Ten months on from their shock 2020 Challenge Cup triumph, the Houston Dash had mixed success in attempting to retain the trophy in the 2021 Challenge Cup. In the run up to the competition’s final, they drew three times and won once. Ultimately, they came second to eventual winners Portland Thorns in the West Division group.
With that being said, there is still a lot James Clarkson’s side can take from the four fixtures. Focus now turns to the regular season. After all, there is still a chance for the Dash to make their first ever NWSL play-offs.
Lesson 1: International Attackers
From the start of the tournament, it was evident that the Dash struggled without their international players. The first two Challenge Cup group games fell in a FIFA window, leaving the team missing six of their starting XI. This absence was most sorely felt in attack. The Dash played without three of their regular front four. A prominent absence was Rachel Daly, the Dash’s all-time joint top scorer and 2020 Challenge Cup MVP. As a result, they failed to find the back of the net in both of those games, and were unable to mount many dangerous attacks at all.
On the plus side, Katie Stengel looked threatening at times. However, overall the Dash’s attacking players often looked isolated. Furthermore, chances and creativity in the final third were hard to come by. Yet, upon their homecoming, the goals finally started to flow for the Dash. They scored four goals in their final two games, three of which came from those returning internationals.
Unfortunately, the absence of international players is an issue the Dash will have to contend with in the regular season. There is no break for the Tokyo Olympic Games, so any players chosen for the Olympic rosters are set to miss up to a month of the season. Starting goalkeeper Jane Campbell is currently in pole position to take the second goalkeeper spot on the USA’s Olympic roster. Kristie Mewis also has an outside chance of making the team. North of the border, it seems inevitable that all three of the Dash’s Canadians – Nichelle Prince, Sophie Schmidt and Allysha Chapman – will be on the plane to Tokyo. Rachel Daly is also a contender for Team GB.
Lesson 2: Attacking Defense
Although the Dash’s attacking output suffered without their international stars, their defensive solidity remained. The ever-present centre-half duo of Megan Oyster and Katie Naughton marshalled the back line with ease. The pair looked confident and assured when up against some of the league’s deadliest attacks. They finished their cup run with the joint lowest goals conceded across both groups. Despite both players only joining the club last winter, you would be forgiven for thinking this was a long-enduring partnership. Both modern centre backs, Oyster and Naughton are as adapt with the ball as they are without it. Throughout the Challenge Cup, they showed their usual confidence in one-on-one situations against pacy forwards. They also insigated attacks with their versatile passing ranges.
Haley Hanson was another defensive bright spark for the Dash, in what now looks like a permanent move to full back for the 2018 first-round draft pick. With international absences, Houston are lacking a credible left-back alternative to Chapman. Yet, the 25 year old has made the right back spot her own over the last couple of seasons. Defensively, Hanson is strong in the tackle, forces turnovers constantly, and her progressive minded play is integral to the Dash’s attacking tactics. James Clarkson will certainly feel relieved to have Hanson, Oyster and Naughton around for the duration of the regular season.
Lesson 3: Lindsey Harris
Fans and teammates alike will undoubtedly miss Campbell if she does make the Olympic roster. However, Lindsey Harris has proved herself to be a more than worthy substitute. The Texas native went two for two, with back-to-back shutouts in the Dash’s first two fixtures. She made her NWSL debut in their 2021 Challenge Cup opener and has already shown she is capable of pulling off big saves in tough moments. It is clear she also has the distribution to match. Harris recorded the second highest number of clean sheets in the competition. She also maintained a 100% save percentage throughout. Whilst it remains to be seen whether Harris can match Campbell’s herculean penalty-saving antics, it is clear there is a lot more to come from the former UNC number one.
What happens next?
As the Dash embark on tonight’s season opener against Gotham FC, many will be watching to discover whether they can live up to the new-found expectation. Regardless of what happens, there is no doubt that the Dash are a team with plenty of potential. They will be fascinating to watch whatever the outcome.