The Houston Dash made a point Saturday night, though not one reflected in the league standings. Houston Mayor Annise Parker and NWSL Commissioner Cheryl Bailey were on hand to add an air of significance to the event and offer well-wishes in advance of the side’s maiden voyage. Aside from Allie Long’s opportunistic first half goal, one would be excused for failing to pick out the reigning champions from the expansion outfit.
Just 121 days earlier, the Dash celebrated its first birthday. Houston Dynamo President Chris Canetti, managing director Brian Ching and consultant Tony DiCicco helped ensnare Randy Waldrum from collegiate powerhouse Notre Dame. Waldrum and co. were immediately tasked with cobbling together a squad from various allocations, drafts and free agency.
First test? The NWSL title-holders Portland Thorns, now helmed by Paul Riley, who himself made his league debut.
Waldrum’s cohort made an explosive start out of the starting blocks. The Dash’s three-pronged frontline spelled problems for a makeshift Portland backline. Kealia Ohai, Ella Masar and Stephanie Ochs tested Portland’s outside backs early and often. A well-placed ball into the path of rookie midfielder Jordan Jackson served as the Dash’s best chance of the opening half but the effort sailed into the stands. Many a corner kick was conceded yet the Dash never truly worried Nadine Angerer.
Injuries always accompany a league campaign and the dreaded injury undertaker wasted little time before felling its first victims. Dash midfielder Brittany Bock attempted to soldier on through a knee injury sustained in the opening juncture before making eventually way for Teresa Noyola. It’s a sadly familiar sight for a player whose luck continues to run dry in the injury department.
Top College Draft pick Kealia Ohai suffered an ankle shortly after. “I was really close to getting Kealia off in the first half but she just gutted out,” Waldrum noted. “We said, ‘Go 15 minutes in the second half and get a good look.’ Considering that, she still played pretty well in the first half. She took a pretty good knock on the ankle and said she heard something pop. It’s something we need to be cautious of.”
Despite the bright start, the moments following Bock’s departure perhaps exposed a bit of the Dash’s naïveté. Thorns midfielder Allie Long connected with a long throw-in courtesy of Jessica McDonald and beat Erin McLeod for the tally.
“I think we lost a little bit of organization when Bock came off,” Waldrum admits. “Unfortunately that’s when the goal came off the throw-in. I thought we lost track of the mark. We knew we had a long throw and still conceded a goal.”
The Dash weren’t the only ones forced to shuffle the deck to injury. Rachel van Hollebeke’s ankle injury sustained while on national team duty forced Paul Riley to break from his planned defensive set-up. With Kat Williamson now in Rochester and Kat Tarr still waiting to be cleared, the side enlisted the help of rookies Courtney Niemiec and Emily Menges. Niemic first slotted in at center-back at Friday’s practice while Menges paused her studies at Georgetown University to meet the team late last week.
Whether it was the late chop and change or beginning-of-season jitters, the Thorns failed to truly dig in. Riley reproved his team’s first half performance despite the one-goal advantage but spared his players from the hair dryer treatment. “We just never found a rhythm at any point in the match. At the half I went to into the locker room and everyone was expecting me to rant and rave but I did the complete opposite. I told them to calm down, even the experienced players looked nervous. We never settled in.”
Becky Edwards’ reprisal of her midfield general role just eight months after an ACL tear probably also had something to do with the Thorns’ lackadaisical start. Although the Dash lined up in Waldrum’s favored 4-3-3 formation, Portland looked out-manned between the 18’s for large parts of the game despite having a numerical advantage.
The midfield jam forced Christine Sinclair to drop deep to latch onto the ball. “What we noticed in the first half was that Jess [McDonald] and I weren’t holding the ball well enough to bring the rest of the team in,” Sinclair acknowledged. “We’d get the ball and we’d give it away so in the second half I concentrated more on securing the ball and allowing more numbers to get forward. I don’t think we hit them in behind as much as we wanted to.”
The second half saw the Thorns relax and win back the momentum. The Dash staged one final fightback. A frantic final 15 minutes witnessed Angerer come under duress at the feet of former Washington Spirit members Ochs and Tiffany McCarty. Masar also piped up in the closing stages with two sprawling efforts but came just short of finding the equalizer.
Although Edwards’ name is synonymous with ‘unsung hero’ in women’s soccer circles, she came tantalizingly close to be unsung no more as an offside call vetoed a chaotic goal-line finish with thirty seconds to spare.
The crowd’s explosive reaction to the goal and subsequent cancellation typified the mood on the night. The Dash found themselves in a deficit for two-thirds of the match but that never dampened the energy level of the 8,000 Houstonians (and about 15 boisterous Rose City Riveters) on hand. BBVA Compass’ lower bowl teemed with deep orange. Alex Morgan joined the rest of her teammates (
albeit on crutches) during team walk-outs, but one got the sense she was not the star attraction. That honor went to the hometown team.
There looked to be equal representation from each women’s soccer demographic – excitable girls and boys kitted out in club soccer gear; Dynamo supporters eager to cheer on their sister team; middle-aged fans clad in Dash scarves well-suited for the soft spring air.
Years from now, if BBVA Compass Stadium’s walls could talk, it would likely tell tales of the magic Dominic Kinnear has performed as head coach of the Houston Dynamo. The club has staked its identity on eschewing flashy stars for industrious, undervalued players full of heart and grit. That recipe continues to yield postseason success.
The Dash might find themselves the subjects of a similar narrative. With Saturday’s loss, their opening salvo is officially in the books. Though there may not have been an unqualified happy ending, Waldrum could not hide his pride.
“We’ve been here a month with a group who doesn’t know each other and comes from everywhere. We’re playing against the defending champions who have a season under their belt. I’m extremely proud of them. I’m disappointed for them but from a performance and crowd standpoint, we couldn’t have asked for a better night.”