In this weekly series, I will be highlighting a player from the weekend who was their respective team’s unsung hero, win or lose. A player who does the dirty work, does the little but important things in a game, and someone who didn’t exactly fill up the stat sheet but found other ways to contribute.
This week is special–two for the price of one! I’ve chosen Houston Dash defenders Janine Van Wyk and Amber Brooks to highlight together because I believe that the on-field relationship between the two women really contributed to the Dash’s play this week.
Van Wyk is in her first year in the NWSL and has adjusted nicely to the American way of playing. The 30-year-old is the first South African player to suit up for an NWSL side, earning a place after her 2015 Women’s World Cup showing and her impressive performance against the USWNT in a mid-year friendly in 2016. Van Wyk is the caps leader for either male or female for South Africa, with an incredible 143. She impressed on the biggest stage so it was a no-brainer to recruit her. I, for one, was hoping she would make her way over here and it seems she has made a home with the Dash.
Brooks is a player who has been in the NWSL since 2014, with Portland and Seattle before settling in with Houston. The 26-year-old played her college ball at the Taj Mahal of women’s soccer, the University of North Carolina from 2009-2012. She is a player that has been solid no matter what team she has been on, yet she is on her third NWSL team. And while it is certainly not a preference for any player to move around that much, she has definitely made a home for herself in Houston.
Houston 1-1 Portland:
Going into this matchup, I wasn’t heavily favoring Portland but I certainly didn’t think Houston would put in this kind of performance. Keep in mind the Thorns were without Amandine Henry, Nadia Nadim, and Dagny Brynjarsdottir as they are with their respective teams for the European Championships.
From the starting whistle the Dash were buzzing, putting pressure on early to take control of the game right away. Portland would have a half chance in the second minute but Van Wyk intercepted a pass from Hayley Raso in the Dash’s own 18 that was intended for a charging Lindsey Horan. Van Wyk read the play perfectly and the Dash have a hard time coming back from behind so it was a much-needed play.
Although youngster Janine Beckie scored a goal for Houston in the eighth minute, the Thorns were not fazed, bringing wave after wave of attack.
Midway through the first half, the two Dash veterans continued their strong start, making back-to-back plays to keep Portland off the board. Van Wyk was up for the challenge of the Thorns attack in the 14th minute when, with Sinclair waiting on the doorstep, she remained a step ahead of the Canadian legend. Van Wyk cleared the dangerous ball sent in from Australian import Ashleigh Sykes and relieved the pressure momentarily for Houston.
Just a minute later in the 15th minute, Brooks took Hayley Raso’s chance away in Houston’s box. Brooks’ style isn’t to dive in with the speedy forward barreling down. Instead, she waits, patiently, unafraid. In this game, she waited and contained Raso long enough for Van Wyk to arrive and help support, eventually clearing the ball out of danger. Not too long after that, Brooks was busy once again. This time she sacrificed her body her block a vicious shot by Meghan Klingenberg, who was moving in her typical left-to-right tread.
A close call in the 27th minute required Brooks to be aware of just which Portland player was around her. In this instance, it was Allie Long attempting to get in behind the backline about 25 yards out. Brooks stretched out to steal the slotted ball, breaking off what was sure to be a breakaway date with Houston’s rookie goalkeeper Jane Campbell.
In the second half, it was much of the same from the Dash dynamic duo.
With the Thorns piling on the pressure, Van Wyk and Brooks had to do whatever it took not to allow a goal, let alone a goal right after half. In the 53rd minute, they stood their ground on teasing ball after ball being whipped in by the Thorns, each rising to head it out two different times. Even with the high pressure, Houston and its backline displayed steady composure, led by Van Wyk and Brooks in the center.
Several minutes later Brooks showed how dangerous her service can be, almost grabbing an assist, but Carli Lloyd’s header went just wide. It’s a shame Lloyd couldn’t quite get it on target because it was a gorgeous ball in from Brooks.
Van Wyk and Brooks orchestrated a solid game-plan from the back all night long, switching fields when necessary and providing support to the midfield. They did a fantastic job leading the Dash, and while they earned just one point, it was a sign of life once again from this team.
The other two points slipped away when Horan scored a lovely free kick in the 91st minute. Houston had done a wonderful job keeping Horan in check all game until a moment of magic spoiled the result. It was certainly a stunner for Dash fans, just seconds within reach of a rare win at home.
Still, it doesn’t take away from the performance of Van Wyk and Brooks that kept it that close for 90 minutes.
No matter what Portland tried, Houston had an answer. They were just making all the right decisions. Staying organized, working for quality spells of possession, movement on and off the ball was satisfying, and they worked hard to control the pace of the game. I could’ve picked several Dash players for this week’s column on the defensive side alone. It was one of my favorite performances of the year so far.