The Dash thought they had the makings of a solid back four. Coach Randy Waldrum figured he would just need to keep a spot warm for Whitney Engen, who is scheduled to join the club after Tyresö’s Champions’ League season ends.
But then Lauren Sesselmann tore her ACL and Aya Sameshima arrived with a less serious knee injury. Sesselman will not play this season. Sameshima is not ruled out for the season, but neither is she on the Dash’s opening day roster. She is rehabbing back home in Japan. The injuries to Sesselman and Sameshima have forced Waldrum to scramble to fill the positions and to figure out which player will be the vocal leader on defense for the first-year expansion club.
“Every team faces injuries but for us coming in so late, we were already in a difficult place without Engen and Klingenberg until May or June,” said Waldrum, who left his post at Notre Dame to take over the Dash in January. “We thought we’d be in pretty good shape in the back and then both of those kids got hurt. So that just means we’re going to be a very young team in the back.
“We drafted Marissa Diggs and we brought in Holly Hein, an undrafted player. We’re also going to be bringing in an international player.” That player is Osinachi Ohale, a Nigerian defender who was in camp as a trialist. She needs some paperwork to clear before becoming an official Dash player but the club is holding out hope it will happen in time for Saturday’s season opener.
Ohale though, is not a particularly vocal player. That combined with the general inexperience of the defensive unit—Kika Toulouse, Arianna Romero, and even Nikki Washington are also in the mix—will throw more of the leadership responsibilities to veteran Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod, who was named captain on Tuesday.
“I think Erin McLeod’s going to have to take up some of that slack,” Waldrum said. “As a goalkeeper we want to really make sure she’s got that back line organized for us at this point.
On the whole, Waldrum was satisfied with training camp despite the team kicking its first ball less than three months after being officially admitted as the 9ninth NWSL team. The opening match will be four months to the day since the press conference to welcome them to the league. There will not be much star power, but 1st Round pick Kealia Ohai is a quasi-local through her sister Megan, who is married to Houston Texan Brian Cushing.
“I don’t feel a lot of pressure from it,” Ohai said. “I think it’s a great opportunity and I’m honored and excited about it. I think that growing up and playing at UNC and also playing with the youth national teams and getting to play World Cups, it kind of puts everything into perspective. This is a new and different and exciting experience. But throughout my career I’ve done a lot of things that have been really exciting and really scary. This is something completely different but I think those experiences have kind of prepared me for it. I don’t feel nervous. I feel more excited and honored and ready.”
If healthy, the combination off Brittany Bock and Becky Edwards can boss most other midfields in the league. And they come with built-in chemistry having been teammates on the 2011 Western New York Flash that won the WPS Championship.
“They’ve been awesome,” Ohai said. “I’ve already learned so much from them. They’ve kind of taken the captain role along with Ella (Masar). It’s a great dynamic. They have made it easier.”
Waldrum concurred. “They’ve been our top pros. And we get the same thing from Ella Masar. Those three have been key players or us.”
Edwards tore her ACL last season in Portland and Bock was bothered by everything from a busted rib to a broken wrist at Sky Blue FC. “Becky looks great. She’s done everything that we’ve done since day one. The key there is just to continue to get her healthier and healthier as time goes by. She’s been playing in all the games and we got her 90 minutes (Saturday night). She’s much farther along than I thought she would have been. Bock, knock on wood, has been healthy.
“Those two have been good together. They’re starting to kind of regain that familiarity with each other again. We’ll play those two as two of our three central midfield players. And we’ll use them as a bit of a screen for our back four.”
Along with the noted injuries on defense, Masar and Ohai lead a group of forwards, all of whom will be looking to prove they can score consistently on the professional level.
“That’s still an area we’re trying to address,” Waldrum said. “I like (Tiffany) McCarty and I like Stephanie Ochs, but they didn’t do much last year in terms of production. So that’s probably a piece that we’re missing. Fortunately the scoring has kind of been mixed.”
The Dash remain on the hunt for another international player, preferably to run up top and score some goals.
Look for the Dash to play 4-3-3 and to pressure their opponents at virtually every part of the pitch. It is an aggressive style that could leave an inexperienced back line exposed. Ohai said the coaching staff is stressing ball movement and off-ball support runs. Waldrum said he expects the team to be competitive right away, but that, “We’ve got to steal some points that first month.”
He added that if the team is “in the hunt” heading into the final month it will be a successful inaugural season for the Dash. Either way they almost have to get better as the season goes on and players like Engen and Klingenberg, plus Rafaelle Souza (finishing school) arrive on the scene.