Fans of the Houston Dash have endured a number of disappointments watching their team through its five years in the National Women’s Soccer League.
The team’s front office has made numerous trades that can, only generously, be described as head-scratching. On the field, the team has struggled, and the Dash own the ignominy of being the only active team in the league to have never qualified for the playoffs. Additionally, rumors persist that the organization has developed a reputation among the players as one of the least desirable franchises to play for in the league.
This past off-season, the team hired veteran international manager Vera Pauw, which many believed would be an important first step in moving away from the failures of the past. But then came the Christen Press trade saga, reports of rapidly declining ticket sales, an assistant coach leaving only a few weeks into the season, and a five-game winless streak to open their 2018 campaign.
To many, it appeared that Houston hadn’t made any progress at all.
“We knew before the start of the season that our start would be really difficult because we [were missing] too many players, especially strikers,” Pauw told The Equalizer on Saturday night in Chicago. “We [were missing] Kealia Ohai, Kyah Simon—Nichelle Prince was with Canada. And, of course, everybody knows the Press situation.”
In recent weeks, however, results on the field have slowly begun to get better. Following a drubbing at the hands of the North Carolina Courage in Week 5, where an experimental lineup produced an utterly listless performance, Pauw responded with a number of changes.
Moving Kristie Mewis and Rachel Daly out of the backline and into their natural roles as a center midfielder and forward, respectively, things have started to turn around of late and Houston has picked up five points from their last three games.
“We had a rough beginning of the season, but we kind of just decided one day to stop feeling bad for ourselves and just go for it,” said Mewis. “We switched a couple of things around and it’s really been working for us. We’re just kind of learning how to fight as a team.
“It’s just kind of all coming together now for us and we’re really on a high right now,” she added.
Pauw conceded that moving Mewis and Daly has helped lead to the team’s turnaround, but also explained that she first needed to make sure the team’s defense was on solid footing before turning to a more aggressive tactical approach.
“The fact was that we first needed to make sure that we would not get slaughtered and we needed them in the back,” noted Pauw.
The coach also added that the play of second-round draft pick Kimberly Keever and the trade for Allysha Chapman has allowed the team to make those changes.
“[Keever] needed to be ready for this, and we had to throw her in last week because we really had to do something,” said Pauw. “It was a bit early, but she’s doing really well and, of course, the trade for Chapman has also done us good.”
Center back Amber Brooks also defended the team’s early season strategy, arguing the short pre-season and Pauw being new to the NWSL helped cause the Dash’s slow start.
“Vera was new to the league, new to our team,” said Brooks. “We’re basically a whole new team and that’s part of the process—figuring out what your best XI is and [in] what positions.
“I think it was just kind of figuring things out. I think some players grew into their positions and you learn really quickly who sinks or swims in this league,” she added.
Pauw, for her part, argued that coaching in the NWSL isn’t significantly different from her previous international experience, other than the schedule of fixtures.
“It’s not much different, it’s just the repetition of games that is different than what I’m used to. The process of building a team is absolutely the same. It’s just more intense—you have no rest.”
One sign of Houston’s improving play on Saturday night, a 2-2 draw with the Chicago Red Stars, was the expertly planned and executed set-piece that resulted in a Kristie Mewis goal.
— NWSL (@NWSL) May 13, 2018
Heading forward, Brooks argued the team still has plenty of areas to improve.
“We need to cut out the sloppy goals that we’re giving away,” said the defender. “We’ve done a better job in the past couple games getting crosses out and marking tighter, but still, the two goals today really [weren’t] necessary.
“We need to keep possession better, we need to be more calm on the ball, get better at switching play,” she added. “We’re generating good chances and we put away a couple of good ones today.”
Pauw agreed that the team is doing much better in the attack than it had earlier in the season, saying that now, “we can be dangerous against any team.”
But the coach also stated her belief the team needs to improve its build-up play and be better in possession.
After four draws in Houston’s first eight games, Mewis put the next step forward for the Dash more succinctly.
“Just start winning.”