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NWSL Week In Review: Where Does Houston Go Now?

Interim head coach Omar Morales had the sideline on Saturday, but the Dash lost again, falling into last place (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Interim head coach Omar Morales had the sideline on Saturday, but the Dash lost again, falling into last place (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

On Jan. 3, 2014, the Houston Dash stunned much of the women’s soccer world by announcing Randy Waldrum would be its first coach. Stunned not because he wasn’t qualified, it was actually the complete opposite. Waldrum was one of the most successful college coaches in history, and although the NWSL looked more stable than the previous two iterations of women’s professional soccer, coaches just didn’t leave stable, successful situations for unknowns in this sport.

Waldrum’s hiring was met with almost universal acclaim. How could it not? He had not only won two national titles at Notre Dame (and gone to six College Cups there), but had built Baylor from scratch before that. He cited the fact that he was from Texas and his family still lived there in making the move, and Houston – with a relatively new stadium and MLS support behind them – appeared ready to become one of the top franchises in NWSL.

“I never thought that we would be able to acquire a coach of his stature for this team,” Dynamo and Dash president Chris Canetti said at the time. “We’re very lucky and fortunate to be able to bring him onboard. I think he brings instant credibility and I think it helps the team when you see one of the top names in the industry.”

Three-and-a-half years later, hindsight tells us things never did work out. The only players to appear for the Dash in their inaugural season in 2014 that are still in NWSL are Kealia Ohai and Meghan Klingenberg as they went 5-16-3. The additions of Carli Lloyd and Morgan Brian improved matters the next season, and everything appeared ready for a playoff run in 2016, but it just never happened. You probably know that this season has devolved quickly after a season-opening victory, and anyone paying close attention to the league is likely more surprised that he lasted as long as he did rather than he was fired. He never seemed to have the complete faith of his players and never did find a consistent defense, problems that persisted and got worse rather than diminished.

Will this discourage other college coaches from making the leap to the NWSL? It might, and that would be a shame. As has been pointed out elsewhere, Waldrum always treated the press and the league with class, and we wish nothing but the best for him going forward. But it was time for him to go.

What happens next in Houston? For now, assistant Omar Morales is in charge, but his first match might have been a microcosm of everything that the Dash have been in NWSL under Waldrum: they created plenty of chances, but were woeful in front of goal, and had a couple of head-scratching lapses at the other end that allowed Washington to beat them 2-0 Saturday night. With all due respect to Morales, it does appear that a change of culture is in order.

Quite possibly, a change in personnel as well, although those are extremely difficult in mid-season in a league like NWSL. Lloyd is due to return to last-place Houston soon, and that may be someone they trade to a contender for some kind of combination of young players and draft picks (you may remember Houston did not pick until No. 15 this year and took goalkeeper Jane Campbell).

In many ways, it will be fascinating to see in which direction Houston will go. There are still world-class facilities and a beautiful stadium, as well as a very supportive front office. It’s an attractive job for someone who wants to take on a rebuilding job that does have players like Ohai, Brian, Rachel Day, and Andressinha to begin with. Who will it be? We’ll find out together, I guess.

What else did we learn this weekend where 2-0 seemed to be the magic score?

SATURDAY

North Carolina 2:0 Kansas City (recap)

What Went Down: I’m not sure whether this was encouraging or discouraging for FCKC. One one hand, they played really well and had a great gameplan that involved countering that could have put them ahead a couple of times, most notably Sydney Leroux’s great chance late in the first half. But at the same time, they were second best for most of the afternoon, so it’s hard to see that working long-term.

In the end, they were beaten by a pretty wonderful corner kick routine, with Abby Erceg taking advantage of zonal marking to get a free header 12 yards from goal that McCall Zerboni tipped in. Eventually, the Courage just wear teams down with their pressure, but FCKC actually held up pretty well until the goal and on another day, might have gotten something from this game. But they’ve still only scored seven goals through eight matches.

Player of the Game: McCall Zerboni – Her aggressive style (4 fouls in this game) rubs some the wrong way, but she seems to pop up anywhere that opponents are looking to be composed and keep the ball, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s the 1st minute or the 75th. And without her, the Courage are a different team. Oh, and she scored the winning goal, of course.

Under the Radar: Ashley Hatch – In a way, it hurts her that North Carolina somehow accumulated the second pick in the 2017 draft after winning the title because the Courage are so deep that they can afford to bring her off the bench, while some others at the bottom of the table would love to have her in the starting lineup. But she is quite the replacement when someone (Jess McDonald here) can’t go, and she should find a starting spot eventually.

Inside the Numbers: 4 – Shots on goal for North Carolina in the contest, as the Kansas City defense was its usual stellar selves for the most part.

Up next: North Carolina – vs. Boston (June 17); Kansas City – vs. Seattle (June 17)

Washington 2:0 Houston (recap  | Gordon)

What Went Down: Given what happened in the offseason, it’s rather remarkable to note that morale seems to be much higher in Washington than Houston in early June, as the Spirit passed the Dash in the standings as well. All you need to do is look at the celebration when Mallory Pugh scored her first professional goal as evidence. As I’ve said before, I’m not sure how much that will help Washington in the points column in the end – another opponent might have scored a few Saturday – but the worst-case scenario of an historically bad and demoralized team will not happen and the future may actually be bright.

For Houston, Janine Beckie and Kealia Ohai continue to struggle in front of goal, and defensively, there is lots to work on.

Player of the Game: Mallory Pugh – Her finishing wasn’t great, either, but against a team that doesn’t have much speed in the back, she was nearly unstoppable. One thing to notice while watching Pugh is her vision. There were a couple of times where she put teammates into great positions with passes that weren’t so obvious. She is remarkably well-rounded.

Under the Radar: Morgan Brian – Brian will not be going to Europe with the USWNT to rest her hamstring, but she went 90 minutes here. In the second half, Brian looked angry and picked up her play accordingly. Brian is just 24, but she might be in the best position to lead the Dash, and the second half might be a good start.

Inside the Numbers: 8 – Number of saves by Stephanie Labbe in the shutout, as the Dash took 18 shots, but very few that turned out to be threatening.

Up next: Washington – at Chicago (June 17); Houston – vs. Orlando (June 17)

Sky Blue 0:2 Portland (recap)

What Went Down: An extremely impressive performance by the Thorns on the road, and Portland might get Tobin Heath back in two weeks as well (Dagny Brynjarsdottir also played 24 minutes Saturday). They are within touching distance of the top of the table a third of the way through the season, even with their stumbles and injuries. It’s not a coincidence that Portland has improved as Lindsey Horan and Amandine Henry have taken more of a role, and the Thorns have conceded just five goals this season.

Sky Blue’s young defense – which was without Erika Skroski and Erin Simon – again looked all sorts of confused in the first half, although they controlled a good part of the second half, creating a penalty among other chances that they eventually couldn’t finish. But if they want to make the playoffs, they’ll have to be more consistent at the defensive end.

Player of the Game: Lindsey Horan – I’m still trying to figure out how Horan got so much power on her first headed goal because it wasn’t exactly a driven free kick. Horan has stepped into more of a leadership role, and the Thorns have been much better lately because of it.

Under the Radar: Adrianna Franch – There was little complaining that Franch was left off the latest USWNT roster (in favor of Abby Smith), mostly because of her adventures with her feet early in the season. But all she did here was save a penalty kick and have a couple of other big second-half stops. Portland and Franch have conceded just five goals in eight matches, lowest in the league.

Inside the Numbers: 62 – Number of minutes Allie Long played before being replaced. Long has been battling a nagging hamstring injury and was feeling ill before the match, so it will be interesting to see how much she appears for the national team this week.

Up next: Sky Blue – at Portland (June 17); Portland – vs. Sky Blue (June 17)

Orlando 2:0 Boston (recap)

What Went Down: We thought the Breakers might have gotten over their road woes at the end of last season, but here we are again, with just one point in four matches. Although the weather was different (this one played in a driving rain storm) than their recent game at Portland, the result was the same, two early goals conceded that basically did the job for their opponent. Alas, this time, there wasn’t a huge Boston response as Orlando pretty much dominated from start to finish.

The Pride now have nine points, four out of a playoff spot. They might get Alex Morgan back soon to pair with Camila and Marta, Rachel Hill went 90 minutes in this game, Tom Sermanni moved Alanna Kennedy up to defensive midfield and Kristen Edmonds to right back, changes that seemed to work well. Orlando has probably been a bit unlucky not to have more points to begin with. While North Carolina, Portland, and perhaps Chicago might be at least able to be penciled in as likely playoff squads, the fourth could be wide open. Why not Orlando?

Player of the Game: Camila – It’s been a good year for Brazilians in NWSL and Camila certainly qualifies. Saturday, she seemed to be a threat every time she ran at the Boston defense and even got behind them a few other times. It’s not the first time she’s been a threat this season.

Under the Radar: Brooke Elby – Boston was forced into a makeshift backline with Alyssha Chapman (suspended) and Megan Oyster (injured) out, but Elby might have been Boston’s biggest offensive threat, getting fouled three times and barely missing in the first half.

Inside the Numbers: 1 – Number of times Rose Lavelle was fouled, as she was largely anonymous in this match.

Up next: Orlando – at Houston (June 17); Boston – at North Carolina (June 17)

SUNDAY

Chicago 1:0 Seattle (recap)

What Went Down: The thing is, it’s not like Seattle played that badly, they created some chances (and a bunch of corner kicks) in the first half. Then the second half started, and they were chasing the proverbial chances as Chicago just knocked the ball around them and played some pretty wonderful soccer in the process. Only some stellar goalkeeping by Haley Kopmeyer and some lack of finishing preventing the score from being much worse. Chicago went over 3,000 in attendance for the first time all season, and hopefully the people appreciated what they saw because it was fun to watch.

Despite getting outplayed badly in the second half, there were some positives for the Reign, including pretty good performances by Megan Rapinoe and Nahomi Kawasumi, even if they resulted in few chances. We’ll see if Laura Harvey has any moves under her sleeves during the international break.

Player of the Game: Julie Ertz – There is plenty of attacking firepower in front of her, and Dani Colaprico playing a similar role, but Ertz dominated the midfield, not allowing Seattle to get out with any kind of regularity. On the goal, Ertz wins a clearance from Kopmeyer before starting the buildup. She has matured plenty from the somewhat reckless style she had as a rookie, and deserves to be on every NWSL Best XI squad at this point of the season.

Under the Radar: Taylor Comeau – Pressed into service at right back with Arin Gilliland out, it was clear Seattle was going to come after her from the opening kickoff, but she held her own, and then had some of the pressure taken off in the second half when Seattle just couldn’t get out of its own end much.

Inside the Numbers: 1 – Shots on goal for Seattle in the second half and it came just 30 seconds in from Kawasumi.

Up next: Chicago – vs. Washington (June 17); Seattle – at Kansas City (June 17)

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