Last June, Houston Dash fans were treated to just a glimpse of what they’ll get to enjoy all year at PNC Stadium in 2022 when striker María Sánchez scored against Orlando in a 2-1 victory. On loan to the club for the month of June, Sánchez appeared in all three of the club’s games, but only one of those was played at home. With her Liga MX Femenil champion pedigree and deadly finishing skills, Sánchez immediately became a fan favorite.
Sánchez signed a two-year contract in June and looks to be a key point of the Dash attack, along with co-captain Rachel Daly and Olympic gold medalist Nichelle Prince. “There’s more expectations, more pressure on her, which I think she has responded to really well,” said (now suspended) head coach James Clarkson last week. “You see her continuing to grow and develop every single game. The potential is incredible, to see the consistency of the delivery and her ability in 1v1 situations.”
In the Challenge Cup group stage finale, her corner kick found defender Ally Prisock for what was ultimately the game-winning goal. “A beautiful ball from María,” said Prisock, happy to score the first goal of her pro career. It marked Sánchez’s third assist in the tournament, good for second most in the league in 2022 Cup play.
The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Sánchez grew up in Idaho, where she began her collegiate career at Idaho State. She played her last two NCAA seasons at Santa Clara, and was drafted by the Chicago Red Stars in 2019. After limited appearances as a rookie on a stacked Red Stars team, she transferred to Chivas in Liga MX Femenil for one season, then spent the next year and a half with Mexican powerhouse UANL Tigres in Monterrey. She won the spring 2021 league championship (aka “2021 Clausura”) with Tigres and then came to Houston for a one-month loan. That brief stint in Texas convinced her it was time to return to NWSL on a more permanent basis.
“Of course I feel the pressure, but the way the club has treated me, the technical staff has helped me a lot in being the best player I can be. They have all the confidence in me to do my part and that helps me go out on to the field and be myself,” she said last week. “Each day I go out and try to be that player and support and represent the team the best I can.”
Sánchez has played on the left wing, giving the Dash an attacking line that promises to be more potent. Her talented left foot aims to replace that of midfielder Kristie Mewis, who was lost to San Diego in the December expansion draft and then traded to NJ/NY Gotham FC. But the different strengths of the two players, as well as other roster changes, have led the Dash to experiment with varying formations and roles.
Team captain Rachel Daly played the last two Cup games in midfield next to Shea Groom, with the taller Michaela Abam starting instead as central striker. With Prince at right forward, the five attackers create a major threat in transition. In last weekend’s win, Louisville appeared hesitant to move their midfield and defense forward for that reason. Although the Dash finished the Challenge Cup with just two wins in six games, the team is optimistic that the recent experimentation has helped the roster gel in time for the regular-season opener.
“We have just started to play really well together,” Prisock said after the final Cup match. “We have been working together a lot on our defensive transition. Our backline is starting to come together and anyone who is back there, we are all getting on the same page.”
The Dash kick off their 2022 regular season this Sunday at PNC Stadium against expansion club San Diego Wave FC. San Diego’s roster features USWNT veterans Alex Morgan and Abby Dahlkemper, Swedish international Sofia Jakobsson and Olympic gold medalist Kailen Sheridan. Kickoff is 6 pm CT.
New Dash president Jessica O’Neill expects a large crowd for the match, likely the biggest for the club since 2015 — the lower bowl of PNC Stadium is nearly full, and some of the upper-deck seating has already been opened for this game. Tickets for Sunday’s regular-season home opener are available via SeatGeek for as low as $15; partial season ticket packages are still available. The Dash/Wave FC game will be broadcast live on Paramount+ in the USA and on Twitch everywhere else.
Dash assistant coach Sarah Lowdon was named acting head coach Friday, following the suspension of head coach James Clarkson. It’s not clear if the Dash can carry the optimism displayed after the victory last week, as the club becomes the 10th of the 10 returning NWSL teams to begin the season without last year’s original coach in place. The regular-season opener against expansion club San Diego looks to be anyone’s game.