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Three Things: Houston vs Washington

Stephanie Labbe dives to stop Kealia Ohai from getting a shot off on goal. (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Stephanie Labbe dives to stop Kealia Ohai from getting a shot off on goal. (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Kealia Ohai’s 28th minute goal was all the Houston Dash needed to secure the team’s first win in franchise history at the Soccerplex. While the Dash walk away with three points, both team walk away with some unanswered questions. Here’s a look at some of the takeaways from Saturday’s match.

How Did the Dash Respond?

Heading into this game there were two major questions surrounding the Dash. 1) How would they respond to a 5-1 thrashing by Seattle last week, and 2) who would Coach Randy Waldrum put on the field and how would they line up?

After a weak performance, the time between the final whistle following that poor result and the start of the next match can feel like an eternity, waiting on another chance to prove you can do better.  Houston came out swinging. The Dash did come strong winning aerial battles, as well as second balls, and put together a strong first half. After the Spirit changed from the three-back system to a more standard four-back approach, Houston had less success. The second half was noticeably weaker on these fronts, with the Spirit gaining more of the possession. In other words, it was a bit of mixed bag.

“I’m not sure why we changed the way we played,” Houston forward Rachel Daly said about her side’s second half. “We were really sloppy. We didn’t keep the ball as well as we should have done. Definitely a different half to the first one, but you know I think that it shows that we’re a good enough team that we can come back and hold on to those points. In any other year we would have given them up.”

The line-up changes were a bit of mixed bag, too. Re-inserting Lydia Williams and Janine Van Wyk were no-brainers. Cari Roccaro at right back won’t work out against speedy opponents, but it worked well in this game, at least for the first half. She did well to help set the tone physically, muscling Spirit players off the ball on several occasions, making it difficult for the home side to operate on that flank.

Moving Janine Beckie to midfield was a decent stopgap measure from Waldrum to deal with the loss of two key players, Morgan Brian and Andressa. She certainly looked like a forward playing in the midfield, providing service to Houston’s attackers but also losing the ball too often in the second half.

“Looking at the last game in Seattle, how much they really kind of controlled things in midfield, we felt like we needed to move Janine Beckie back in and try to find a way to get our best players available on the field at the same time,” Waldrum said about the move. “Considering it was her first game in midfield, I thought she played really well in there for us tonight. Held up the ball really well and helped us play out, which is something we couldn’t do against Seattle–we just couldn’t get a hold of and keep it. I thought that was a great addition.”

To be honest, it’s hard to glean too much from the Dash’s performance last night against a team that’s attack has been non-existent and has an injury list nearly long enough to fill out a basketball team. Can they regain some confidence from the win going forward? As is often said, the most important game is always the next one. As Waldrum called the performance post game, perhaps it’s best classified as “baby step” forward.

Spirit Too Passive

“I said at to them halftime we didn’t look like we wanted to win the ball or wanted to get there and press the ball, we weren’t engaging, we weren’t tackling,” Coach Jim Gabarra said in relation to his team’s timidness in the first half. “That’s something that’s got to be there from the start, especially playing at home.”

The Spirit ended the first half winning just 27.8% of duels. The problem was so severe that stats or the above observation from their coach at halftime isn’t necessary to see it. The problem here for the Spirit is not identifying the problem, but rather figuring out the cause. It’s definitely a notable issue this season, especially in the last two games.

“Not quite sure,” defender Estelle Johnson responded when asked about the problem. “ I think if we knew, we would change it, but it’s the third game of the season and we’re slowly trying to put everything together. I think that definitely needs to be a focus on what we’re doing next week–just learning how to play with each other.”

Of course, as Johnson points out,  the personnel changes are a likely culprit, but it seems like there’s more to it. Is the injury report weighing on players’ minds? Are the players afraid they’ll add to it? Is it possible that the players are uncomfortable with the three-back system and figuring out when they need to step?

Estelle Johnson

It’s unfortunately true of defenders that when things are going well for their respective teams, observers don’t see their contributions. To the goalscorers goes the glory. While goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe has certainly been huge in keeping the Spirit in games this season, Estelle Johnson has also been a big part of the equation. For years, Johnson has been a solid center back, first with the Independence in WPS, then with the Western New York Flash, and now with the Spirit. It’s only this year really, with the Spirit struggling offensively and predominantly playing in a three back system, that Johnson’s performances have garnered attention.

In Orlando, Johnson was matched up against Marta for the last 30 minutes. While it’s impossible to keep Marta at bay completely, Johnson did shut down the five-time FIFA Player of the Year multiple times. This weekend, Johnson drew another tough assignment in Kealia Ohai, who’s been on a tear since the second half of last season. How did the veteran defender describe her last two assignments?

“Exhausting,” she said. “I think they’re two of the best players in the world honestly, so I mean speed and footwork. I just really have to focus. That’s all. Playing next to Whitney Church has helped me a lot because I have a lot of confidence in her and she has a lot of confidence in me and she gives me that confidence to step out and give it a shot, so I think that’s helped me a lot.”

When the Spirit have shifted into a four back, Johnson has slid over to the right back position, something else she’s not accustomed to doing.

“It’s so different,” she said. “ I have to revert back to like freshman year of college, the one year I ever played outside back. I played it in Philly in the WPS for like half a season, so it’s just learning the game. I know what I should do, but my body does different things sometimes, so I think just saying focused and being prepared for the game will help.”


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