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Houston Dash season preview: Consistency is key

Rachel Daly's goal celebration with Kealia Ohai was quite the hit.
 (photo courtesy Houston Dash)
England and Houston Dash forward Rachel Daly said playing against France on Friday was a good learning experience. (Photo: Houston Dash)

Rachel Daly will be a key factor for Houston in 2017. (Photo: Houston Dash)

2016: 6-10-4, 22 pts (8th place)
Playoffs: did not qualify
Head Coach: Randy Waldrum
Home Ground: BBVA Compass Stadium

The Story of ’16

0-1. Any Dash follower is immediately familiar with that series of numbers, because that’s the scoreline that dogged the Dash for six straight games. What began as a promising start with a 3-1 win over Chicago in convincing fashion soon became bogged down in a lack of finishing, visible frustration and an inevitable second-half defensive slip. Three of the six 0-1 games had goals scored after the 80th minute.

The story began to turn around on July 16 when Rachel Daly cracked the dam, scoring just seven minutes into the game. From there, Kealia Ohai took over, notching the last goal of the 3-0 victory over the Thorns and launching an incredible streak of 11 goals in 10 games to tie for the Golden Boot.

However, a shaky defense continued to plague the Dash even as Ohai found her form. They allowed the Western New York Flash to come from behind for a draw twice, and the last game of the regular season saw the Seattle Reign score three unanswered goals in the second half for a 3-2 victory. For the third season in a row, Houston fell short of the playoffs.

{MORE NWSL PREVIEWS:  Chicago Red Stars  |  Boston Breakers  |  Seattle Reign FC}

So it’s not surprising that head coach Randy Waldrum and goalkeeper Lydia Williams had the same response when asked about last season: inconsistent.

“I felt like we had a team in place that could make a good run for the playoffs, and I think we underachieved a little bit with that, and I think it was probably due to a lot of inconsistency of play,” said Waldrum. “When we were good, we were really good, but then we wouldn’t back it up with another good game. So I just think we were inconsistent all season.”

Williams thinks part of the blame for that lies with the international breaks and Rio Olympics.

“We were kind of unlucky that a lot of us were internationals and that we had to be in and out with our team for national team requirements, so we didn’t get a really good, I would say, niche together, and we didn’t really have that consistency in every game. We had people who were flying in and flying out, so we didn’t really get that meshing.”

What Happened over the Winter

Waldrum made a point of focusing on defense, seeking experience in internationals Bruna Benites and Janine Van Wyk. Claire Falknor also came on board, bringing Champions League experience with her as she likely fills the gap at left back that appeared after the trades of Alyssa Chapman and Becca Moros.

{NWSL:  USWNT Federation Players announced for 2017 season}

“Two veteran, senior players who both have a ton of caps,” Waldrum said about Van Wyk and Benites. “We needed to improve the back line for sure. We just need to get a better organized team in our defensive shape. I thought we were a little bit too stretched and all over the place last year. We were conceding some late goals that we didn’t need to and couldn’t finish games out, and I think it was due to our lack of organization defensively.”

To the surprise of many, Carli Lloyd announced in February that she’d signed a short-term loan with Manchester City in England’s FA WSL, pulling her away from the Dash until June.

“Obviously Carli creates, and when we have her she scores a lot,” Waldrum said of the midfielder, who was credited with five goals and three assists in seven games in 2016. “In the meantime, we’ve got to look to some of the other players, Rachel Daly, Kealia [Ohai]…or Janine Beckie. We’ve gotta look for some goals to come from those players. It’s disappointing as a coach because you want to have all your resources available. We’ve taken the approach of let’s work with what we’ve got and we’ll worry about that when she comes back.”

Player to Watch  

While all eyes will be on Ohai to pick up where she left off in her scoring streak, Daly will be just as important. At center forward, Daly is the focal point of the Dash attack, and without Lloyd on the field, she will likely draw the most defensive attention. She demonstrated good chemistry with both Ohai and midfielder Denise O’Sullivan last season, and if you combine that with her speed, tenacity and a rocket of a shot, she promises to be a pivotal factor.

Not to mention, Daly was recently left off the final roster of England’s Euro squad, to the surprise of many. If Crystal Dunn was any indication two years ago, disappointment can be a deadly weapon.

Best Case Scenario

Immediate jelling. The new pieces of the Dash puzzle fall into place with instant chemistry. Central defense bears the mark of the experience Waldrum sought and allows Williams some breathing room. Morgan Brian stays healthy and returns to her World Cup form, pulling the strings in the midfield as Ohai finds consistency and maintains her goal-scoring ways, while Daly channels her frustration from missing out on the Euros into terrorizing opposing defenses. Lloyd returns from England without disrupting the team’s flow and poaches goals as she does best.

On paper, the Dash should have a formidable attack, something we glimpsed a few times last year. If the attack can fire on all cylinders at the same time the defense finds its groove, the Dash could make a run at the final playoff spot.

Cause for Pause  

Too many unknown variables. The Dash have proven more than once that what appears on paper–a fiery attack, world class midfielders, an internationally experienced defense–doesn’t always translate to the field. Many moving parts have to find synchronicity very quickly, and if they take too long, the playoffs will be out of reach. If they fall into any sort of repeat of last season’s scoreless streak, frustrations will quickly rise, and the season could be over before it ever takes off.

Final Outlook

Waldrum continues to stress the importance of defensive organization and establishing consistency.

“We’ve gotta start putting together some good performances in succession and develop a little consistency with that. I think if we can get the defensive side of things organized really well, then I think that at least gives us the opportunity to be in more games than we were in the past. Hopefully we can get off to a good start. That kinda breeds some confidence when you do, and hopefully that can snowball into some good things.”

Last season’s Dash was young with quite a few new faces. With a season together under the belts and international experience on top of it, look for stronger chemistry and a better ability for the Dash to finish games.

“There’s a little more experience in this team now with the internationals that have come in, so that can only be useful, with experience and wealth of knowledge,” said Williams, who looks to bring in more of her own experience after winning the W-League championship with Melbourne City during the NWSL off-season. “I think there’s really definitely going to be an attractive style of football.”

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