When the Dash went to Chicago for last Wednesday’s match they were playing on 11 days of rest compared to three for the Red Stars. But Vera Pauw sensed the team was not fully locked in and warned her players that if they were not ready for the start of the match they would be down 2-0 within seven minutes.
“It took 11,” Pauw said in a Monday phone conversation. ‘We were probably thinking this game will be ours than really going into the fight.”
The Dash settled into that match, which wound up as a 3-0 loss. And despite having not won any of their four matches, have developed an early reputation as a side that is difficult to break down and composed in their overall defending. Still the publish date on this piece marks one month since the NWSL season kicked off and still one-third of the league is waiting on its first win (Utah and Sky Blue).
“We need to learn how to win games,” Pauw said. “We are playing better, we just cannot get the result.”
Like most coaches trying to build essentially from scratch, Pauw set out to build her side from back to front. “You always start with your defensive team organization.” To that end the Dash have started the same back four—Rachel Daly-Amber Brooks-Janine Van Wyk-Kristie Mewis—in all four games, though Daly has been pushed forward in the second half a few times.
Next is figuring out how to attack. The Dash have scored only one goal this season, a first half goal on opening day. They have not been completely bereft of scoring chances in the three-and-a-half games since, but it does not take long watching the Dash to realize they need to find some answers. According to Pauw, some of those answers lie in performing better, but the first-year NWSL coach also pointed out that she is missing several key players up top.
“Everybody must realize that we missed four strikers. Four strikers missing is a lot if you want to get to the goal of the opponent. There are players coming in now on the level that can really give is variety.”
Of those four players, Kealia Ohai just returned from ACL surgery, Thembi Kgatlana debuted after sorting her Visa (“People don’t realize she traveled the world three times for a Visa.”), and Kyah Simon is due back after representing Australia at the Asian Cup. The fourth is Christen Press who declined to report following a trade and is now playing in Sweden. It was Pauw who brought up Press. The Dash continue to hold her NWSL rights.
“Of course we miss Christen Press,” Pauw said of the player she vowed to build the club around after the trade.
Regardless of personnel though, Pauw is looking for her team to play quicker in their buildup. “In our way forward we are not fast enough in our decision making. That is developing; possession play is starting. We don’t give the ball away (as much) but now we need to use our possession play as a tool to create chances.”
Ohai should be able to help there once she knocks off the rust. “Kealia, once she rounds into form, is a goal scorer,” Pauw said. “She’s very fast, dynamic, and very influential on the pitch. And next to that she’s a great leader. She’s a fantastic leader of the group with her personality. She’s not a leader where she shouts but how her personality stands out.”
To that end, Ohai is the Dash captain, a role being filled by Amber Brooks in Ohai’s absence. Pauw said she told Brooks at the start of the season she was only deputizing for Ohai. But Pauw did not instruct Brooks to hand off the armband as soon as Ohai took the field as a substitute on Sunday. In fact Pauw had no idea it was coming.
“That was purely the initiative of Amber and it was a very beautiful moment,” Pauw said.
In New Jersey, new Sky Blue coach Denise Reddy does not lack for attacking talent, but appears staunchly dedicated to attacking through methodical build up. As a result it took her side nearly three full games to score. The good news is the single goal they have, from rookie Savannah McCaskill, was enough to snatch an away point in Chicago.
The five-year history of NWSL has not been kind to teams that get out of the blocks slowly. The exception is last year’s Orlando Pride, but that was a team that got Alex Morgan back from France to team with Marta.
“When we came out in the second half, we definitely started to show more of who we are,” Reddy said following the 1-1 draw against the Red Stars. “We were on the front foot more, and we were able to put better pressure on the ball. Coming from behind a goal on the road and finding a way to get a point is definitely a positive takeaway that we will build upon as we head into training next week.”
In Utah the Royals have also struggled to score, netting one through three games before pouncing on two Courage mistakes to carry a 2-1 lead into the late stages last weekend. A late mistake of their own allowed the Courage to equalize and like the Dash and Sky Blue, the Royals are without a victory in 2018.
Like the Dash, the struggle in Utah is to score. The Royals found a goal three minutes into the season, and then went 318 minutes before scoring again. Amy Rodriguez, another ACL returned, has made cameos in the last two matches but has yet to score.
When Royals coach Laura Harvey was asked to assess Rodriguez’s first appearance with the club she answered succinctly: “She better get fit soon.”
The five-year history of NWSL has not been kind to teams that get out of the blocks slowly. The exception is last year’s Orlando Pride, but that was a team that got Alex Morgan back from France to team with Marta. The Dash and Royals have players returning from injury but it would be fools’ gold to think they could duplicate what the Pride did in 2017, Those teams are also spending much of their margin of error in the early stages of the season.
“We are not at the level when we can win games playing that way,” Pauw said of the mindset going into the Red Stars game. “We have to play at our best to have a chance to win.”
NWSL Attendance Watch
-The Pride drew 3,890 on Sunday for the lowest crowd in their history which is now two dozen home dates old. It even sounded strange on the stream as if the match was being played in an echo chamber. It was a particularly disappointing number especially after topping 9,000 for the home opener.
-Abby Dahlkemper’s streak finally ended Wednesday when a personal matter kept her off the team sheet for the Courage. Dahlkemper had played every minute of the previous 65 regular season matches for a streak of 5,850 consecutive minutes played. That is far and away a league record. Dahlkemper had last missed a minute April 18, 2015 when she was replaced in the 78th minute by Jordan Angeli.
-Dahlkemper had 67 straight regular season starts—every game available since being drafted in 2015. That left her four starts and appearances short of Jen Buczkowski’s league record 71.
-The Courage did not reveal a reason why Dahlkemper missed the match other than it was an excused personal absence.
-Has there been a better player in the league this season than Sofia Huerta?
-Caught up with a friend at PRO who explained that Lindsey Horan was well within her right to stop and reset before attempting her penalty on Friday night. Had she started the kicking motion it would have been too late.
-The Red Stars have 8 points from five matches, something I’m certain they would have signed for a month ago knowing Sam Kerr, Julie Ertz, Casey Short, and Vanessa DiBernardo wouldn’t play in any of them. If you’d like some caution, the teams they have taken the 8 points off have a grand total of 0 wins this season.
-Loved Ashley Hatch’s work against the Thorns on Friday, especially in the first half. The Thorns had Lindsey Horan playing a deep role and Hatch smothered her throughout, often preventing Horan from pulling the strings on the attack.
-Nice to see injured players starting to return. Last weekend saw Kealia Ohai and Tobin Heath in their first action on 2018. Sam Mewis played briefly in two matches and made an otherworldly square pass to Denise O’Sullivan that was key in the sequence leading to the Courage’s late equalizer. Check it out
— NWSL (@NWSL) April 21, 2018
-Pauw said the most surprising thing about coaching NWSL so far is how competitive the matches are. That’s saying a lot considering that was one of the things that drew her to the league in the first place.
-The new active streak for minutes played belongs to Emily Sonnet at 2,970. She returned to the Thorns’ lineup August 27, 2016 after missing time for the Olympics and has not been off the pitch since.