Route Two Soccer: Is There a Method to Houston’s Madness?

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It’s been a strange offseason for the Houston Dash, in more ways than one. The last few months have been filled with peculiar decisions, many of which have baffled even the friendliest evaluators. And it’s all truly come to a head now–just a couple weeks before the start of the season–with the breaking news that Christen Press (the supposed coup de grace of the whole offseason) would not be playing for the club. 

In this column, I’m going to walk through some of the big decisions and try to explain them. That will be more difficult for some than others, and I won’t shy away from calling out the bad and weird choices. But the overall theme of the column is simple: it’s been a strange offseason, but maybe not quite as incoherent as many seem to think. I’m not ready to say that we should “trust the process,” but I do think there is some method to the madness.

The New Coaching Staff

To begin, it’s crucial to note the excellent pedigree of the new coaching staff. Head coach Vera Pauw has a strong record in the international game, having spent the last two decades coaching Scotland, the Netherlands, Russia, and South Africa. While she won no major trophies in those jobs, she achieved some real success, including a semifinals appearance at Euro 2009.

The Dash often seems to make decisions haphazardly, and with little attention to detail, but that doesn’t appear to be the case here. Pauw was a strong hire, and that was augmented by the good decision to bring in Lisa Cole as the assistant coach. Transitioning from the international game to a domestic league is always somewhat difficult, and the NWSL is a special challenge—with roster limits, harsh spending caps, and byzantine transfer rules. Having someone with some experience in the league is a very good idea, and Cole fits the bill.

That said, some of the more confusing decisions this offseason do seem to reflect a poor understanding of the league structure and/or lack of familiarity with the current player pool. Still, some growing pains are to be expected. The question isn’t whether Pauw has hit the ground running, but whether her overall vision is strong enough to handle the inevitable bumps in the road.

We won’t really know the answer for a while. The Dash have been a mess for four years now, and realistically the best hope for 2018 is to patch together some of the major holes and get things in line for a strong push in 2019. Miracles can happen, of course, and the Dash certainly shouldn’t treat this season as a lost cause before it starts. But in terms of setting expectations, it’s probably more important to look for evidence of growth than to focus too much on results as such.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the big issues of the offseason and assess what they mean:

Trading Andressinha for Savannah Jordan

On its face, this is a tough one to explain. Andressinha is one of the best creative midfielders in the league and has a real chance of turning the corner to become a genuine superstar. Plus, it’s not like Houston was overflowing with talent in this role and could afford to make a move. The step down from her to their next best option (Kristie Mewis?) is enormous. Meanwhile, Savannah Jordan is a good young talent but has yet to really show outside of college. Plus, Houston already has a boatload of young forwards with potential. Jordan could break out and become a star, but at the moment it’s not even obvious that she’s a starter.

So there’s a lot to dislike about the trade. But it’s worth considering two mitigating factors. First, if Andressinha wanted out (which seems to have been the case), there really wasn’t anything Houston could do to stop it. The NWSL isn’t a cartel and any player of sufficient ability can simply hop on a plane to Europe. Given that, Houston was over a barrel in trade negotiations. They not only had to find a deal they liked, they had to find a deal that the player would accept. If she said “Portland, or nothing,” that would leave Houston with almost no leverage in trade negotiations. Better to get a good player by trading her to Portland than nothing at all.

Second, while Houston has plenty of forwards (more on that below), Jordan is a different type of player than most of their other options. They have a lot of technical attackers with blistering pace, but (apart from one year with Jess McDonald) they’ve never had much luck finding a true number nine. Jordan could be the answer. That’s an even more pressing concern if the next-best option (Rachel Daly) might not be available on the forward line this year (again, more on that below).

The College Draft

Thanks to their eighth-place finish last year, Houston went into the draft with the third overall pick. Before the draft even started, though, they traded that pick to Washington, in exchange for Lindsay Agnew and the sixth pick. Once again, this was an initially puzzling move. Agnew is yet another forward, and while she has some experience at fullback it’s hardly obvious that counting on a converted forward in that role was worth trading down in picks. That felt even truer when Washington used that number three pick to select Rebecca Quinn—precisely the sort of player that Houston desperately needs. Still, Agnew is a useful contributor, and Houston certainly need flexible players, so it’s not impossible to understand the move.

With their picks in the draft, Houston did reasonably well, picking up one player who seems likely to fit right into a starting role (Haley Hanson) along with several others who could easily be real contributors. Moreover, the choices seem to indicate what sort of qualities Pauw values: grit, determination, and flexibility.

Houston’s ethos has always been scrappy, but the fight has tended to drain away over the long doldrum periods each year when the team drifts aimlessly. It seems that Pauw may be focused on bolstering that spirit, bringing in fighters who will put everything on the line. There’s some reason to think that doubling down on that attitude could bring positive results. Many “small” teams over the years have thrived by cultivating a strong collective ethos, one which allows them to punch above their weight.

It remains an open question whether Pauw is able to actually produce such a result. Initial results are promising but tell us relatively little; enthusiasm is always high in the preseason but lags once results start to drift away. We will need to check back in come July or August to see whether spirits remain high and whether the ethic of giving 100% for the team has persisted.

International Signings

Houston made two splashes into the international market this winter, picking up two young South African players—Thembi Kgatlana and Linda Motlhalo. The former is yet another forward, while the latter seems to be an attacking midfielder. I don’t pretend to know enough about these players to say whether they are worthwhile gambles, but they are certainly known quantities to Pauw from her time coaching South Africa.

Perhaps they will be revelations, and evidence that bringing in a coach with more experience in the international game was a wise move. However, there’s also a real possibility that they are dud signings. We have plenty of experience over the years of new coaches coming into jobs and immediately signing the players they know from their previous, worse team. It rarely goes well. When it does work, it’s often because those new players fit well into a coach’s preferred style and can help the other players integrate into that mold. It remains to be seen what exactly Pauw’s style is, but once we’ve seen half a season, we’ll be in a much better position to assess these moves.

Still, there’s a problem above and beyond the question of whether these players are actually any good. Put simply: international slots are valuable and Houston is now committed to using two of them on players who (even in the best case scenario) only project as supplemental. Was there anyone else available willing to come to Houston? Maybe not. After all, that’s the constant problem of bad teams: precisely because they’re poorly run, it’s hard to attract talent. Still, slots can be traded. Is it inconceivable that Houston could have dealt one or both of these slots to Seattle in exchange for some good defensive players?

It is possible that I’ll be proven wrong, but this feels like a major case of Pauw failing to grasp the importance of NWSL rules and structure. International slots are useful commodities, and Houston simply is not extracting full value here.

The Dispersal Draft

Houston was given the sixth pick in the dispersal draft, which locked them out of some of the best players, but also gave them the 13th pick. Given the wealth of options available, they could be confident of picking up two extremely useful players that might plausibly fill some of the big holes in the defense and the midfield.

However, when their turn came, Houston did not choose a player like Angela Salem, Allysha Chapman, Julie King, or Christen Westphal—solid NWSL defenders with proven track records—but instead selected the rights to Kyah Simon. Notably, because Simon was not actually on Boston’s roster, she did not come with the waiver attached to all the other Boston players. That means Houston will have to use an international slot and roster spot on her.

For those following along, this was an utterly baffling decision, made all that much harder to explain when Pauw suggested that they would have taken Simon second if they’d had the chance and that they were thankful that another team had voluntarily passed on her in order to let Houston get her. This feels like another example of extreme naiveté and has been roundly criticized. Then consider that Simon is a fine player, but hardly a game-changer, and that Houston already has a virtual clone of Simon in Kristie Mewis, and the decision feels even more inexplicable.

For a while, it wasn’t even clear that they would be able to sign Simon, which would have turned a strange pick into a complete disaster. However, they were able to get the deal done. To add another layer, Simon came down with an injury and seems likely to miss a month or more of the season. When she eventually does make it back, many will be watching with great anticipation to see whether this enormous gamble will pay off.

With their 13th pick, Houston once again passed on Salem, opting instead for another young international: Lotta Okvist. The jury will have to remain out there for a while, but it once again felt strange to see Houston doubling down on young, unproven talent.

The Big Trade

Over the past two years, when Carli Lloyd started, the Dash played like a playoff contender, earning 23 points from 13 games. Without Lloyd, they managed 23 points in 31 games. For all her limitations, Lloyd made a big difference for this team. But she wanted out, leading Houston to get themselves involved in the single biggest offseason deal: sending Lloyd and Janine Beckie to Sky Blue in a three-way trade that netted them the rights to Christen Press.

As soon became clear, however, obtaining the rights to Press does not necessarily mean the same thing as obtaining Press herself. Doubts began to flow fairly quickly, as Press made no effort to even acknowledge the trade. Still, the front office insisted that she’d be playing for the Dash, and any claims to the contrary were just rumors. Little changed over the next seven weeks, with the season drawing ever nearer and Press apparently no closer to actually putting on a Houston kit. Still, the Dash continued to act as if she’d be joining them and there was never any clear evidence to the contrary. 

All that changed on Friday evening, when Corey Roepken reported that she would not be joining the Dash.

This is obviously a huge blow to Houston, who appear to have traded one reluctant superstar (and a useful contributor, too) for an even more reluctant superstar. They may eventually be able to trade Press to a team she actually wants to play for, but (just as with Andressinha), it’s hard to imagine them getting anything close to good value under these conditions.

So what happened here, and is there any good justification for Houston’s decision-making process?

Well, it’s not had to understand why they wanted her. As I’ve written before, Press is a true superstar and one who is far closer to her peak than Lloyd. There are few players in the world the equal of Press, and she would have been an excellent fit in the Houston system–providing a rock of stability in the middle of the attack, improving all the players around her, and pitching in plenty of wonder-goals in the process. Strictly in terms of player value, the trade made a ton of sense for Houston. 

But unfortunately for Houston, players aren’t just numbers on paper; they’re human beings with free will. And Press just doesn’t seem to have been willing to play for Houston. 

At this point, one can’t help but ask a few pointed questions. First, why did Press turn them down? It may not have anything to do with Houston in particular, but the general sense of chaos and confusion that surrounds this organization certainly can’t have helped. Second, why didn’t they get a commitment from the player before making the deal? There’s some risk in every deal, but you can manage that risk significantly by looking before you leap. Third, even if they couldn’t get a firm commitment, why didn’t they negotiate some terms to the deal which provided them compensation if Press held out? Chicago made out like bandits in this deal; was there really no way that Houston could have extracted something else?

At the end of the day, Houston badly miscalculated here, on several levels. And while there are mitigating circumstances here, they can only mitigate so much.

Looking forward, will the Dash at least be able to make some lemonade out of these lemons? Possibly. Maybe Press will discover that holding out is harder than expected, and join the team in a month or two. Maybe they’ll eventually get a deal they like from a team where Press is willing to play. Maybe US Soccer will step in and ‘persuade’ Press to make nice. Or maybe they’ll provide Houston with some sort of competence-subsidy to make up for their blunder here. And least likely of all: maybe the league will hire a commissioner who will broker a deal that’s acceptable to all parties.

Putting it All Together: What is the Logic Behind this Team?

Taking all these moves together, it feels difficult to isolate a motivating theme. What sort of team is Pauw building? One based on commitment and team effort…except from the big marquee signings? One based on a powerful attack that plans to win a bunch of 4-3 games, or a deep-defending squad that will lump balls up to the forwards and hope for a bit of individual genius? More bluntly: Why are they stockpiling forwards when the defense was (by far) the biggest weakness? Are they simply abandoning the idea of a strong central midfield spine? If so, how will they set up to compensate for the hole in the center of the pitch?

I have an idea here, which isn’t quite a grand unified theory of the Houston offseason, but which does try to fit together all the available facts into a relatively coherent model. It goes like this: the Dash simply don’t have the pieces to put together a rock solid roster for 2018, so there’s no point in trying to fight on the level. Better to play a high-variance game and hope that some lottery tickets pay off.

Why trade for Press without any commitment that she’ll play? Because Press is good enough to take the risk. Maybe she’ll grit her teeth and play hard for the sake of her national team spot. Or maybe you’ll even be able to convince her that Houston is a team on the rise and that she wants to be part of it. If so, you get a world class striker in a good trade. If not…well, nothing helps a team bond like adversity.

Why invest in so many forwards and hope that you’re able to convert several to more defensive roles? Because forwards are generally the most skillful players, and it’s easier to learn to defend than it is to learn how to create. It won’t work for every player, but maybe you get lucky and find a clear conversion success story. They struck gold with Amber Brooks last year, maybe they’ll do the same with Rachel Daly this year.

Why not sign or trade for any shuttling midfielders to fill the huge hole in the center of the pitch? That’s a dangerous choice since all the attackers in the world won’t accomplish much without decent suppliers. On the other hand, precisely because that job is so difficult, it’s really hard to acquire those players. You can try to bring in cut-rate replacements, but they’re likely to just get overrun. Given limited resources, then, it might make more sense to jump ship and focus on other strengths. After all, if you have the pace to burn and a target forward who can play with back to goal and draw in the rest of the attack (i.e. Christen Press), you might be able to get away with bypassing the midfield.

Why not get yourself a rock solid holding midfielder? Well…okay, I’ve got nothing here. I have no idea what they’re doing. Perhaps they can use Okvist or Cari Roccaro? But yes, this seems like a huge problem, and it’s very confusing why they haven’t done anything to fix it.

The Bottom Line

The biggest problem with Houston’s roster is the overabundance of C+ and B- players. These folks aren’t bad, and they can be quite useful in the right circumstances. But Houston has a lot of them, and unless several make a big leap forward, they’re simply going to have a weaker roster than most of their competition. That was true even when it seemed like they would be building around Press. It’s even more true now.

Compounding that, it’s also a strangely constructed group, overloaded with attackers and seeming to rely quite heavily on some questionable players in key roles. Can Janine Van Wyk do better? Maybe, if she’s given a system in which her lack of pace and poor footwork isn’t so exposed. If not, who else can play center back? Will Daly and/or Agnew successfully transition into rampaging fullbacks? Maybe. But if not, what’s Plan B? Who exactly is going to supply all these forwards with the ball?

These are all fair questions, and it’s not obvious if Pauw and her staff have the answers. But when push comes to shove, a team’s success often has as much to do with attitude and execution as it does with pure ability. If Pauw can get the team playing for each other, and can instill a clear defensive structure, the Dash might end up far more solid than critics are expecting. On the other side, if they can find the right equations to get their attacking players working together, Houston might end up scoring quite a few goals.

Neither is a sure bet by any means, but if Houston is the consensus worst team in the league this year (which I think they probably are), they have a bigger variance than some of the similarly-situated teams of the last few years. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement, but it’s at least a word of caution to those already prepared to write them off. There is plenty to criticize about Houston’s offseason. And chances are high that they will struggle. But there are some glimmers of daylight here, and it’s worth giving them a chance to show what they’ve got before passing final judgment.