The 2020 National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup represented a clash of tactical identities. Most teams, including Sky Blue FC, Washington Spirit, OL Reign, and Portland Thorns, approached the tournament with heavily possession-focused styles. Others, like the North Carolina Courage, Chicago Red Stars, and the Utah Royals, mixed and matched. Ultimately, though, the competition was won by the Houston Dash, the one team who really were not interested in dominating the ball.
Every team used their possession in different ways. Sky Blue played through a new-look rotating midfield trio of Jennifer Cudjoe, McCall Zerboni and Sarah Woldmoe, Lacking a certain Tobin Heath-ness, Portland looked to overload the center of the pitch with a diamond midfield, while Washington were committed to playing out and breaking the lines.
Other teams were more direct. The Reign used a lot of switches to create 1-v-1s for the likes of Darian Jenkins. Utah was the only team to use a back three, and the extra player in build-up helped the Royals work accurate long balls up towards Amy Rodriguez. The Courage played the way they always do: Sam Mewis collecting deep while Debinha and Crystal Dunn found pockets to receive and dribble at back lines.
Then there was Houston. The Dash didn’t necessarily concede possession, but they were at their best when their opponents had it. Not only did they average the lowest amount of possession (44.5%, according to Opta data), but they were the only team not to have one single ‘majority share’ of possession. In every game they played, they had less of the ball than their opponent.
At a time when most NWSL teams are intent on developing complex possession-based tactics, the Houston Dash won the Challenge Cup using principles that have been ingrained in American women’s soccer since its very beginnings.
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