by Grant Wiedenfeld
July 7, 2019 was a pivotal day for Houston Dash assistant coach Twila Kaufman. “I was walking into the World Cup Final in France … when I got a call,” she recounted.
In April Kaufman had stepped down from the head coach position at UC-Davis; she had previously coached at Pepperdine, but was now in Europe and heading in a different direction. “All summer I had been away with our youth national teams, doing my UEFA A [coaching license], watching a lot of World Cup games and dreaming about what the future would be.”
Suddenly the NWSL came calling, in the form of Houston Dash head coach James Clarkson. By the end of their conversation that day, he told Twila that she would be flown out for an interview a few days later. “I knew after talking to James the first time that if I got the interview, I was going to get the job, because all of this is about being with the right people at the right place at the right time.”
The game-winning goal in the World Cup final by Californian Megan Rapinoe must have been a good omen for Kaufman, a Los Angeles native. She joined the Dash staff midseason and has played an important role in the team’s development over the past year.
Kaufman had her eyes set on coaching from early on, as she discussed in a recent City of Soccer podcast episode. At the club level, she was able to pay her fees by coaching younger players. She then chose to play varsity at the University of Arizona, where the head coach at the time also led a coaching education program.
She would go on to coach the Los Angeles Legends of the now-defunct USL W-league, serve on the staff at Northern Arizona, spend ten years on Tim Ward’s staff at Pepperdine, and then five years as head coach at UC-Davis. Kaufman has also served in various roles in Olympic Development Programs and with the US youth national teams. Most recently she was head coach of the US U-19 squad for a tournament in Spain which concluded just before NWSL preseason began in March.
The Covid-19 quarantine has produced an environment that no one would expect in their first year. Her even keel reveals the special flexibility of Kaufman’s character, that also fits with the team’s playing style.
Inside the Dash Bubble
“It’s a little village,” was how Kaufman described the Utah experience. “We’re pretty isolated — Sky Blue is in the same hotel as us, but we don’t interact with them much at all. When we get to the stadium we’re pretty much at our own field and in our own testing facility areas,” she revealed. “There’s a lot of work that’s happening in isolation, then a lot of free time in isolation.”
It may not be as idyllic as living in an Olympic Village, but the Dash have nonetheless taken advantage of the opportunity to bond. “Trying to make our own fun is actually a great excuse to just be isolated as a team in an environment where otherwise people might disperse,” she said. Fans following Dash on social media have seen glimpses of teammates playing cards and board games in their rooms, or playing around during lighter exercises on the field such as soccer tennis.
Some ⚽️ 🎾 to kick off this morning's training! pic.twitter.com/iQXc9tuVan
— Houston Dash (@HoustonDash) July 10, 2020
In March, the lockdown in Houston began after just three days of preseason training. Everyone remained in town, isolated together. The whole staff took on camp counselor-type roles when the quarantine started, organizing activities over videoconference. “We knew with so many new players that we were going to have to find ways to become a team away from the pitch. We relied pretty heavily on Zoom,” she said with a little laugh that seemed to reflect the absurdity of the situation and the surprise that the team really bonded this way.
Imagine joining a new team and introducing yourself to your teammates with a formal presentation, because that’s how the virtual Dash village kicked off. The staff led full team Zoom meetings, but Kaufman was most impressed by the players’ courage to reveal themselves around these virtual campfires. “They really put a lot of work into it and gave us insight into who they were — I would actually use the word “vulnerable.” New players were willing to be vulnerable and that helped connect them to the team,” she said. “Then we did fun games, from Bingo to ‘Can you guess what player…?’ We had to get creative. Thank goodness we got to start training again because we were probably running out of activities,” laughed Kaufman.
Coming to Utah for the NWSL Challenge Cup and remaining in isolation, the Dash camp has transitioned from Zoom to hotel rooms. “We knew when we got here that we were going to have to provide entertainment — to create time and space where we just, as James [Clarkson] would say, ‘deflate the ball’ and not talk football,” Twila explained.
She gave credit to “everybody from Matt (sport science) and Alex (equipment) to Carlos (team admin)” and others on the staff. “Being able to have a really good team barbecue and just not talk football at all, that was really important when we came here,” she said of the Utah experience.
“Our goal is to win it,” declared Kaufman without hesitation. “I think every team here wants to, and there’s nothing wrong with putting that out there as the number one goal. We want to get better as we go. We feel like we have a really good group and that we’re just getting going, so we want to have growth every single game. Then we want to leave together,” she emphasized. “Win or lose, it’s really important that we stick together because this group has a really bright future.”
Watching the 2020 Dash
During the 2019-20 off-season, the Dash coaching staff comprehensively reviewed their tactics and roster, which they had not had the luxury of doing the year before, as James Clarkson was named head coach of the Dash right before Christmas 2018. Twila saw glimpses of development in the last portion of the 2019 season, when the Dash played close matches against North Carolina and Portland, and split games with Utah. “Our last few games were really strong,” she said. “You see the foundations of the tactics that we’re using right now.”
Flexibility appears to be the best description for those tactics, which the head coach is understandably hesitant to reveal. “We don’t want play a flat 4-3-3,” Clarkson said after the game against Sky Blue. “We rely on a lot of interchange between lines, and that means we can put different types of players in the wings,” Kaufman added. While a few direct attacks have gained attention, she doesn’t describe the Dash style as primarily direct. “We build with specific intent and the intent is to go forward,” she explained. “There are a lot of different ways to do that.”
The current roster features versatile players who adapt their skill sets to whichever position they find themselves in. “It’s not that we necessarily have out-and-out wingers,” Clarkson said. “There’s different skill sets and movements that we want to use them for, to build up the play and progress higher up the field.” The emphasis on interchange appears designed for flexibility, channeling play through different players in whatever position as needed. If the team can master this approach I expect that they will be “a team to fear” — a common theme that Rachel Daly and other players have stated at the tournament.
“Our staff likes to attack with momentum,” Kaufman stated. “I think that’s what the [fans were] really excited about in the first couple games.” She credited Clarkson with instituting that style and finding players to fit it. “James was really intentional about scouting and finding players in the league that would perform better in that type of system.”
Most public attention so far has focused on Rachel Daly, Kristie Mewis, and Shea Groom. “The way that those three manage games and the energy between them is something special to watch,” Kaufman said.
Other players may play a significant role in the next few games. Canadian attacker Nichelle Prince, for example, only recently returned to the team. “She’s just gotten her first minutes back,” Twila said. “She’s definitely someone to keep your eyes on — she’s just hitting her stride.”
Watching Ally Prisock grow into a new role at outside back has also been encouraging. “The right back is a new thing for her,” the assistant coach reminded me. “I think she’s somebody that gives us a lot of different options across the back line.” Last year the rookie was thrust into a starting center back role. She remains the youngest player on a veteran back line of starters Chapman, Naughton, Oyster, and Simon.
Expect the Unexpected
Twila Kaufman’s first year of coaching in the NWSL has been unconventional, to say the least. Reflecting on her journey since the 2019 World Cup final in Lyon, she cited a theme that Clarkson has reiterated lately:
“What the last year has been for me personally and professionally is just to expect the unexpected. With a good sense of who we are as people, who we are as a team, and who we are as in terms of play, so that when these things happen we can make decisions that we’re going to feel proud of.”
“Now here we are at the event, and we’re expecting all the unexpected,” she continued. “I was very hopeful that we’d have really strong performances, like we did in the first two games. I even think the third one is one to build off of, and I think everybody on staff really feels like we’re nowhere close to our cap.”