To Playoffs & Beyond? 2017 Houston Dash Preview

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2016 Record: 6-10-4, 8th Place.

Coach: Randy Waldrum

Since joining the league in 2014, the Houston Dash have always had potential. For an expansion team, the first couple of seasons are more or less expected to be rough, but by 2016 (my first full-year as an NWSL and Dash fan) it seemed like the pieces were finally falling into place. They had filled holes in the defense and a stagnant attack, drafting or acquiring a host of dynamic forwards in Rachel Daly, Chioma Ubogagu, and Janine Beckie. They had Becca Moros and Ellie Brush anchoring a backline that also included the dangerous Poliana and Allysha Chapman on the wings. The midfield was to be anchored by Morgan Brian and Carli Lloyd, who was finally training with the team ….

It was a dream off-season and Dash fans had every reason to be optimistic.

The Dash even started the season strong solidifying a 4-4-2 system that fit the personnel and gathered a good core of young players that seemed to have a chemistry together that previous rosters lacked. For a brief, shining moment the team was even on the top of the table (in Week One), and Dash fans looked at each other, and wondered, “is this real life?”

It wasn’t.

Injuries to Lloyd and Brian, international duty for seven of their players during the Olympics, and a let down of some of the players (like Ubogagu, Moros, and Brush) who failed to deliver on their promised potential left the Dash in a hole by the middle of the season that was impossible to climb back out of, even when Kealia Ohai went on her scoring tear in the last 10 games.

Now, looking ahead to the 2017 season the Dash have once again lost some key players–though not nearly as many as the last off-season–and signed some really exciting new pieces that they hope will provide a spark to propel them into a truly competitive position, and even a shot at the playoffs. Will 2017 be the year of the Dash? I have a couple of reasons to be optimistic that it will be.

 

Continuity Helps

One of the first pieces of news to come out of the off-season was that a huge chunk of core roster pieces were re-signed for the 2017 season. According to the press release, the Dash exercised second-year contract options on a large number of players, including: forwards Rachel Daly, Melissa Henderson, and Kealia Ohai; midfielders Amber Brooks, Caity Heap, and Denise O’Sullivan; defenders Poliana, Cami Privett, and Cari Roccaro; as well as goalkeeper Lydia Williams. Houston also offered new contracts to Andressa (M), and Stephanie Ochs (D). The Dash also have several players allocated by the Canadian and US Soccer federations returning to the pitch this year, as Morgan Brian, Janine Beckie, and Carli Lloyd (sort of–more on that later) will each don the team’s bright orange kits once again.

The biggest takeaway from that long list of names is that with such a significant number of players returning, the team can continue to build on the flow and communication they had finally established by the end of the 2016 season. Considering the team’s post-Rio performance was basically the polar opposite of the first half of the season, the potential for them to come out strong and persist throughout the season is definitely real.

Additionally, the Dash may be one of the teams that will benefit most from having no major international tournaments in the middle of the season. The Olympics were particularly rough, with over half the starting lineup out for the month leading up to Olympics (Williams for Australia, Beckie and Chapman for Canada, Poliana and Andressa for Brazil, and Morgan Brian and Carli Lloyd for the US). By contrast, the Euros will have no impact on the lineup. Instead, they will have a chance to build on the chemistry that was established last season. I am especially excited to see many of the young players brought in last year grow together and start to gel.

 

New Signings & Draft Picks

The Dash also added a number of big names in the off-season, with both international players and draft picks. While the draft class for the Dash was small, with only three picks overall, Randy Waldrum and the team used those three picks to their advantage, acquiring the rights to Jane Campbell (GK), and Erin Smith (D).

Campbell has been in the US National Team conversation since she was 17–an impressive feat during the years of Hope Solo’s dominance when very few goalkeepers were even in consideration, much less called up for a look. She has been considered the future of National Team goalkeeping and has been consistently called up to train with Ashlyn Harris (Orlando Pride) and Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars) in the camps after the Olympics when more spots opened up in the GK conversation for the US. In her career at Stanford, she was outstanding, with NCAA reported that by the end of her career, Campbell came in “first in goalkeeping minutes with 7,233, fourth in saves with 208, tied for second in shutouts with 34 and fifth in goals against average with a .66 per game.” She is more than capable as a backup to Australian international Lydia Williams.

There is some speculation that Campbell’s current position on the National Team will put pressure on Waldrum to start her over Williams. I honestly do not think that Waldrum would do that to Williams. Williams is one of the top international goalkeepers, and she has plenty of league experience – both in the NWSL and the W-League. While Campbell was a top-rated college player and has trained with the USWNT (getting her first cap and 15 minutes of play against Russia), she is still a rookie in the league. She doesn’t have the international experience. There is no reason, from a club perspective, to start her over Williams. She will still develop by training with one of the best keepers in the world. 

As far as new international players go, the Dash have acquired Janine van Wyk (D, South Africa) and Bruna Benites (D, Brazil), as well as American defender Claire Falknor who played for Germany’s Bayern Munich in 2016 after graduating from the University of Florida in 2015.  Van Wyk is perhaps the biggest name on this list last year July’s friendly pitted her South African side against the USWNT for the first time. In that match, Banyana Banyana held the powerful US team to only one goal, a feat that was led by van Wyk in her role as center defender and captain. She used that opportunity to display her skills to her advantage, revealing when she signed with the Dash that the process to bring her to Houston had started almost as soon as she stepped off the field from that display of defensive dominance.

It seems safe to assume that Houston is trying to fix some major holes that appeared in the defense, particularly in the late minutes of matches. Last year, despite moving past their scoring drought in definitive form, they couldn’t hold leads in the late minutes. This was a combination of their center backs slowing down late in the game, a lack of communication and chemistry with substitutes, and a tendency to watch the ball. This year, with the exception of Prince, all of their draft picks and signings have been focused on adding depth to the defense and hopefully building a backline that will be able to stay solid for a full 90 minutes. There is better communication between the backline, largely because of van Wyk’s experience, and the overall fitness of the line is improved, but their depth is still worrisome. If anyone gets injured, it may be another scramble requiring midfielders to be converted in a week’s time (as with Cami Privett last season).

 

Can Ohai Continue to Dominate?

One overwhelmingly bright spot of the second half of 2016 was Kealia Ohai’s scoring spree. She scored 11 goals in ten games and racked up four assists on the season, coming in second to Lynn Williams (WNY Flash) in the Golden Boot competition, who won with 11 goals, five assists.

Ohai also grew into her role as captain last season. After starting the year off as co-captain with Lloyd, she assumed sole possession of the armband after the National Team player’s early-season injury and extended international duty. She led the Dash out of the scoring drought and established herself as an offensive threat. Her late-season display earned her a call-up to the USWNT in October, which resulted in her first cap against Switzerland and a stunningly fast goal, 48 seconds after she stepped on the pitch.

However, Ohai has always struggled with consistency. She was one of the players who contributed (or rather, didn’t) to the scoring drought, and her numbers over the 2014-2015 seasons were not spectacular. It seemed she had turned over a new leaf at the end of 2016 that turned her into one of the top names in the league, but her preseason has been quiet and frustrating. The question Houston needs her to answer is whether she can continue her club dominance and effectively lead the team to bigger and better things in 2017.  I believe that she can. Over the past couple of years, she has shown that she can withstand tough times and come out stronger on the other side. While she was part of the scoring drought, it was also her leadership that helped lead them back into attacking dominance in the second half.

 

Life Without Lloyd

Finally, the question every Dash fan always seems to be asking: What about Carli Lloyd? Traded to the Dash in the 2014 offseason, Lloyd’s a player from whom great things are expected, no matter where she’s playing, and having her in Dash orange seems like it should spell great things for the club. The problem is that she is often just a name on the roster–not on the field–leaving fans to wonder if she will ever fully dedicate herself to the club.

Her play for the Dash in 2015 was hampered not only by the World Cup in Canada, but by the sheer amount of media she was expected to do in her role as World Cup Final Hero. In 2016, it was an injury and then the lead up to the Olympics (and an extended vacation after the end of the US Olympic run for recovery) that hampered her appearances on the pitch for Houston. For those who wondered if she would finally start to take her commitment to her NWSL team seriously in 2017, Lloyd once again seemed to defer, announcing that she had signed with Manchester City Women in the FAWSL as they compete in the UEFA Women’s Champion’s League tournament, on a contract that lasts until July 1st of this year.

This leaves two questions for Houston:

  1. What will they do without her for the first half of the season?
  2. Will she actually come back?

As to the former, I think that Houston will be just fine – and perhaps even better – without Lloyd on the field. Yes, Lloyd is dominant. Yes, she is an accomplished goal scorer, a top attacking midfielder, and the reigning two-time FIFA Player of the Year. However, Lloyd plays best in a system that is built entirely around her and her playing style. This is true with the National Team and it is true with her club teams. At the very least, she needs to know and be comfortable with the players on the field with her. Her extended absences have made any kind of on-field chemistry nearly impossible to establish with Houston. And it is difficult for a coach to train a team to be successful in two very systems, one for when Lloyd is there, and one for when she’s not.

The answer to the second question is little more than speculation. Based on her previous attitude towards the team–from her obvious disappointment at being traded to the Dash, to her choice to stay in New Jersey with her trainer while rehabbing in 2016 instead of remaining in Houston and with the Dash community–I really don’t think Lloyd wants to be on the Dash. Granted, players do not “technically” have control over the teams they play for. But NWSL fans know that if a big name National Team player wants to be somewhere, chances are they will end up there eventually (see: Alex Morgan’s move to the Orlando Pride, and Sydney LeRoux’s trade to FCKC). It’s entirely possible that she will lean on the front offices and USSF and make her move sooner, rather than later. Tellingly, the Dash have stopped including her in any marketing for the upcoming season, or even mentioning her in press releases about NT call-ups. Whether that’s because her rights are technically owned by Manchester City until July or not, it seems that Lloyd, in trying to find any way to not be in Houston, may have finally fallen out of Houston’s good graces.

 

Can Morgan Brian Stay Healthy?

Morgan Brian is another piece of the puzzle with a question mark currently. She’s been training with the team but has not played in preseason matches because of a knee injury. This week, the USWNT announced that she had been ruled out of the upcoming camp and friendlies because of that injury.

Brian has the potential to be a key piece in the midfield in both the attacking and defending roles. She has better chemistry on and off the field with her teammates and seems committed to making it work with Houston. When she’s there and healthy, she makes a distinct difference in the flow of the game and offensive presence, showing why she was a top draft pick in 2015. However, she has struggled with injuries off and on since the 2015 World Cup. This knee is only the most recent. Can Brian stay healthy, or will the Dash have to rely on Brooks and O’Sullivan in those roles?

 

Predictions

Going from their preseason play (some of which I’ve had the privilege of seeing in person), the Dash are raring to go the year. Their intensity is up across the field, their communication is vastly improved both within and between their lines. They are keeping their shape much better, and finding plenty of opportunities behind the lines with the combined speed of Daly, Beckie, and especially Ohai up top.

However, there are a few questions that will take regular season play to totally answer:

  1. How fast can their new defense gel? With a mostly new cast of characters, the Dash will live or die based on how well they handle the inevitable moments of miscommunication and move past them. Will they be able to finally defend for 90 minutes?
  2. Can their offense turn it on? Last season, the problem was with the offense for much of the first half. Their preseason games have shown no great offensive force, but they have shown a team who knows how to get the job done. Fans can hope this continues through the season.

As a fan, I am eager to see the Dash in 2017 as they develop their young talent and bring in veteran leadership from a larger international pool to solidify their defensive line. I really think that they have the potential to slot all the pieces together and turn into a true competitor for the top spots on the table.

It is going to be a great year to #DashOn!


2017 Houston Dash Roster

Goalkeepers (2): Jane Campbell, Lydia Williams

Defenders (6): Bruna Benites(INTL-BRA), Claire Falknor, Cami Privett, Poliana(INTL-BRA), Cari Roccaro, Janine Van Wyk (INTL-RSA),

Midfielders (6): Andressa (INTL-BRA), Morgan Brian (FED-USA), Amber Brooks, Caity Heap, Carli Lloyd (FED-USA, OOM), Denise O’Sullivan (INTL-IRE),

Forwards (7): Janine Beckie (FED-CAN), Rachel Daly (INTL-ENG), Sarah Hagen, Melissa Henderson, Kealia Ohai, Nichelle Prince (FED-CAN), Stephanie Ochs