This entry started out as a set of brief observations on a variety of topics, but it has turned into a rantlet about the tribulations of the Houston Dash, in which I throw around a couple-dozen players' names to make it look as if I know what I'm talking about. Socratic Gadfly has his Cardinals, Kuffner has his Yankees; I've got my Dynamo and Dash (and the US national teams).
The Rockets are steamrolling through the NBA playoffs. The Astros are finishing one of the best Aprils in their 57-year history. Our professional soccer teams? They're not exactly keeping pace: The Dynamo are 2-2-3 (8 points), the Dash 0-2-3 (2 points).
Despite the club's casual attitude about losing Christen Press to Sweden before she played even a minute in orange, her absence is really starting to sting.
The Dash's slow start isn't entirely due to Press's big snub, of course. At present, the Dash count zero US Women's National Team regulars on the roster, down from three in previous years. Only Kealia Ohai and Kristie Mewis have any US caps, and Ohai is still rebounding from last season's ACL injury. The team's Brazilian contingent from last season—Andressinha, Bruna, and Poliana—have all scattered to other clubs. Canadian Olympian star Janine Beckie also moved on, following Carli Lloyd to Sky Blue FC (New Jersey).
So These Five Burners Go to an NWSL Match...
Kayleen, three friends from the H-Town Burner crowd, and I went to see Saturday's match against the league-leading North Carolina Courage. Soccer is usually so much better in person than on TV. This match might have looked good on Lifetime, unlike the televised match last spring in which players were practically fainting from the heat. But live, from our seats at BBVA Compass, it was a flavorless affair, not exactly the kind of match to get friends enthused about buying season tickets.
Overall, the Dash played well in the nationally broadcast match, but generated few serious attacks and gave up a fluky goal at the beginning of each half. Two-nil Courage. NC came packing US internationals Lynn Williams, Crystal Dunn, Samantha Mewis, and Abby Dahlkemper, along with Dash exes Jessica McDonald and Denise O'Sullivan. O'Sullivan showed Houston how a good team makes use of her attacking midfield skills, as she notched an assist and four shots on goal; she got about that many SOG's in her entire time with the Dash.
(UPDATE: On second look, the second goal wasn't that fluky, a Carli Lloyd–esque 30-yarder following a corner kick, but O'Sullivan's assist certainly was.)
The Mystery of the Missing Goals
It appears that the Dash have forgotten how to score goals. Since scoring first in the opening match against Chicago, they haven't found the net again; they have conceded seven without answer.
Already, one-fifth of the way through the season, the picture is getting downright scary. Attendance has grown weak: Yesterday's crowd maybe topped 2,000 on a gorgeous day. Those who paid for admission didn't have much to cheer about—except for Kayleen, who has "adopted" O'Sullivan as a distant relative, and one noisy young man cheering on the Courage from the Heineken patio behind us.
In big-time men's soccer, speculation would already be sprouting about how much longer the current manager would last. Given the shaky state of the National Women's Soccer League, and the fates of WUSA and WPS, one might also wonder how much longer the franchise itself will last—or even the league. Boston Breakers and FC Kansas City abruptly folded this year, with FCKC re-emerging under different ownership as the Utah Royals. For perspective, Major League Soccer and the WNBA had their periods of instability early in their respective existences, and those leagues are both flourishing two decades on.
Players? Manager? Front Office?
Since her arrival from South Africa, new manager Vera Pauw has drastically changed the team, its formations, and its style of play. The squad is younger and shorter on average than in previous years, relying more on quickness than strength. There is also an emphasis on smart movement, with players discouraged from running themselves ragged on defense (a good idea in Houston's torrid climate). Pauw has moved last year's top-scoring Dasher Rachel Daly (pictured in the Tweet above, carrying an injured Linda Mothlalo off the pitch) to the right back position, where she has been playing for England.
It's been an interesting experiment, but it has yet to bear fruit. Even with the talent Pauw puts on the pitch, this group just hasn't played together long enough to mount a serious, coordinated attack. No Dash midfielder has emerged as a stopper, à la Dash-ex Morgan Brian. The only real bright spot has been the defensive core: Center backs Amber Brooks and Janine van Wyk at least played together some of last season, and Jane Campbell's goalkeeping has been mostly superb.
Suggestions have popped up, among my friends who fancy themselves experts, that front-office chaos in the Dynamo-Dash organization is to blame. The big names generally don't want to play here. I can't verify any of that, as it's based mostly on scuttlebutt, but it seems plausible.
It's important for the future of the women's game in the US for this league to thrive. Thriving requires staking out a solid presence in the larger metro areas, including Houston. The clubs in the soccer-mad Pacific Northwest, Seattle Reign and Portland Thorns, draw big crowds at every home game; in other markets, not so much. Utah has an NWSL franchise, while California does not, and there's something wrong with that picture. (The WPS franchises in Los Angeles and San Francisco were the first to shrivel up and blow away).
Even assuming that Dynamo-Dash ownership and management aren't the culprits, they need to step up their game for players and fans alike, in order to survive in this market. There are plenty of other entertainment options here. Houstonians in general barely know that the Dash exist: They might know that Texans defensive lineman JJ Watt has a cute soccer-playing girlfriend, but they don't know what a joy she is to watch when she's fully match-fit.
At the next opportunity (July), this club needs to acquire someone who can link up with Ohai and get her back to her 2016 scoring level—or just move Daly back into the front line where she ought to be. Then, for promotional purposes, they can get Ohai to appear with Watt in some HEB ads, maybe kicking a soccer ball around at a backyard barbecue.
It's not Rocket science—or even Astro physics.