The Houston Dash have made it to an NWSL final.
Despite every prediction otherwise, the league’s most unexpected team has managed to reach an NWSL final.
Since its founding in 2014, the Dash have been seen as, for lack of a better term, the ugly duckling of the NWSL. They’ve filtered through dozens of high-profile players and notable coaches, but nothing has ever seemed to stick. They’ve found themselves in the middle of messy player trade disputes and have been labeled as an undesirable club to go to. After the 2019 Women’s World Cup, they were even written off as un-supportable for being a losing team with zero United States internationals.
Perhaps the most damning of narratives about the Dash is that as of a month ago, they were one out of two active NWSL teams that have never reached the playoffs, the other one being the Utah Royals who were founded only two years ago. Not only that, but Houston have never even made it close to a playoff bid. The highest finish they’ve ever achieved was 5th place in 2015, 6 points off of the fourth-place playoff threshold. The Dash have carried the weight of failure on their shoulders for over half a decade, and though they've started some seasons strong and promising, each year has ended in disappointment when the team dropped points where it mattered the most.
Photo via. Yi-Chin Lee for the Houston Chronicle
The Dash squads of the mid-late 2010s had the same type of dynamic that’s associated with the Orlando Pride teams of the past few years. Both teams had plenty of elite domestic and international players, a good mix of rookies and veterans, and all the individual talent a team could possibly ask for, but all of that amounted to almost nothing. Injury setbacks, defensive issues and poor team chemistry relegated the Dash to two consecutive 8th-place finishes in 2016 and 2017, despite having a squad of notable diversity and international experience. Their league results didn’t improve the next two years, where they finished 6th and 7th, respectively. This past 2019 season, they finished with 3 losses and a draw in their last four matches in yet another poor year for the club.
During the 2019-2020 offseason Houston made eight signings, namely former OL Reign players Oyster and Groom and Chicago Red Stars defender Naughton, and their defense was looking better than it probably ever has. Their eleven departures were something of a different story, most notably the offload of captain Kealia Watt (née Ohai) who felt out of place at the club with scoring inconsistencies. The offseason trades mostly worked to the Dash’s advantage, and their team was improved in almost all of its most vulnerable areas on paper, but the squad had its most positive developments with the chemistry of the team. In a recent interview, head coach James Clarkson told FiveThirtyEight that he invested a great deal of time “getting to know one another much better on a human side rather than just looking at them as soccer players.” This newfound emphasis on team dynamics would prove to be vital to the Dash's performance at the upcoming 2020 Challenge Cup.
Photo from The Houston Dash
Under the original tournament structure, Houston had one of the most difficult draws, with the team set to play the North Carolina Courage, Sky Blue FC, Chicago Red Stars, and the Washington Spirit. Then, days after the schedule was announced, Orlando were forced to drop out early due to multiple players testing positive for COVID-19, prompting a reconstruction of the tournament format. Instead of the 9th place team being eliminated and then the other 8 teams going to a knockout round, the tournament went to knockouts after playing four matches that determined seeding. This reformatting worked to the Dash’s advantage as they now had no chance to place 9th and exit early. They’ve also clearly never done well in a table format, so despite the restructure, FiveThirtyEight gave Houston an 8% chance of winning the whole thing, second-worst behind Sky Blue FC, who were given a 7% chance. Nothing from the statisticians, the analysts, the journalists, or the commentators had NWSL fans thinking that the Dash had any chance. All signs pointed to it being yet another forgettable season for Houston.
Their updated draw was easier than some, and they were scheduled to play the four teams who also had the lowest estimated chances- Utah, OL Reign, Sky Blue and the Spirit. Since their opening match against Utah, it was clear that there was something different about this 2020 side. Daly’s tournament-opening brace, Shea Groom’s airplane celebration, and a newfound defensive solidity showed viewers something that they’d never seen from Houston; they were ready. With two losses, a draw, and one win against these lower-strength NWSL teams, Houston were grounded but hopeful when they faced Utah in the quarters.
Photo by Bryan Byerly for ISI Photos
Typical to an NWSL playoff match, regular time was rife with injuries, fights, and questionable referee decisions, but no goals. An updated rule for the Challenge Cup was that knockout matches went straight to penalties after 90 minutes, and Houston scored their first three penalties while Utah missed twice. Utah’s fifth and final penalty was taken by Spanish veteran Vero Boquete. After a particularly rough tournament, Jane Campbell showed up to save the final penalty of the shootout, sending the Dash to the semifinals of an NWSL tournament for the first time in their history. The team running to Jane and piling on her at the final whistle was an expression of triumph that made it clear this team had something inside of them that they were ready to show the world.
Photo by Matthew Levine for the NWSL
Portland’s surprise win over twice-consecutive NWSL champions North Carolina put them on a similar mental wavelength as Houston when they faced each other in the semis. However, while Portland had history behind them that reminded them what they were capable of, Houston knew that they were capable of making history.
Like she did in Houston’s last win over the Thorns in July of 2016, Rachel Daly drew first blood when she scored on a rebound from a Britt Eckerstrom corner save, effectively setting the tone that Houston were more than ready to punch their ticket to their first NWSL final. Everything about Daly’s goal formed a perfect storyline. Daly was introduced to Houston as a 2015 draftee who was doubting her future in soccer at the time she was picked. She’s stuck by the club and has been one of the primary faces of the team ever since, but has never been able to fully realise her potential as a player for either club or country. For Houston, this often out-of-place star, club veteran, captain, and eventual tournament MVP being the one that showed up is nothing short of poetic. Above everything else, her goal put Houston in a position where they were more than mentally ready to approach an NWSL final.
Photo by Maddie Meyer for Getty Images
Aside from the stress and uncertainty of a final against an established force like the Red Stars, Dash fans see this tournament as a turning point for both the team and the Dash organization as a whole. After years of dealing with tough losses and squad plans gone awry, it seems that the results of this tournament will transcend this one season. Reaching an NWSL final is a long-awaited victory for a club that’s faced years of relentless criticism and doubts, because it seems now like all of that could finally be put to rest.
Andrea (@andreaxfc on Twitter), a Dash fan and club intern before the COVID-19 lockdown, gave her thoughts on the Dash and what it means for them to reach an NWSL final.
“The Dash reaching the final of an NWSL tournament genuinely evokes one of the most profound feelings as a Dash fan. This moment in their history puts every single ounce of blood, sweat, and tears from this club into perspective and makes loyal fans feel pride and honor towards the club as well. Not only that, but nothing makes me happier than knowing the city of Houston is turning more and more orange every day, especially because of the Dash's hard work that deserves to be recognized.”
Given the unpredictability of the 2020 Challenge Cup, it’s no surprise that the team with every possible odd stacked against them were one of the teams to end up in the final. It's nearly impossible to predict the outcome of this game- both teams have years worth of unfulfilled expectations weighing on their shoulders, but from two distinctly different places. Chicago heads into the final with a longtime record of playoff blunders, while Houston faces the pressure of proving themselves in their first NWSL final appearance. No matter what happens in the final, the 2020 Houston Dash are a story of resilience in a city that embodies it.
Good luck, Houston. If anyone deserves this, it's you.