NWSL Preview 2015 – Houston Dash

Projected Full Strength Lineup

Possible Lineup During Women’s World Cup

Other Previews/Projections

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2nd –
3rd –
4th – Portland

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MLS money doesn’t equal instant success. It’s a truth that Houston learned the hard way last season as their ambition didn’t match the results on the pitch, leaving them rock bottom in their first season. While recent news has been smattered with worrying ticket sales, the gate probably isn’t going to be helped by an underperforming team on the pitch either. It was a message received loud and clear if some of the club’s offseason moves are any indication. The trade for Carli Lloyd cost the club a lot, but it was one that brought a big name to the Dash at last, the team’s strategy of loading its spine with USWNT players seemingly thrown in the fire for now.

Drafting Morgan Brian was the obvious move, but it nonetheless was one that should give the Dash one of the league’s best midfields when both USWNT players are with the team. Add in the trade for Jessica McDonald, and the team hopefully won’t lull fans into a coma as was the case with last year’s offense that couldn’t hit water if it fell out of a boat. Defensively, the Lloyd trade cost the club Whitney Engen and Becky Edwards, two big pieces of the spine for the Dash last year. Considering the club still gave up forty-four goals last year, it was a palatable sacrifice.

But depth is still a big concern here. The bottom half of the roster still can’t match the Dash’s rivals, and the club gets hit hard during the WWC. But if they can take advantage of opportunities when everyone’s with the club, they might just stand a chance of making a solid move up the table in 2015.

Coach/Tactics

Randy Waldrum came to the Dash amidst a shocking decision to step away from Notre Dame, a school which he had led to unqualified success during his tenure at the helm. Perhaps it was time for a new challenge or one at least that would increase the odds of him one day laying claim to the USWNT job, one Waldrum has been tipped for on more than one occasion. After one season in charge in Houston though, Waldrum clearly has a long way to go to get the Dash into a position to replicate the success he enjoyed in South Bend.

Perhaps most worrying is how the team seemed to mail it in late in the season. The Dash lost six straight to finish out the season, going winless in their final eight. It was perhaps a most inadvertent tank job that secured the #1 pick for the league’s newest club. From the school of possession and attacking football, Waldrum probably agonized over his club scoring just twenty-three goals in 2014, seven fewer than the next worst team. The defense wasn’t much better, shipping forty-four goals. With the club’s changes in the offseason, the first number should get better. The second? Well, Waldrum’s going to have to be creative and get lucky during the WWC considering the losses the club faces on the backline.

Barring a massive change in philosophy, Waldrum will probably set out in the familiar 4-3-3 to best utilize his new star midfield duo but revert back to a 4-2-3-1 during the WWC to try and compensate for the club’s shaky defense when most of its starters are missing.

When everyone’s here, I’d expect Meghan Klingenberg to shift over to right-back to accommodate Allysha Chapman at left-back, giving the team a solid combo of full-backs. There are more questions at center-back, with Lauren Sesselmann still recovering from injury, while I figure that Brittany Bock (or Ashley Nick) provides a safer option than either Niki Cross or Carleigh Williams in the short-term. Things go sideways during the WWC though. Cross probably occupies a center-back slot, while your guess is good as mine at full-back. Converted forwards Stephanie Ochs and Ella Masar are the early favorites in my eyes, though that’s not exactly a comforting thought.

In midfield, Ashley Nick or Brittany Bock probably sits as the anchor behind Carli Lloyd and Morgan Brian and will probably have to do a lot to stop opposing breaks considering how the USWNT duo likes to fly forward and threaten goal. The big question is how the team copes during the WWC, where they’ll probably have to take on a much more pragmatic stance. I think they’ll use two of Nick, Bock, and Rachael Axon as a double pivot, but the big question is who supplies the creativity. There aren’t many great options, meaning it might be Jordan Jackson’s spot by default.

Up front, the Dash aren’t going to be affected by WWC, meaning the club should have the same personnel throughout. I’d venture a guess that the trio of Kealia Ohai, Jessica McDonald, and Stephanie Roche are the ones that Waldrum leans on throughout the season. Ohai is a lock at right-wing, but we might see McDonald and Roche switch off between center-forward and left-wing. With Roche being an unknown commodity, I’m guessing she’ll be used out wide until she proves she can score effectively at this level.

Goalkeepers

It’s largely as you were for the Dash this season in between the pipes. Canadian #1 Erin McLeod looks set to reprise her role as Houston’s top netminder when she’s with the club. Which might not be that often considering it’s a WWC year, in addition to Canada hosting the Pan-American Games a month later.

McLeod was one of many netminders to move addresses in the great goalkeeper shuffle after the 2013 season. Traded to Houston, McLeod suffered behind a defense that was inconsistent in its makeup and its level of play last season as the Dash propped up the table come season’s end. The Dash’s form did little to shake McLeod from her #1 role for her country, and the Canadian will be hoping for a big season both at international level and with the Dash upon her return to NWSL play. At the age of thirty-two, the clock is ticking for McLeod to add some silverware to her mantle to go with her W-League winner’s medals from a decade ago. That looks unlikely at club level this season, but having McLeod in form certainly won’t hurt Houston’s chances to make a move up the table.

McLeod’s absence for much of the season likely means it’s go time for Bianca Henninger, who’ll be looking to finally break through the glass ceiling and establish herself as a candidate for a full-time starting role. Henninger played a handful of matches for Houston last season as the backup of choice but finds herself at #2 on the depth chart on an NWSL team for the third straight season. Henninger’s just twenty-four, so there’s still plenty of time to grab the brass ring, but it’s hard to understate the importance of this season for her career. Excel, and it’s hard to envision Henninger going back to a backup role, especially with expansion being mooted and with many starters getting up in years. Struggle, and Henninger may be stuck typecast as a plus-level backup keeper indefinitely. Odds are, considering how shaky the defense looks on paper, Henninger will have every chance to make big saves this season.

Rookie Jordan Day was one of the best players not drafted this year and is probably better than some of the backups currently taking roost on NWSL rosters. She’ll likely be the #3 option here this season and has the upside to work her way into a contracted roster spot in due time.

The Dash are pretty solid all the way around in goal which is probably a good thing considering the questions on the backline.

Defenders

Despite getting in a pair of USWNT players in midseason, Houston still finished with the league’s second worst defense, giving up nearly two goals a game. Combined with a toothless offense, that relegated the Dash to a league worst -21 goal differential. But while the offense appears to have taken a few steps forward, on paper, you have to wonder if the Dash defense has taken similar steps. The upheaval has seen Marissa Diggs retire, while Whitney Engen was traded to the WNY Flash. Additionally, Osinache Ohale and Kika Toulouse were waived, while Ari Romero was shipped to Washington. Brazilian international right-back Poliana looked an inspired signing, but she’s with the Brazilian WNT through the 2016 Summer Olympics at a residency camp. Returning? Meghan Klingenberg and converted full-back Stephanie Ochs.

If the Dash are to get a sniff of the playoffs, then Meghan Klingenberg is likely going to have to make a big leap forward as the leader of this defense. Klingenberg didn’t join the Dash until the middle of last season after finishing up at Tyreso, and by the time that she was in Houston, the club was already all but buried near the bottom of the table. In Houston, Klingenberg shifted between left and right-back, but she’s seemingly taken over as the USWNT’s full-time solution at left-back in the face of a lot of competitors for the role. Given the state of the rest of Houston’s defense though, Klingenberg’s going to have to be one of this team’s best players and have an outstanding season when she’s not on international duty. When Allysha Chapman is here, Klingenberg may move from left to right-back to accommodate the Canadian and give Houston a pretty respectable pairing at full-back.

Canadian Lauren Sesselmann is the big mystery for the Dash on defense. After a season with FC Kansas City in 2013, Sesselmann briefly alluded to testing the waters away from the league before being taken by Houston in the expansion draft. Those concerns were minor considering Sesselmann tore her ACL in February of 2014, causing her to miss all of last season. Recovery has not been particularly swift, with Sesselmann still in a race to get fit for the WWC as of press time. If Sesselmann does make it, she’ll miss most of the NWSL season while on international duty. If she doesn’t, she’ll be available to Houston in theory, but one wonders how her knee will hold up over the course of the season. Sesselmann turns thirty-two in August, and having not played club ball since the Fall of 2013, there are doubts as to her ability to get back to the level she played at with FCKC a few years ago. If fit and on form though, Sesselmann will go a long way in improving last year’s Dash defense.

The Dash got an unexpected boost through the allocation process as well, with Canadian Allysha Chapman joining their ranks. Chapman’s journey towards the Canadian WNT has been something of an apocryphal tale, with the former LSU star purportedly having had to plead her case repeatedly to get a shot at the highest level. It’s safe to say that she took the opportunity with both hands, to the point that few can envision the Canadian WWC roster without her on it. The Dash will be hoping for a similar boost later in the season after Chapman returns from international duty. With LSU in college, Chapman showed an ability to function as a strong defensive midfield presence, but at club level, she’s more likely to operate at left-back, as she has with Canada. With Klingenberg also specializing in being a left-back though, Chapman might be forced into another role to get major minutes here.

The Dash looked to add some depth to their ranks in defense by acquiring veteran Niki Cross during the offseason from Washington. Cross had bounced around WPS before heading to Germany and ended up being a key defender for Bayern Munich, very much against the odds. She joined the Spirit in the middle of last season and played at left-back and center-back for the club but also lost her starting job by the end of the season, perhaps making the trade away from the club not that surprising by the end of the season. With so many players potentially gone on defense during the WWC, it’s pretty clear that Cross is going to get major minutes this year in Houston. Just where she gets those minutes is the question, and it’s one that will loom larger once the club’s big players return from international duty.

Stephanie Ochs enters into her second season with the Dash with an uncertain role. Ochs began last season as one of many attackers trying to make a mark on a young Houston side. But with the club’s defense laboring in the middle of the season, Ochs was converted to left-back and didn’t do that badly for herself, even netting assists in back-to-back matches in May. While it’s clear that Ochs’ transition to full-back is still very much a work in progress project, she’s at least given Waldrum a tough decision to make in terms of keeping her out wide in defense or moving her back up into the offense. With Allysha Chapman and Meghan Klingenberg likely gone for much of the year on international duty and a dearth of left-back options otherwise, it looks like Ochs’ spot to lose when the Dash are shorthanded.

The Dash used their final draft pick on UCF center-back Carleigh Williams, marking the second straight season that the club has taken a defender from the AAC powerhouse in the draft. Williams isn’t in the class of the now retired Marissa Diggs but was still a stalwart on the backline for a good while for the Knights. It wasn’t as if Williams didn’t face competition for a roster spot either, as the Dash practically brought in every undrafted defender under the sun to try and solve their defensive depth problems. With all the players away for the WWC, Williams is going to face a trial by fire, but that means many opportunities to prove herself.

Klingenberg, Chapman, and Sesselmann are three-quarters of a defense that shouldn’t be too awful…and they’re all likely to be in Canada in the Summer. There are still obviously question marks about Sesselmann making it in time, but if she can’t answer the bell, how exactly is she supposed to be tremendously effective in the Houston heat over the course of a grueling schedule? When the above trio aren’t here? Egads. You’d have to be a very optimistic person to think whatever back four is cobbled together out of the remaining parts is going to stand up to heavy scrutiny.

Midfielders

The best laid plans for Houston in midfield lasted approximately twenty-three minutes, or as long as Brittany Bock’s season lasted before an ACL tear. Becky Edwards played well as the fulcrum, as did Jordan Jackson, but on the whole, the unit was a disappointment. It was also a revolving door, with the likes of Kaylyn Kyle, Kelly McFarlane, and Teresa Noyola all having come and gone, along with a few more obscure youngsters long since out of place and out of mind. With an overhaul clearly needed, Waldrum and the Dash responded swiftly in the offseason.

It was clear that the Dash needed to do something to liven up a midfield which offered little in the way of invention or a scoring threat during the 2014 season. It’s just that few expected that thing to be a trade for Carli Lloyd. The price was certainly a steep one, but the Dash finally got their big name threat going forward that the club was lacking last year. Lloyd’s come a long, long way since her days of puttering around the midfield in WPS and being a relatively unloved member of the USWNT. Now, Lloyd is one of the U.S.’ most critical players if they’re to lift the trophy in Canada this Summer, and she’ll probably have a similar importance here for the Dash. Eight goals and five assists was Lloyd’s return for the Flash last year, and Waldrum will be hoping for a similar haul this year despite Lloyd likely playing in fewer games. At thirty-two, the clock is definitely ticking on Lloyd, but few would doubt her powers at this point given the events of the past few years.

All eyes will be on #1 overall pick Morgan Brian when she isn’t on USWNT duty. Despite missing a chunk of her senior season at Virginia on international duty with the U.S., Brian still managed to net ten goals and add fourteen assists for the national runners-up. It was enough to earn Brian her second straight Hermann Trophy and seal her place as a true great of the college game. Brian has superstar potential at the next level, though there are still questions to be asked about how well she’ll fit in with the Dash in central midfield. With Lloyd also in the center of midfield and likely to be just as demanding of the ball, it’s going to be very interesting to see how the dynamic and chemistry between the duo develops. If the pair can get on the right page in a short amount of time, Houston’s offense could make a big leap forward in the franchise’s second year of play.

A big unknown is whether Brittany Bock can get back to the form that made her such a promising player in WPS. Through two NWSL seasons, Bock’s endured a house of horrors via the injury bug, missing much of 2013 with Sky Blue FC before missing just about all of last season with an ACL injury. It’s gotten to the point that you have to wonder whether Bock will ever be able to shed the injury-prone tag that’s attached itself to her after the previous two seasons. The Dash desperately need someone of her experience and talent to be available for major minutes though considering some of the hits they’ll take during the WWC. While Waldrum has added some players that can play the deeper midfield role that Bock had played, he also needs help at center-back during the WWC, a role which could suit Bock. If she hasn’t lost a few steps, a healthy Bock could be a big key to the Dash lifting themselves off the foot of the table.

Perhaps as some insurance for Bock, the club traded for Sky Blue FC’s midfield smasher, Ashley Nick. Nick took a long path to this level but showed it was worth it last season with the New Jersey club, settling in as one of their defensive midfielders for almost the entire season after winning a starting just at the end of April. Combative and strong in the air, Nick should provide some bite in the middle of the park for Houston, something that’s obviously needed given the state of the defense during the WWC. There’s been some speculation that Nick could see time at center-back, though that doesn’t seem to be her best position, and the club (hopefully) has more natural fits to fill the gaps in central defense. More than anything, Nick brings the experience to the club that it was sorely lacking with all the youngsters last season.

Second-year player Jordan Jackson was a pleasant surprise last season after being a late round pick in the draft for the Dash. The Nebraska alum kept up the fine form of her senior year in college, providing a bright spot going forward for a Houston side that struggled to do much of anything offensively for much of the year. But Jackson is probably going to be one of the Dash players most affected by the acquisition of Lloyd and Brian, as she’s extremely unlikely to be beating either out for minutes as an attacking midfielder. That probably relegates her to a super sub role when Houston is at full strength, though the club still looks pretty short of attacking inspiration from midfield when the above duo is missing. If Jackson can show her growth as a player during that WWC period, she could yet play a major role for the club in their efforts to push for the playoffs.

A wild card in the mix is English import Rachael Axon. A veteran of the Norwegian league with Avaldsnes and Kolbotn, Axon will be hoping to make a seamless transition to the American game with the Dash. Axon isn’t totally foreign to these shores though, having played three seasons of collegiate ball with Oregon State after a freshman year at UAB. A defensive midfielder with a purported ability to spray the ball around, Axon might be seen as a replacement for the departed Becky Edwards in the middle of the park. With Bock and Nick here and looking to fill a similar role though, Axon really isn’t guaranteed of major minutes, as Houston’s depth at defensive midfielder isn’t bad at all. But Waldrum wouldn’t have burned an international slot on her if he didn’t feel she could be a big help, so it’ll be interesting to see if Axon can fight her way into major minutes this year.

This is probably Houston’s best unit going into 2015. On form, a Bock-Lloyd-Brian triangle could be a very impressive trio indeed. It’s what happens when Lloyd and Brian are gone and if Bock isn’t at full strength or needed at center-back which is worrisome. This unit is better off than others in that regard, but there are still some concerns come WWC time.

Forwards

The offense last year? Uh, not good. The Dash didn’t have a player that netted more than four goals, which might have not been such a big surprise considering most of it was composed of misfits, castoffs, and players far too green for this level. The likes of Nina Burger and Rafaelle Souza have been offloaded, while Jessica McDonald and Stephanie Roche have come in. They would’ve had another Brazilian, the veteran Rosana, in their ranks, but she too was called up to the residency camp through the 2016 Summer Olympics. With this group basically here for the full season, Waldrum will be hoping they gel in a hurry.

The second overall pick in last season’s draft, Kealia Ohai didn’t quite dominate the league as some undoubtedly felt she might coming into the league. Ohai finished with four goals on forty-six shots and didn’t put 50% of her shots on goal, but it’s easy to forget that Ohai didn’t exactly have much help around her. In truth, Ohai’s probably never going to be the main scoring threat for a title contender, doing her best work as an ancillary piece to the offensive puzzle. The good news is that the Dash have gone a long way to rectify that situation by adding a handful of new talent to combine in the offense with Ohai. The second-year player has purportedly looked great in the preseason and will be a key building block if Houston is to start climbing the table. Her pace down the right wing will be a great tool to unbalance opposing defenses and set up scoring opportunities from some of the Dash players in the middle of the pitch.

Paul Riley’s magic touch with mercurial forwards worked a treat with Jessica McDonald last season. Seemingly on her way out of the league after two unimpressive stints with Chicago and Seattle in 2013, McDonald couldn’t stop scoring for the Thorns, netting eleven goals in seventeen matches for Portland and looking like one of the most unexpected success stories of the season. But many of those goals in the second half of the season came off the bench, as McDonald took a backseat to Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair. It was a situation that probably didn’t suit the former North Carolina forward, but at the same time, McDonald probably would’ve been front and center this season with the above duo missing so much time on international duty. It made the trade to Houston an odd one, but one that might benefit the Dash in a big way. The concern is that McDonald has been uninspiring at her other stops in the U.S. pro game and has suddenly stopped scoring at Herforder in Germany on a loan spell. Waldrum will be hoping McDonald’s not a one-hit wonder, as a regression this year could be devastating for the offense in Houston.

The Dash made some major headlines when they inked the signature of Ireland’s Stephanie Roche to try and help fill the void of goals afflicting the team last season. Roche is, of course, famous for her strike that landed her on the 2014 FIFA Puskas Award shortlist for world goal of the season. But beyond the blockbuster goals, there are questions as to whether Roche can adapt to life at the top level. Playing for French minnows ASPTT Albi last year, Roche netted just a single goal in ten matches. Granted, Roche is going to be playing with a lot more talent beside her in Houston this season and might be able to flourish as not being the undisputed center of attention in attack. With some questions in terms of who else on the frontline is going to rise up this year though, the Dash really need Roche to make a big impact right away in 2015.

Melissa Henderson came into professional WoSo with a reputation as a prospect to be watched for a future with the USWNT. At current though, she’s a player with the reputation as a striker that can’t score. That’s not exactly hyperbole either. Henderson has made thirty-two appearances in the NWSL over two seasons and has just one goal to her name, though that was a pretty big one in the playoffs in 2013 in the loss to Portland. However she was surplus to requirements in FC Kansas City, and a trade to the Dash and college coach Waldrum wasn’t exactly a shock. The change of scenery didn’t exactly rekindle her scoring touch though, and Henderson is running out of chances at this level. There’s plenty of opportunities to find major minutes here, but if Henderson isn’t scoring again, you wonder what her long-term future at this level is.

Another in the horse race for one of the Dash’s attacking spots is veteran Ella Masar. Masar played as both a forward and in the midfield for the Dash through last season after arriving from Chicago, filling the latter role more towards the end of the year. She was very rarely a ninety minute player though, going the distance just once in her last eight matches. There’s also the matter of Masar having largely lost her scoring touch in front of goal. She netted just three times in eighteen appearances, though with the club’s leading scorers having netted just four, it’s safe to say Masar was far from being an offensive outlier. Masar saw time in the preseason at right-back, and considering the club’s serious issues with defensive depth, it might be a path towards minutes, especially when international duty hits the club.

Unshackled from the burden of expectation after coming to Houston from Washington, Tiffany McCarty salvaged a bit of her reputation last season by tying for the team lead in goals. Of course, that total was only four, so it’s not particularly something worth jumping for joy over. Used more as a winger than an out and out striker for the Dash, McCarty still ran a bit hot and cold but at least showed signs of being a salvageable player at this level. The competition for major minutes hasn’t eased up though, with Roche and McDonald joining the fold. The additions may force McCarty into more of a super sub role, but considering neither of the above have proven to be consistent scorers over a long period of time at this level, don’t write off the former FSU forward for major minutes just yet.

The additions of McDonald and Roche are going to have to pay off, because other than Ohai, there’s not much else here that’s going to inspire confidence if the Dash are to rise into the playoff places. The likes of Henderson, Masar, and McCarty aren’t much more than replacement level players at this point, so the bigger names here are going to have to come up big in front of goal, because the strength in depth is middling at best. With no Carli Lloyd and Morgan Brian to bail them out during the WWC, the frontline can’t get off to a slow star either, or things could approach the dire level of last season. But still, when all the pieces are here, the picture looks much rosier than last season.

Outlook

If anything, at least Houston won’t be as dull as they were last season. The front five actually has real potential to be something to trouble opposing defenses given the additions of Lloyd, Brian, and McDonald to partner with Ohai, who will be looking to take a giant step forward in her second season. The problem is that the strength in depth offensively still isn’t there, and the Dash could struggle for creativity in the midfield during the WWC period when Lloyd and Brian are both gone.

The problem is, Houston paid a hell of a price to bolster that offense. Losing Whitney Engen and Becky Edwards weakened the club’s spine by a large degree, and it’s debatable as to whether the duo have been adequately replaced. Add in concerns about Brittany Bock’s ability to last a whole season, and the core that Houston thought they build for the long run last season may already be in ruins. Defensively, the first choice back four looks solid if not spectacular, though the club may be scrambling for a center-back they can feel confident putting by Lauren Sesselmann.

It’s that defense during the WWC period that’s probably going to lead to Houston’s downfall in terms of the playoff picture. Even with the other teams in the league missing key attacking personnel, it’d take a real optimist to believe the back four the Dash are likely to trot out when players are away on international duty will be able to keep other sides at bay. Still, Houston will probably be able to take heart from some of their showings when everyone’s with the club. Another offseason of fortifying the defense might have the Dash challenging for the playoffs in 2016.

Prediction: 8th

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