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2018 NWSL Team Preview: Houston Dash seek an identity

Houston Dash

2017: 7-14-3 (8th place)
Head Coach: Vera Pauw (1st season with Houston)
Home Ground: BBVA Compass Stadium

‘17 in Review: It was an up and down year for the Dash. They started off by defeating Chicago in the home opener, but things quickly tumbled downhill, and by Memorial Day head coach Randy Waldrum was out, replaced by interim head coach Omar Morales for the duration of the season. A five-game undefeated streak followed, but the second half of the season was a bumpy ride wherein the Dash did just enough to avoid the bottom of the table but never threatened the playoff race. They haven’t won a game since August 16th.

{ALSO SEE: Link to all team previews  |  Opening day rosters}

Personnel issues plagued the Dash all season long. After possibly the worst debut in NWSL history, rookie Jane Campbell replaced a struggling Lydia Williams in net, and Williams was later traded to Seattle. Kealia Ohai tore her ACL in June, sidelining her for the rest of the year, and Carli Lloyd missed a handful of games due to injury as well. Morgan Brian, in and out with injuries, demanded a trade with a month left in the season, and ended up in Chicago for Kristie Mewis.

What’s New: A better question might be what isn’t new. From the coaching staff (former Dutch player and head coach of Scotland, the Netherlands, Russia, and South Africa, Vera Pauw, and assistant coach Lisa Cole, formerly of the Boston Breakers) to a slew of new faces on the pitch, Houston underwent a complete overhaul in the offseason.

Gone are Lloyd, Janine Beckie, Sarah Hagen, Cami Levin, Kelly Conheeney, Andressinha, Poliana, Cari Roccaro, Caity Heap, and Bruna Benites. In their place, the Dash added Kyah Simon, Sammy Jo Prudhomme, Lindsay Agnew, Thembi Kgatlana, Linda Motlhalo, Savannah Jordan, Michaela Hahn, and Mana Shim. Lotta Ökvist and Tiffany Weimer were taken in the dispersal draft; both are now with other teams.

In a blockbuster, three-team trade on draft day, Lloyd and Beckie went to Sky Blue, and the Dash received the rights to Christen Press. However, Press has refused to report to the team, and her status for the 2018 season is an ongoing question mark.

“It is a distraction because we want her here,” Pauw admitted at the Dash’s media day. ”But we deal with the players that are here.”

If things click: First and foremost, Pauw has the biggest task of any new coach in front of her: getting her team to buy in. Her vision has to be communicated clearly, and the players have to be on board, understanding her strategy and how their roles on the field and on the bench can make her vision a reality. She named “teamwork and the balance of the team” as her two keys to the season.

“It’s a balance of a team built from the back to the front,” Pauw said at the NWSL draft, giving a hint as to her strategy.

Even prior to taking the pitch in preseason, defender Amber Brooks seemed to agree: “She has a philosophy, she has a way she wants us play.”

Leading the way will be veterans like Brooks, Ohai, and Janine Van Wyk. With so many new players in the mix, leadership on the field and in the locker room is essential. If they buy into Pauw’s system, the rest of the team is more likely to follow.

Something the Dash have struggled with from the beginning is their identity. Who are the Houston Dash? They’ve never really been able to answer that question the way other NWSL teams have, and as a result, team chemistry has suffered. Pauw’s vision should go a long way toward establishing this identity, but Brooks already has an idea.

“We need to be a team of warriors and people who are going to battle.”

On a more tangible level, a lack of defensive organization has also plagued the Dash since their inception. In 2017 they allowed the third-most goals against in the league. The current roster doesn’t feature many outright defenders, but fans can expect to see conversions, including forwards Agnew and Rachel Daly to fullbacks. Daly played the position briefly last season as well as during her youth career. Pauw also used Mewis as a centerback in preseason, although she will have to impress tremendously to make up for her loss in midfield. It’s unclear as of yet how Pauw’s backline will look, but if they don’t make strides on previous iterations, the season could be over as soon as it begins. If they can stay organized from the back, and take advantage of their speed and dynamic qualities up top, the Dash could surprise their naysayers.

What the opponents think

The Equalizer has asked members of NWSL coaching staffs to comment on opposition clubs around the league. They were all promised anonymity.

“It won’t be fair to make a judgment on Houston for four to six games. Vera’s come in–what an experienced, great person, great coach, personality, someone that we’re fortunate to have in the league. She’s got a lot of brand new players…she’s got a new coaching staff, she’s got a new league, a lot of new things going on. If anyone can handle that change, it’s her.”

“I think the Dash will be better than people think they’re going to be after watching them and seeing them. They’re super organized. Their lines are super compact. [Vera] is a good coach, it’s 20-25 yards from front to back. They play in the middle third, they’re dangerous on the counter, they don’t chase you unless they think they can go, and they don’t really try to mess with it in their end. They had Mewis playing center back with Brooks. People were [surprised], but people don’t realize, or maybe they forgot, that in one step Mewis can step on the ball with her left foot and hit a 60-yard diagonal ball. They don’t try to overplay in the back. If it’s not on, they’ll just put it back into your end and move their line up and wait. I would assume that’s what [Vera] had to do with South Africa against the top teams. So, for her, she’s where she was before, just in a different setting with maybe some better players than she had. The setting here is—in the international game you lose a game or two and you’re in trouble—but [you get] 24 games here. I think Houston’s going to be extremely hard to play against. It seems like those players are bought in to what she’s doing.”


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