(Photo: Jordyn Baker)
When I talked to Houston Dash non-roster invitee Annika Schmidt in May, she was nothing but complimentary of the team. "We were driving each other to be competitive," she said, describing her week training with Houston in March, "so we could be the best players and the best teammates possible, and we could ultimately make up the best team."
Her impression painted a stark contrast with the 2019 Dash, a team that often looked like they weren't even trying all that hard to win games. However, Schmidt's perception of Houston's new culture under second-year head coach James Clarkson is what shone through in the Challenge Cup – even if she, herself, didn't ultimately end up on their squad.
That revamped team culture – and a counterattacking style of play which left them less burned-out in later games – carried the Dash all the way to the final, where they snuck an early penalty kick and a stoppage time breakaway run past Alyssa Naeher to win 2-0.
With the full tournament now in the books and the glass Challenge Cup trophy home (and allegedly unbroken) in Houston, what can we take away from the last month?
Actually, the Dash (Might Be Good at Soccer)
Yeah, maybe Houston's run was helped by injuries a little bit – especially in the semifinal and final rounds. And maybe they got lucky to sneak by the Royals in quarterfinals after playing Utah to a draw for the second time in the tournament. Maybe they also hit a bit of a slump midway through the tournament, had a couple games where it wasn't clear if they had actually turned a corner or not. And who's to say where this team would've ended up in a typical NWSL season?
It's hard to draw conclusions from only a couple games, even harder when the fact that those games are being played by teams in relative isolation comes into play. As someone who follows the Thorns closer than other NWSL teams, I'd argue that it isn't fair to put that much stock on how Portland did in this tournament given the lack of preseason and key injuries, and that rings true to varying degrees with every club in this tournament.
For Houston, though, their Challenge Cup win is at least a sign that they're getting better. They came out of the gates looking like a dangerous attacking team, scoring five goals in their first two games before dropping off. While the Dash hit a mental wall as the preliminary round progressed, they were able to overcome that setback, and were clearly the better team in wins over the Portland Thorns and Red Stars.
With the attacking ability of Rachel Daly, Shea Groom, Kristie Mewis, and Nichelle Prince, and a defense that looks significantly more able to hold shape under pressure than they did last year, there's no reason to believe this tournament isn't a preview of what Houston can do in the future.
It's Possible to Have Sports during a Pandemic, but Should We?
When the NWSL announced that they'd be the first American professional team sport to return amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, I wrote that there was no way to definitively say it was the right choice until it either did or didn't work. Two months later and without a single positive coronavirus test – within the NWSL bubble, at least – we can at least say it did. Personally, I'm glad that they pulled it off, but I don't think we should overlook the issues that came up during that process.
On the players' side of things, we learned that being in a competitive bubble for a sustained amount of time is hard. It's even harder in the middle of a nationwide protest movement against systemic racism and police brutality – especially for the league's Black players. We saw the effects impact the quality of both individual players and teams during the tournament, and understandably so. On the other hand, we saw so many players take advantage of their platforms, such as Sarah Gorden raising over $15,000 for Get Yo Mind Right Chi in her Pass It On campaign.
On the pandemic side of things, all the careful monitoring meant more than 2,000 COVID tests were administered. While the league confirmed that they wouldn't be taking away resources from those in the Salt Lake City area, that's still 2,000 tests that are easily accessible to athletes and not to the rest of us. With coronavirus spikes across the nation, testing shortages hinder the ability to track its spread and treat infected individuals. On top of that, those 2,000+ tests by the NWSL are probably dwarfed by the amount of tests by larger leagues like MLS. Bubble tournaments like these have primarily highlighted the ways in which professional athletes' safety is prioritized over the safety of everyone else.
What comes next for this league is yet to be determined – although there have been hints that the NWSL might consider another short season or tournament in the fall and teams are expected to continue training. Whatever it is, though, I hope they take the climate of our country into account going forward and prioritize both the physical and emotional well-being of their players.