge Cup, after years of being an absolute drag. The slow and toothless Dash of the past have given way to a fast, physical and feisty team that combines technical finishing prowess with a willingness to punch people in the mouth. Its 2-0 win over OL Reign this weekend was extremely convincing.
Following last year’s World Cup, I wrote a rooting guide for new NWSL fans, and I was not kind to the Dash. “Ohai and Huerta have hit their worst form at the time they should have been dominating,” I wrote. “I cannot tell you in good conscience to support this team if you do not live in the Houston area.”
Houston fans didn’t like this very much, and took the piece as me saying the club wasn’t worth supporting because it didn’t have any U.S. national team players. That’s not true — it wasn’t worth supporting because it was a bad team to watch, with a loser attitude to boot.
But times have changed dramatically. Head coach James Clarkson has apparently engineered a complete 180 degree culture change by trading a few players away and bringing in a small number of replacements who are well-known around the league for being total pests. The aforementioned Sofia Huerta, Kealia Watt and Amber Brooks are out, while Shea Groom, Katie Stengel, Katie Naughton and Megan Oyster have come in to add significant bite to a team that aspires to be annoying to play against.
Don’t take my word for it on the change in culture. Take it from left back Allysha Chapman, who said that that Houston has “a lot of new players that really add to the team chemistry. We’ve always had talent on the team but this year we’re actually meshing.”
Or Ally Prisock: “We’re really trying to prove a point and show people that we’re coming back stronger after adding a lot of new people. We’re really close knit this year and we’re just trying to show people what we’re made of.”
I’ve really enjoyed Houston’s fast and direct style of play, as well as the excellent goals scored by Rachel Daly, Shea Groom and Kristie Mewis. But most of all, I’ve enjoyed watching a Dash team with a positive mentality and nasty attitude. As Groom said about the new arrivals, “we were ready to make Houston home, and Houston feared, and Houston a team you don’t want to play against.”
A quick thought on every other team’s Challenge Cup so far
I’ll just do this in order of the current table.
North Carolina Courage — 100 percent as advertised, by far the class of the league, and while playing at probably three-quarter speed. Incredible team.
Utah Royals — The schedule is being kind to Utah, who get to play OL Reign and Chicago’s B-team to close out the group stage. But I really enjoy the 3-5-2 Craig Harrington has set up and look forward to seeing how he can develop that system with an offseason to acquire new players who fit it.
Washington Spirit — A good team, but one that appears completely reliant on Rose Lavelle at the moment. Spirit got good results without her last season but have looked lost when she’s not been on the field at the Challenge Cup.
Portland Thorns FC — Structurally sound at the back, impossible to play against through the middle with Lindsey Horan on top form, but bad going forward. I don’t think simply getting Sophia Smith and Tobin Heath back fixes that. It’s not just about finishing quality, the team is generating a low volume of quality shots.
Sky Blue FC — I think this team has fundamentally bad ideas. Midge Purce should play striker, alongside Evelyne Viens or Ifeome Onumonu. I don’t understand why Sky Blue acquired a bunch of players perfect for a fast and direct system if it’s committed to developing a possession system.
Chicago Red Stars — I feel for Rory Dames, who planned for a completely different schedule than the one his team ended up playing. But I think his policy of full rotation for the group stage is smart, and if Chicago gets the No. 6 or 7 seed, it’s my favorite to make the final.
OL Reign — I’ll give Farid Benstiti a full offseason and preseason to set up his team before I go in too hard, but his team has stunk big time in its first two games. There’s no sugar-coating it, Reign just look awful. I’m expecting heavy player turnover after he’s gotten a chance to evaluate everyone.