by Grant Wiedenfeld
In the Rio Tinto Stadium locker room following the NWSL Challenge Cup championship game last Sunday, Dash head coach James Clarkson surprised the players with an obscure chant from his soccer-playing youth in England — defender Katie Naughton shared that “We thought he was going to give a speech!” Clarkson led the cheer and his players happily followed along. This spontaneous celebratory moment revealed the tight bond that has formed between Clarkson and the squad eighteen months into his tenure, the last several months in a quarantine bubble.
House of Clarkson
Camaraderie may be the primary asset behind the Dash’s victorious Challenge Cup run. Since Clarkson was hired in December 2018, no major international players have been signed to the squad — which is still the only NWSL team without a USWNT allocation — and Clarkson has had only second and third round picks to use in the last two college drafts. Those picks were used to land occasional starters and solid reserves, none of whom have broken out yet to become a regular starter or instant league star.
Asked if there was a pivotal moment in the build-up to a championship title, Clarkson spoke about the recent offseason, during which he finished assembling a roster and staff. “I think you can see it. The team show it every single time they’re on the field. Not just the eleven, but the subs as well as all the support staff, the coaches, everybody that’s here with us, all the PTs, the masseuse, everybody that’s involved really want to be part of the team. That energy that comes from everybody. That’s what’s made the biggest change.
“We know that we don’t necessarily have the deepest and strongest roster. But in order for us to be successful we’ve got to have an attitude, we’ve got to work for one another, we’ve got to fight and scrap for everything.” Strong play at the end of the 2019 regular season showed that the Dash could compete with the league’s best, so Clarkson spent the off-season focused on filling out a roster with players committed to this mentality more than anything else.
Most of the new Dash players this year could be described as journeymen, having playing for various NWSL teams, either as one-time starters who had fallen out of favor or as players were seen as less essential and thus available for trade. Shea Groom, acquired along with Megan Oyster in a trade with OL Reign for Amber Brooks and Sofia Huerta, became a Challenge Cup sensation, scoring three spectacular goals (two of which were assisted by Golden Boot winner Rachel Daly) and celebrating with an enthusiasm that won over fans everywhere. She credited the club’s warm welcome and Clarkson’s faith in her abilities for cultivating her success.
What. A. Finish. 💥
— CBS Sports Soccer (@CBSSportsSoccer) July 5, 2020
New center backs Katie Naughton and Megan Oyster also showed their quality. After losing her starting spot with Chicago last fall, Naughton was traded by the Red Stars to Houston in exchange for Kealia Watt (formerly Ohai), the Dash’s all-time leader in goals, assists and minutes played. Naughton anchored the Dash defense in the 2020 final victory over her former team, playing every minute of Houston’s seven tournament games.
Oyster suffered a broken rib in the quarterfinal draw against Utah, but was so committed to her new team that she returned to play in the final despite the pain. “Reading all these tweets about my broken rib,” she tweeted after the final. “Yes it was awful, could barely breathe towards the end … but ask me if it was worth it … I LOVE THIS TEAM.”
— Megan Oyster (@MeganOyster) July 27, 2020
Clarkson said a protective vest had been obtained for Oyster, and that choosing to start her over Prisock (who had started in place of the injured Oyster in the semifinal) was “the hardest decision” he had to make. Oyster’s considerable NWSL playoff experience (including starting the NWSL final for the Washington Spirit in 2016) proved invaluable in the most important Dash game to date.
These players, along with Sophie Schmidt and Christine Nairn, the two veterans acquired before the 2019 season, strengthened the core Dash roster that remained from the pre-Clarkson era — 2016 first-round draft pick Rachel Daly, 2017 draftee Jane Campbell, late 2017 trade acquisition (from Chicago) Kristie Mewis plus Canadian allocations Allysha Chapman and Nichelle Prince.
Clarkson selected Daly and Campbell as captains for 2020, after shepherding former captains Kealia Watt and Amber Brooks (along with Sofia Huerta) to Chicago and OL Reign respectively, at their request. This changing of the guard allowed Daly and Campbell to grow into their leadership roles and become the new “face” of the team. Daly was voted tournament MVP and won the Golden Boot, while Campbell grew from a few early mistakes in the first round to lead the team to a successful quarterfinal shootout and three straight shutouts, a first for the keeper who has played every NWSL game in goal for the Dash since late June 2017. Clarkson deserves acknowledgement for setting the stage for these players to take the lead and succeed, without stealing the show himself.
The Dean of Development
“It’s got nothing to do with me, it’s all about the players,” said Clarkson humbly, when asked what the successful tournament run meant to him personally. “We put in the time and effort to make them successful. We provide an environment in which they can be successful. I just pick the team and they go out there and perform.”
An internal hire from the Dynamo Academy, whose creation and operation he oversaw since 2007, the England native had little head coaching experience other than a short stint as the first head coach for Dynamo PDL affiliate Brazos Valley Cavalry, and was certainly not a name tossed around in national circles. As one of four NWSL teams paired with an MLS franchise, Houston might have been expected to flex their financial muscle by making a more attention-grabbing hire, as they had done with Randy Waldrum for the club’s inaugural season. Instead, they bet on an internal candidate and the slower path of internal growth.
Ostentatious roster moves hadn’t always worked for the Dash in the past. An unrequited bid for Christen Press in January 2018 hurt their draft stock and their reputation among national team players. That fiasco showed that associating with a “destination club” was more important to USWNT players than having MLS facilities and a big city environment. And because US Soccer pays the salaries of the national team players, Houston could not simply buy a dream team.
So Clarkson brought something to the equation that the team had lacked from the outset — actual behind the scenes development. His experience on the club’s academy side was necessarily focused on player development. The intangibles of camaraderie and long-term commitment, so crucial in the youth game, have already paid dividends for the Dash. Facilities and other player accommodations have also improved — players have their choice of high-end housing at two convenient, inside-the-Loop locations, and the club has been renovating he building at Houston Sports Park to expand locker rooms, offices and meeting rooms for all teams.
“People don’t see the work behind the scenes of keeping these players healthy — the way we have managed the load, and how we treat them all as individuals and manage what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, in order to be successful when the game starts,” Clarkson explained. “I still believe that the conditions in Houston are conducive to being successful on the road. The weather and everything we have to deal with in Houston is perfect preparation for coming to a tournament like this.”
Comprehensive management has also built depth, whose importance Clarkson underlined before the final. “This is where the squad has been so important to us throughout the whole tournament. The dedication and commitment of those players who haven’t necessarily played as much — their determination, their enthusiasm has been vital for us, maintaining a real good team chemistry and team spirit. If there are people who are injured, there are people ready to step in.” Indeed, CeCe Kizer would step in after Kristie Mewis pulled a hamstring early in the final. “[Kizer] played superb,” Clarkson later said.
Equalizer Soccer editor Jeff Kassouf reflected, “This Dash team changed its culture and its mindset and everything else, but also: Their ~tactics~ were superior in this Challenge Cup and nobody properly adjusted to them, especially in the knockout stage.” Not since Vlatko Andonovski’s FC Kansas City championship teams in 2014 and 2015 has such an unexpected coach appeared in NWSL. Like Clarkson, Andonovski coached at the youth club level in Kansas City before getting the nod as the club’s first head coach.
In the midst of an NWSL Challenge Cup performance that exceeded everyone’s expectations, Houston’s “dean of development” could not stop from thinking about the future. “Hopefully all these experiences go on to push us to another level, and we can continue to get better because we’re certainly not anywhere near the finished product,” Clarkson said. “If we keep working and fighting like this, we just going to keep getting better and better.”
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Want to rewatch the Challenge Cup? For fans in the USA and Canada, all games are available on demand via CBS All-Access, which is $6/month after a one-week free trial. All other fans can rewatch matches at NWSLsoccer.com/replays.
Buy a Bayou City Republic CHAMPIONS scarf — just $20 each. Or pay $25 to help underwrite the cost of CHAMPIONS scarves for the entire Dash team.
Be sure to check out the Mixxed Zone women’s soccer podcast hosted by Keeper Notes — the July 31 episode will recap all the action of the Challenge Cup semifinals and championship game.
Photo Gallery of the Dash return to Houston
courtesy of Gia Quilap/Keeper Notes
Houston Dash return to H-Town