The Houston Dash are 2020 Challenge Cup champions, a sentence few expected one month ago when the NWSL became the first professional team sport to return in the U.S. amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But there was one group of people who fully believed Houston was fully capable of winning the Utah tournament: the Dash themselves. It’s one thing for sports teams to say they have that belief, but it’s a lot harder to go out and actually prove it. Especially when you’re an underdog as big as the Dash, who sat at initial +2000 betting odds on June 1 (back when it was a nine-team tourney before the Orlando Pride had to withdraw) and were given just a 7% chance of winning the championship by statistical site FiveThirtyEight when the tournament kicked off.
Yet when the final whistle blew at Rio Tinto Stadium on Sunday, capping off a month of gritty, inspiring and—yes—often fatigued soccer, it was Houston players lifting their first trophy in club history, making confetti angels on the ground and double-fisting Budweisers postgame of a 2–0 win over the seemingly perennially snakebitten Chicago Red Stars.
The Dash got on the front foot early, with Kristie Mewis taking a well-placed pass from Rachel Daly down the left flank past Red Stars defender Kayla Sharples, who took down Mewis in the box in the fifth minute for the first non-shootout penalty kick of the tournament. The PK was coolly buried by midfielder Sophie Schmidt, putting Houston up 1–0 and placing immediate pressure on a Chicago attack that has often struggled to get comfortable in Utah in the post Sam-Kerr era.
With an early lead in hand, Dash coach James Clarkson’s game plan worked to perfection, with the back line (featuring center back Megan Oyster playing with a broken rib) staying compact to sniff out several Red Stars attacks, and Daly and wings Nichelle Prince and Bri Visalli doing the dirty work to both keep the Chicago defense from building out of the back and also provide defending when needed. It didn’t help the Red Stars’ case that they were missing several key pieces, with defender Casey Short’s absence due to a head injury proving particularly costly given the areas where Houston was able to most to take advantage.
In stoppage time, Shea Groom got loose to round Alyssa Naeher and kick off the official Houston celebration, sealing the 2–0 win (and the Golden Boot for teammate Daly, who assisted on the goal to secure the tiebreaker to add the scoring title to her tournament MVP effort).
Just how unlikely was a Houston championship? In the six years of its NWSL existence entering 2020, the Dash had never made the playoffs. Over their last four seasons, they’d lost exactly half of their 92 matches, winning not even a third of those. Frustration and inconsistency on the pitch were common themes. It’s also the only NWSL club that isn’t home to a single current U.S. women’s national team allocated player on its roster (Sky Blue, however, did not have either of its USWNT players at the Challenge Cup, and several other U.S. stars opted out of the tournament).
None of this mattered for Clarkson, co-captains Daly and Jane Campbell and a roster that Groom said was fittingly coined “the band of misfits” by a teammate. After another mediocre season in 2019, Clarkson went out and made a series of offseason moves (trading for Groom, center backs Oyster and Katie Naughton and forward Katie Stengel, most notably) that would combine with the returning talent to forge a new identity—one built on toughness, belief in themselves and a chip-on-your-shoulder attitude—and re-shape the public perception of a club that has for so long been a league afterthought.
On the pitch, it worked better than even Clarkson may have anticipated. After conceding a league-high six goals in the preliminary round, the Dash’s revamped back line (featuring a smart mid-tournament move of midfielder Haley Hanson to right back) was the anchor of their run through the knockouts, where they didn’t concede a single goal. That turn of events was so unlikely that, per OptaJack, it was the first time Houston has ever had three straight clean sheets in its history.
“I’ve never been on a team that’s been this inseparable, this gritty and fights to the death,” Groom said on Sunday after being named Woman of the Match. “I think this is a new chapter for the Dash … it just needed a little bit of a winning mentality.”
For the Red Stars, meanwhile, Sunday’s defeat was the latest in a string of disappointing endings, with the club that has made five straight playoff appearances missing the chance to finally bring some NWSL silverware home to Chicago. Despite coming to Utah in fairly healthy shape, Rory Dames’s team was far from full strength in both its semifinal and final games, and may have even been considered the underdog by some when the championship kicked off.
While young players like Sharples and Bianca St. Georges struggled to contain the Dash attackers on Sunday, the experience of playing on such a big stage (and the early minutes Dames chose to give to many of his less experienced players during the preliminary round) figures to only benefit Chicago in the long run. What is clear, though, is that the offense still needs work as it figures out its new look without Kerr, especially when it comes to being clinical in the final third.
So what’s next for the NWSL? The immediate future is unclear after what can only be described as one of the most successful months in league history, between safely pulling off the Challenge Cup, unveiling the branding for Louisville’s 2021 expansion team and securing a splashy, star-studded Los Angeles expansion side for the 2022 season.
The Washington Post reported that NWSL players have a report date of Aug. 17 to be back in their home markets to resume training, and it’s expected that the league will do what it can to work with virus protocols and attempt to hold some form of competitive matches over the next few months—whether that’s exhibitions or something like regional mini-tournaments.
Securing some sort of future competition (the original regular season was scheduled to run through October) could be important for league players, who are suddenly facing the prospect of having potentially no more club games until NWSL preseason in 2021. That would be a massive layoff for a group that already spent most of the past spring in quarantine, and it would come at a less-than-ideal time for international players, with the Olympics looming next summer. Already, The Athletic’s Meg Linehan reported that North Carolina Courage/USWNT midfielder Sam Mewis has signed a one-year deal with English club Manchester City, with Washington Spirit/USWNT star Rose Lavelle considering an offer from the same club.
If Lavelle signs too, the NWSL will already be without two of its best midfielders until after the Tokyo Olympics. It seems highly likely other players will follow suit in seeking opportunities for 2020 and/or 2021 overseas, with the virus situation and uncertainty in the U.S. very much making a temporary departure to leagues like the ones in England, France and Germany look appealing (and in Europe, club leagues run all winter, in contrast to the NWSL’s traditional spring/summer/fall schedule).
Such departures would be at least a short-term blow to the NWSL and all of the momentum it has built in recent months under new commissioner Lisa Baird, but the energy and enthusiasm brought about by a successful tournament, more sponsor interest and two new franchises on the way suggest the league is in good hands regardless.