by Grant Wiedenfeld
After the Utah sun had set on July 4th, Shea Groom rocketed up for an iconic header goal to seal the first Houston Dash victory at the NWSL Challenge Cup. The Aggie alum celebrated her first goal for the Dash by stretching out her arms like wings and gliding over to captain Rachel Daly, who lifted up “Air Groom” as their teammates surrounded them. The joyful Dash performance against OL Reign last Saturday rewarded the Houston faithful and won over many new fans.
Now boarding all rows https://t.co/0iP5S21Txw
— Shea Groom (@sheabayy2) July 5, 2020
Groom indulged her new fans by tweeting: “Now boarding all rows,” and the Dash designed an “Air Groom” logo that pays tribute to Michael “Air” Jordan. Let’s learn more about Houston’s newest air service.
𝘛 𝘢 𝘬 𝘦 𝘧 𝘭 𝘪 𝘨 𝘩 𝘵 pic.twitter.com/uRwDxzw9Do
— Houston Dash (@HoustonDash) July 7, 2020
“I’ve always been able to jump really high and a lot of my teammates know that.” Now all her opponents should know that, too.
A new attack-minded chemistry has emerged in the Dash ranks since Groom arrived this season, part of the multi-player trade with the Reign. Fellow Dash newbie and NWSL veteran Katie Stengel assisted Groom’s goal in the team’s first Challenge Cup game against host Utah; early in the second game Groom tapped Bri Visalli’s pass through to Kristie Mewis to assist her goal, and then Daly “served it up on a platter” for Groom’s airborne header, as she put it after the game. How is it this attack has gelled so quickly?
“It’s been very unique,” said Groom. “Our time in the preseason was so condensed before we were quarantined … only four or five days together.” And mainstays Daly and Mewis were held out of several sessions. So the Dash’s surprisingly potent attack (which exceeded statistical expectations by more than double can be attributed in part to serendipity, and in part to what Groom describes as a common “character” that head coach James Clarkson has built the team around.
“James did a good job of bringing in a similar group and has really emphasized the character of this team,” she told me. “I think there’s so many players on this team that have shifted around a lot in this league, being on different teams without finding a home, who came to Houston wanting to pursue something for ourselves, but also prove something for this organization. I think that’s what you’re seeing click on the field — a collective group wanting to work toward the same thing and to create a positive rep around this organization.”
The facilities and the Dash’s integration with the Dynamo organization also impressed Groom. “This is by far the most professional experience I’ve had — the first locker room and the first training facility I’ve had as a pro,” she said. “Having a stadium and being under the same ownership as an MLS team, it’s felt like family; it feels like ‘we are doing this together and we want to provide you guys with the same opportunities.’ ”
That’s a different tune than was heard years ago, which indicates that the Dash organization has made incremental steps under Clarkson, who took on the head coach role in December 2019. He appears to have traded and released players upon request (for example, Kealia (Ohai) Watt to Chicago) to further build a roster of players who want to be in Houston, so that the Dash can become a destination club. Sustaining the attack on the field, with new players like Groom flourishing, have given the team momentum and also something to brag about — before tonight’s game, the Dash have the highest goals-per-game ratio in the tournament (2.5 GPG).
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
Houston is almost a second home for Groom, who excelled at Texas A&M University both on and off the field. Fitting into that College Station environment was also a surprise to the Missouri native. “I didn’t even know what Texas A&M was, honestly, before I went on campus and met with the coaches,” she admitted. “I fell in love with it, similar to how I feel on the Dash now, from the moment I met them. They had a vision for me and saw potential in me, and I found a lot of success there.” Groom was the 2014 SEC Offensive Player of the Year and a MAC Hermann Trophy semifinalist. She was drafted by current USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski with the #12 overall pick by FC Kansas City in the 2015 NWSL College Draft.
Groom praised A&M head coach G. Guerrieri for building the program, and said assistant coaches Phil and Lori Stephenson remain “like family to me — I still talk to Phil and Lori every single day.” Her personal growth during her college career centered on leadership. “All three of them prepared me to come into this league and to be a leader.”
Yet the dream of playing pro soccer did not materialize until late in her college career. “I didn’t grow up wanting to be a professional soccer player, because I didn’t really know that was possible for a woman,” Groom revealed. “I didn’t even decide I wanted to play in the NWSL until after my junior year. From there on out, every second of the day was devoted toward becoming a better soccer player technically and tactically to compete at this level.”
Groom interned with Budweiser marketing last year in New York, and has a degree in event planning from A&M. “I’m a very creative person and whenever that time does come I’ll definitely be excited for whatever’s next,” she said. The thousands of Aggies who settle in Houston, about an hour southeast of College Station, certainly hope the Academic All-American alumna settles there. But let’s be clear, she is no fan of the local NFL team.
VLATKO’S KANSAS CITY
Groom is one of four current Dash players from the Kansas City area, and all are Chiefs fans. “For the most part we stay together. Obviously we’re Super Bowl champs, so we ride together on those arguments.” Groom and Maegan Kelly do tease Haley Hanson and Cece Kizer, who hail from the west side of the river: “We always say the best things in Kansas City are on the Missouri side. I think they’ll agree.”
FC Kansas City were the other champions from the soccer capital of America, as it is sometimes known. Now defunct, the franchise won NWSL championships in 2014 and 2015 under Andonovski. He had known Groom as a youth player in the Kansas City area, so drafting her in 2015 was a no-brainer.
“I’ve actually known Vlatko since I was nine years old. So it’s been fun to watch his journey as well as my own,” Groom recounted. “When I first met him, he was just coaching a club team. As everyone is seeing now, he’s an incredible soccer mind. I’ve never met anyone so willing to study the game, whether it’s two minutes after a game ends or two o’clock in the morning. He’s always studying the opponent to gain an edge.”
Andonovski’s dedication made an impression on Groom in her first years with FC Kansas City, and then last year when she was reunited with him at Reign FC in Tacoma. “He’s doing whatever he can to be the absolute best coach and it floods over into his players. If you are watching your coach work that hard, you want to work that hard,” she said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without him. He challenged me early on in my career. And when we reunited in Tacoma I was coming off a difficult year, both personally and professionally, so I credit him for helping me to emerge from that. He’s like a dad to me,” said Groom fondly.
Given that her own father was a high school football coach, it is no surprise that Groom’s favorite sports movie is Remember the Titans. It features two coaches (played by Denzel Washington and Will Patton) and one tomboyish daughter (Hayden Panettiere) who rivals both men in her competitiveness. “I totally relate to the little girl in the movie. It’s always been one of my favorites and something that we always watch together,” referring to her father.
In 2019 Andonovski moved Groom to the attacking midfield position, where she is now excelling in Houston. But a Reign injury pushed her to the front line and delayed her resurgence as a No. 10 to this year. “I think this is the right time for me to make that move because I’m a little older,” she reflected. I’ve had year to get more technical and more tactical and I’m not sure as a young player that I would have been as good in that position as I am today.”
FINDING HER STRIDE
Groom has found that loosening up has paradoxically brought more control and consistency to her game. “I had good moments on my last two teams, but never really found my stride. In these first two Dash games, I’ve just tried to go in with little to no expectations,” she explained. “I’m a big goal-setting person, but I have realized that sometimes when you get too analytical about yourself it can actually hinder things.”
When asked about her objectives for the NWSL Challenge Cup, Groom replied, “I’m not sure I’ve thought about specific goals. I just want to be impactful, whether that is scoring or making decoy runs so that other people can score. As cheesy as it sounds, I want to make this team one to be feared, as we’ve all said.”
Loosening up to express her emotions on the field appears to be a key element to Groom’s play and her fit with the Dash. “I think soccer has always been the place where I express myself. Whether that be anger or happiness, it’s always been somewhere where I can let my emotions run free. Obviously, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to control them a little better,” she laughed. Backline Soccer’s Charles Olney had the harder feelings in mind when he predicted that Groom’s addition to the Dash would be “skyrocketing the team’s grit quotient.”
“I’ve always been a very expressive, passionate, aggressive player,” Groom reflected, “and I think that is something that has made me special.” For the rest of the tournament, eyes will be scanning the sky for Air Groom whenever the Dash take the field.