By: Hal Kaiser
The Houston Dash opened up their seventh NWSL preseason on Monday looking a much changed side. For the first time in club history, Kealia Ohai (Watt) was not on the pitch. Instead, she was over 1,000 miles away beginning the preseason with the Chicago Red Stars. Also gone were Amber Brooks, Sofia Huerta, Bianca Henninger, Kyah Simon, Lindsay Agnew and Clare Polkinghorne among others.
Adding to the lack of familiarity of the team was the absence of Rachel Daly, Nichelle Prince, Sophie Schmidt and Allysha Chapman due to international play as well as Veronica Latsko and Haley Hanson who are still competing in the W-League playoffs in Australia..
For the players that were present, however, the many changes were a net positive. “The team camaraderie already feels so much different,” said second year player CeCe Kizer after practice. “The first day was great today and we are all ready to get after it.”
“It’s a whole new team and some fresh faces and fresh people around that will help us rejuvenate the organization,” added midfielder Christine Nairn, who now becomes one of the key veteran presences in the squad. “The players we brought in have just fit in perfectly for us.”
The Dash made a number of key off-season acquisitions including wholesale changes to the backline with the additions of Megan Oyster, Katie Naughton and Erin Simon. Attacking additions include former Texas A&M Aggie Shea Groom, Katie Stengel and second round draft pick Bridgette Andrzejewski.
Six non-roster invitees are currently with the squad including Miranda Nild, who represented Thailand in the 2019 Women’s World Cup; Kaela Dickerman who played in Europe with Swiss club FF Lugano; and Kiersten Dallstream who is back after retiring in 2019 with OL Reign.
Head coach James Clarkson was all smiles heading into his second season in charge, “I’m really excited. I thought it was a great first day. Great to have everybody back on the field, get some of the nerves out of the way and get straight into work.”
Asked what about the roster excites him the most, Clarkson highlighted the backline and depth, “We’ve conceded too many goals and we have to address that and get that sorted out and we’ve brought in good players that I think are really going to have a massive impact for us. I’m excited with some of the attacking players we’ve put in as well. The biggest thing for this year is I think we have more flexibility to change things during the game, change things off the bench.”
The 2019 version of the Dash offered much promise, but ultimately failed to deliver. After a fast start, the team stumbled once Daly and company departed for the Women’s World Cup, going through a seven game stretch from mid-May to mid-July without winning and taking only 3 of a possible 21 points. The team struggled to find consistency thereafter and finished a disappointing 7th place.
The early season belief with the various changes is there again, however. “After today I am extremely positive. I think the sky is the limit for this team,” said Nairn. “I think James has set the blueprint and brought in the players that I think will best implement what he wants to do on the field and I think that if we can execute what he wants us to do, there’s no reason why we can’t make the playoffs.”
Kizer made clear the disappointment last year and the ambitions for this year, “For all of us we really want to make the playoffs this year. Last year we had a lot of expectations on ourselves and I think we fell short of the goals that we set and everyone has that one goal in mind that we want to make the playoffs. For the city, and for this program since they’ve never made it, we all want to be part of the first group that does that.”
First day into the preseason, that’s of course the objective for every team, a point Clarkson was clear to make. “That’s our goal but I know if you ask every team in the league that is their goal.” The key is does this Dash squad have what it takes to consistently beat the teams that have historically sat above them in the table, something they have often struggled to do?
For Clarkson, that is not just about the quality of the team; it is also about the chemistry and atmosphere on and off the pitch, one of the many things he says he learned in his first season. “Everybody talks a lot about culture and things like that, but getting the culture right and the attitude and the atmosphere right where every single player, whether they are starting or they are not, is vitally important.
“I know we don’t have the strongest roster, but there’s nothing stopping us from being the best team, and in order to do that we’ve got to get things right on and off the field and really help the players come together,” added Clarkson. “We’ve got to fight as a team and get that team spirit; and camaraderie is vitally important and with the people we’ve brought in we feel we’ve added some really good people that are going to have a major impact.”
As the core of the team trickles in over the next week and preseason matches start, the Dash will begin to see how far they have come since last season.