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The Lowdown: Houston Dash see new culture as road to progress

Photo Copyright Tom Salus for The Equalizer

James Clarkson did not mince words about his first win as a National Women’s Soccer League coach.

“It’s massive,” he said, not even trying to contain his smile after the Houston Dash defeated Sky Blue FC, 1-0 in New Jersey on Saturday night. Clarkson took the job in December as an experienced coach but one who was short on time around the women’s game. “The pressure of never coaching in the league — got that out of the way last week. Got the first point, but [we] were still winless in the league. So then to get the win tonight is great.”

The Dash now have four points from their first two matches for the first time since 2015. Two games hardly makes a season, but getting out of the box on the right foot can be important for a club that has never been in a playoff match and finished every season with more losses than victories.

There is every reason to believe that this season will be different. Clarkson, a longtime staple with the Houston Dynamo academy side, has injected a culture change into the Dash. A year after Vera Pauw’s my-way-or-the-highway mentality brought improved tactics but a less desirable locker room vibe, Clarkson has the players having fun while still aiming for high standards.

“Personally, as a player, I’m developing,” said Christine Nairn, who requested a trade from Orlando and wound up in Houston. “I’m learning things, and I haven’t learned things at the professional level in a long, long time. He puts us in uncomfortable positions, but at the end of the day it’s very positive and [he] wants us to be creative on the ball. If you don’t want to play for a coach like him, I don’t know what to tell you.”

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Nairn, who surpassed 10,000 career NWSL minutes in the match, has been on some of the best — and worst — teams in the league through the years. It’s early in the Dash season, but she said the vibe seems more like the winning ones than the less positive ones.

“I think this team is right up there. I think they’re going to compete first for a playoff spot and second for a championship.”

Despite the positive talk, the Dash know they need to play better than they did against Sky Blue. A first-half penalty nearly put them behind, but Carli Lloyd hit it poorly and it scraped the outside of the left post before trickling out of bounds. The goal they scored to win was a mishit that took a deflection off Sky Blue defender Estelle Johnson and then went up and over Kailen Sheridan who had an otherwise sensational match in goal for Sky Blue.

“Don’t think we played as well as we did last week,” Clarkson said. “We still had some really good chances, probably could have scored a few more goals. I’m happy winning 1-0. It shows what I think of the team and hopefully what we’re able to achieve this season.”

Asked specifically what was not as good as opening day — when a late penalty save from Jane Campbell preserved a 1-1 draw against Reign FC — Clarkson said he told the team at halftime that they did not think there was enough composure in the attacking half of the pitch.

“I thought [Sky Blue] did a really good job. They did a good job trying to force us to play into the middle and we really didn’t solve that problem in the first half. They rushed us. As soon as we broke that midfield line, we just basically went straight to goal. We wanted to be a little bit more patient [in the] second half, give more players opportunities to get higher up the field. That’s where most of our chances came from — the wide areas, getting in behind. I’m pleased we were able to adjust.”

On two occasions late, Rachel Daly got behind the Sky blue defense on stone-cold breakaways only to lose her chance to score mostly due to indecision.

“I’m really pleased she’s getting into the positions. The goals will come,” Clarkson said. The one goal the Dash did get was after Daly’s first breakaway, when the loose ball fell to Huerta.

EXTRA: What needs to change to make Sky Blue FC viable?

Nairn said the Dash were gritty in getting the win on a night they know they can play better, and she believes a few more wins of a similar variety will go a long way toward breaking the playoff hex.

There will be little time for pats on the back, though. Less than 30 minutes after collecting his first win, Clarkson was keenly aware of the next hurdle — securing three points against a top side. The chance will come back at BBVA Compass Stadium this Sunday, when the NWSL Champion North Carolina Courage roll into town.

“We’ve got a great test next weekend to really see where we can go,” Clarkson said.

In a dozen tries against the four playoff teams last season, the Dash were 1-7-4 (8-3-1 against everyone else). In three matches against the Courage, the Dash were run off the park twice and played to a 1-1 draw on a night the Courage were severely shorthanded due to national team call-ups.

“I think we’ll learn a lot,” Clarkson said. “Where we are today, next week, isn’t where we’re going to be come the end of the season. We’ll continue to improve. But we need a real benchmark to see where we truly are when we’ve got everybody here. It’s a challenge. We know it is.”

Said midfielder Sophie Schmidt: “The Dash had their most successful season last year and I think we’re going to grow on that. Teams should be leery of us that we are going to pose a threat to be very competitive in the league.”

“Houston has all the tools,” Nairn said. “Our first thing [was] getting these three points away from home. Then getting to the playoffs and hopefully capitalizing with a championship. So, no pressure.”

NWSL attendance watch

2019 NWSL Attendance Chart
Games AVG 2018 All-time +/-
2018
+/-
all-time
Utah Royals FC 1 18,015 9,466 10,124 +77.9% +77.9%
Chicago Red Stars 1 12,967 4,004 3,320 +223.9% +290.6%
Orlando Pride 1 7,189 4,837 6,495 +48.6% +10.7%
Reign FC 1 5,323 3,824 3,759 +39.2% +41.6%
Houston Dash 1 4,865 4,335 4,895 +21.4% -11.4%
North Carolina Courage 2 4,173 5,129 4,714 -18.7% -11.5%
Washington Spirit 1 2,373 3,892 3,730 -39.0% -36.4%
Sky Blue FC 1 1,394 2,531 2,130 -44.9% -34.6%
TOTALS 9 6,660 6,024 ** ** **

Free Kicks

— The Chicago Red Stars signed a local television contract to broadcast all of their games on NBC Sports Chicago beginning with Saturday’s 4-4 thriller against the Thorns. We caught up with Kirstin, a local fan who said it is difficult to get to Bridgeview to attend matches at SeatGeek Stadium and was delighted to be able to watch the home opener on her television:

“It gives more exposure for fans and a way to access the games with more channels (no pun intended) for fans to watch. Bridgeview isn’t the best place to travel to so having it aired on TV can help. It also eliminates poor streaming from Yahoo! Sports. No lag or super poor picture quality when the stream is having issues. Sometimes it’s hard committing to watching a game on Yahoo! Sports on a laptop/phone/tablet etc…Much more enjoyable watching on TV.”

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— Brittany Ratcliffe suffered a torn ACL and will miss the season for Utah Royals FC.

— The Reign confirmed that Jasmyne Spencer tore her ACL on opening day and will miss the remainder of the season. On the bright side, Megan Oyster was back in the lineup after suffering a bruise in the opener.

— On the other side of the ACL arc, Kristie Mewis replaced Sophie Schmidt in the 62nd minute for her first action since the injury last May 27.

— Sam Kerr played in her 100th regular-season match and scored her 61st goal, the latter being an NWSL record. That is a goal scoring rate of .602. For some perspective, among players to have appeared in at least 50 games, only two other players have scored at a rate of .500 or better: Christen Press (.514) and Kim Little (.508). Only five other players have a rate as high as .400. A total of 127 non-goalkeepers have appeared in at least 50 regular-season NWSL matches.

— Kerr also tied the league record for consecutive regular-season games with a goal, notching one in her sixth straight dating back to 2018. Take that for what it’s worth considering it spans two seasons and she was kept off the board in her playoff game. But Kim Little set the record using penalties to extend the streak twice, and Abby Wambach also used a penalty and missed two games in the midst of her streak.

— Christine Sinclair’s second hat trick as a Thorn puts her in company with Sam Kerr, Nadia Nadim, and Megan Rapinoe as NWSL players with multiple hat tricks. Kerr has three.

— How good was Bethany Balcer for the Reign on Sunday?

— Speaking of the Reign, I have been critical of their decision to schedule the Cheney Stadium opener on Easter Sunday, but the 5,323 fans that were there proved me wrong. That is far and away a Reign opening day record. The club had never before drawn as many as 4,000 for a season opener. The one concern for me is how close the walls are to the end lines.

— On her 10,000 minute milestone, Nairn laughed and said it must mean that she is old. She also said she remembered the first of those 10,000 minutes “like it was yesterday.” For those who don’t it was April 14, 2013 in Chicago. Nairn started for the Reign and scored their first-ever goal in a 1-1 draw at Benedictine University Sports Complex. And we’ve come a long way on highlights since then.

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