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The Lowdown: Huerta, Clarkson hope Dash have foundation for future

Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer

James Clarkson has said that Sofia Huerta’s play this season has been better than her baseline statistics would indicate. Huerta appreciates the compliment from her head coach, but believes that scoring goals is one of her main jobs for the Houston Dash.

Those concepts finally collided last Friday when Huerta scored both goals in a 2-1 victory over Utah Royals FC that most believe was the best performance the Dash have put in all season.

“She was excellent,” Clarkson said about Huerta’s performance on Friday. “She gets two goals and she gets much more attention. But her overall play on both sides of the ball was terrific. Hopefully she can keep that going.”

“I felt like collectively our team did really well,” Huerta said. “We really had a game plan going in. I felt like defensively we were really compact.” On her own game, Huerta added that, “I definitely felt good. On offense, I was able to expose some spaces and I had energy.”

In the big picture, Huerta was more pleased with the win — only the third home win for the team all season — than the goals. And she was quick to point out the team nature of scoring.

“To score feels good. And I’m not just saying this, but the two assists that I got I think were unreal,” she said. “Kristie [Mewis]’s backheel, and her awareness were quite good. She really set me up for that. I quite literally had to do nothing but shoot the ball. And then Rachel [Daly]’s pass over Utah’s backline was a perfect ball. To play a ball like that right between the back line and the goalie — Barnhart really didn’t know what to do with that so that was a perfect pass from [Daly].”

Huerta’s odyssey over the last season and a half has been well documented. After a lengthy process involving FIFA, in which she won a waiver to play for the United States at the international level (after making appearances for Mexico at the senior level), she was identified as a potential outside back by the U.S. Soccer staff. That was in direct conflict with her role as a forward for the Chicago Red Stars and she eventually asked to be traded, landing in Houston. The outside back opportunities still rarely materialized, and when Clarkson took over the Dash late last year, his first major hurdle was figuring out what to do with the 26-year-old Huerta, who was in Australia playing as a fullback for Sydney FC — and who had expressed interest in another trade.

“That was a long time ago,” Huerta says now. Clarkson kept in constant contact with Huerta throughout the offseason.

“James was really polite and really great through it all and really listened to my story,” Huerta said. “There were reasons for maybe wanting to part ways at that point. But everything happens for a reason and he and I have a really great relationship. He knows why I asked for that trade at that time. But we’ve only gone up from that.”

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When U.S. coach Jill Ellis announced shortly after the World Cup that she was not returning to the U.S. sidelines in 2020, it created a sense of uncertainty around the national team and the immediate future of some of its regulars. But downstream, players like Huerta also took note. With a new regime on the way in, the chance to be recognized for the position she loves the most and plays the best is back in play.

“I have some mixed emotions,” she admitted. “As we said this hasn’t been my best season. Obviously there [will be] a new coach, so will I be one of the players in their mind that they’re going to call up. That’s a little bit of an uneasy feeling for me. At the same time, I am excited. The past coaching staff put me in this position where they would only play me at outside back and I wouldn’t be able to play anywhere else. I’m not saying that was bad or anything but it definitely didn’t make things easy on me. Hopefully I do get an opportunity and let’s hope that this coach sees me as a more versatile player and can put me other places where maybe I can find more success.”

Said Clarkson about Huerta getting back in the national team picture at her regular position: “I would hope so. I think that’s part of her frustration, that she’s desperate to get back on the national team. Hopefully the new coach gives her a look, gives her a chance.”

Many National Women’s Soccer League prognosticators tipped the Dash to be serious playoff contenders earlier this year, mostly because they did not lose any U.S. players to the World Cup, like the other eight teams. Beyond that, they had Huerta, who many believed would light up the league during the period when many of the best players were in France. That did not happen, something Huerta is quick to point out when diagnosing the Dash’s season, her first full campaign with the club.

Houston Dash coach James Clarkson, left. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley)

But last week’s win threw them a lifeline, and while playoff chances still appear remote, the Dash now have a short turnaround into a Tuesday night match in North Carolina. The Courage are not a team that has treated Clarkson particularly well in his rookie season on the Dash bench. In two meetings this season, the Courage have outscored Clarkson’s side by a 9-3 aggregate. More recently, the Courage scored a dozen goals over two games last week, including a 6-0 beatdown on the road against the Portland Thorns.

“The first time we played them, we conceded right before halftime and I thought for that first half we were excellent,” Clarkson said. “Then we had a bad 12 minutes and gave away another three goals.”

The coach added that he thought there were some bright spots in the 5-2 loss in North Carolina even though that game saw Kristen Hamilton tie the league record with four goals.

“They punish any mistake,” he said. “For us, it’s concentration. It’s trying to avoid silly mistakes, and maybe a little bit of luck to keep us in the game as long as possible. Friday’s game proved with us that the longer we’re in the game without having to chase, especially against the top teams, we give ourselves a really good opportunity to win games. Because we do create chances. But when we’re chasing it, then we do get exposed and it becomes a little bit of a track meet.”

Projecting a USWNT camp with no World Cup players

Huerta said the key to the Courage is not only their depth and talent, but their versatility as players.

“All of them, they’re not just athletic, they’re also very good soccer players,” she said. “Sometimes in this league I think you have one of the other, but all of them are both.”

That was a sentiment Clarkson offered almost verbatim. He also lamented some earlier results the Dash could not get that now have them likely needing wins in North Carolina and Portland, where they will play this weekend.

If the Dash can have a great week, they could be poised for the unlikeliest of playoff pushes. Even if they don’t, the sense around the club is that things are in a much better place than they were a year ago. Clarkson has had a ton of on-the-job training and has grown into the job, Huerta believes.

“He’s super personable and I think he really cares about the girls,” she said. “He has definitely adjusted well. We have a really good coaching staff. James has done really well and hopefully he’ll be here for a long time and we can hopefully have a consistent couple of years and see what we can do with that.”

Jen Hoy on 100 appearances

Sky Blue FC forward Jen Hoy (Photo Copyright Lewis Gettier)

Jen Hoy was honored at Yurcak Field on Sunday for reaching the 100-appearance milestone in the NWSL. The New Jersey native hit the mark during an away match in August, so the official recognition would have to wait. It was saved for Saturday’s match against the Red Stars, the team that drafted Hoy out of Princeton with the 25th pick in the very first college draft in 2013.

“I just feel honored and blessed that I get to experience this and that I get to experience it with the two teams that I have played on,” she said. “That was really special to be able to hug not only my current teammates but my former teammates.”

NWSL players began to hit the 100-appearance mark in 2017 and it was celebrated simply because it was finally possible, since the two prior leagues folded after three seasons. Hoy, who may be the least likely of all those to get to the century mark, began her college career at Princeton a decade ago right when WPS was starting. By the time she graduated, that league was dead and a new one was up and running.

“At the time I wasn’t even thinking about playing pro to be honest,” Hoy said. “It just so happened that the current league was in its very, very, very early stages. People weren’t even sure it was actually going to happen, but it did. And my college coaches told me I should put my name into the draft. It wasn’t something I was banking on or had my heart set on.”

Audi Field, Red Bull Arena and the NWSL’s ambitions

One of the eight founding NWSL coaches remembered that Hoy had dominated his team as a youth player.

“She lit us up,” Rory Dames recalled. “And we didn’t get lit up very often.”

A few years later, Hoy spent her 22nd birthday in bed with the flu. But she was happy to be interrupted long enough for a coach to tell her she had been drafted by the Red Stars.

Hoy hesitated when asked for a career highlight, but she lit up when asked about scoring the stoppage-time game winner against the Utah Royals in July on the same weekend that another Princeton graduate, Tyler Lussi, did the same thing for the Thorns.

As far as how much longer Hoy will play, she said that she takes it day by day. She is balancing her soccer career with a holistic health coaching business, meaning that unlike many players, she already has a jump start on her post-playing career.

“If you could have been in my head one, two, three years ago,” she says, “I would have told you something totally different. I’m just going with what feels good.”

NWSL Attendance Watch

2019 NWSL Attendance Chart
Games AVG 2018 All-time +/-
Portland Thorns FC 10 19,564 16,959 16,152 +15.4% +21.1%
Utah Royals FC 10 10,983 9,466 10,156 +16.0% +8.1%
Washington Spirit 11 6,187 3,892 4,094 +59.0% +51.2%
North Carolina Courage 10 5,636 5,129 5,017 +9.9% +12.3%
Chicago Red Stars 10 5,625 4,004 3,494 +40.5% +61.0%
Orlando Pride 10 5,263 4,837 6,199 +8.8% -15.1%
Reign FC 9 4,886 3,824 3,872 +27.8% +26.2%
Houston Dash 11 3,944 3,572 4,747 +10.4% -16.9%
Sky Blue FC 11 2,886 2,531 2,246 +14.0% +28.5%
TOTALS 92 7,151 6,024 5,318 +18.7% +34.5%

Free Kicks

— I’ll save my Heather O’Reilly retrospective for some other time, but I do love this clip.

— The Washington Spirit drew 17,418 to Audi Field on Saturday. That falls short of the record 19,471 from August 24 but I would argue is a more impressive figure. Anyone who sells events like this will tell you the second one is often the hardest sale in any sequence. The Spirit are now up to third in average attendance this season behind stalwarts Thorns and Royals.

— Sky Blue will move their final home match to Red Bull Arena on Sept. 29 with a twist that the match will now kick off at 11 a.m. ET. MLS’ New York Red Bulls play later that day but the matches will require separate tickets. This means that Sky Blue’s 3-0 loss to the Red Stars on Sunday was almost certainly the last NWSL match played at Yurcak Field, where the club has called home since its inaugural WPS season, in 2009.

— The Courage became the sixth team this season to set the team regular-season record for single game attendance when 9,563 showed up to help honor Heather O’Reilly over the weekend. The Courage did top 10,000 for their 2017 playoff game.

— The playoffs are in sight for the Courage, who will officially clinch with a win over the Dash on Tuesday. If they draw and the Reign and Royals do not draw on Wednesday, that will also get North Carolina over the line.

— The Houston Dash will be making good use of the next FIFA break by traveling to Mexico for a friendly against Liga MX Femenil champion Tigres. It will be the first match played by an NWSL team outside the United States since the Reign went to Japan for their inaugural preseason in 2013. (writer’s note: updated to reflect Reign trip to Japan after initially stating Dash would be first NWSL team to play outside the U.S.)

— Sam Kerr scored her 16th goal of the season on Sunday and sits one shy of her own league record, set two years ago when she played for Sky Blue FC.

— The Courage just scored 12 goals in two matches, including a 6-0 shellacking of the Thorns in Portland. That matches the largest margin of victory in NWSL history and is the biggest shutout ever. There were previously two, 7-1 games – the Thorns over FC Kansas City in 2014 and the Western New York Flash over the Boston Breakers in 2017. In all three instances where the margin has been six goals, Paul Riley has been the winning head coach. Some solace for Thorns fans might be that FC Kansas City won the NWSL Championship the year they lost 7-1.

— There’s no bigger match this season than the Reign versus the Royals on Wednesday night at Cheney Stadium. The teams are currently tied on 31 points and tied head-to-head, with the Royals ahead for the final playoff position thanks to the goal-difference tiebreakers (+4 to -2). The winner will effectively take a 3-1/2 point lead since a win for either team will mean the season series. A draw favors the Royals due to the aforementioned goal difference. Both teams will have three matches remaining after Wednesday.

— Speaking of the Red Stars, they are undefeated with three shutouts in three matches since Julie Ertz and Tierna Davidson became the center-back pairing. Head coach Rory Dames said that was always the long-term plan when they made Davidson the first overall pick earlier this year. Tougher competition looms, though.

— With the NWSL Championship headed to North Carolina next month, it seemed like a good time to inquire with the league office about a contingency plan in the event bad weather rolls in. As of yet there has been no response from the NWSL. A year ago, Hurricane Irma forced the Courage’s semifinal match against the Red Stars to be shifted to Portland.


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