Sometimes being a soccer player is a desk job. Take last Thursday evening, when Kika Toulouse and Marissa Diggs sat behind a table to greet fans and sign autographs for a Soccer Night Out event at Meyer Park in Spring.
The evening featured scrimmages on small fields, appearances by the pair of Dash defenders and Eric Brunner and Michael Lisch of the Dynamo. The orange sportswear and canopies glowed through the murky drizzle.
Despite the weather, there was a healthy turnout and a steady stream of people—mostly young families, it seemed—lined up to meet Diggs and Toulouse, who signed balls and boots and chatted with fans.
And yet the Dash have not even played a match yet—at least, not in the NWSL, where they open their debut season at home to Portland Thorns FC on April 12 (TICKETS). But enthusiasm has built quickly since the announcement on December 11 last year that the league would be expanding to nine teams for its second season. It was not until the following day that the name of the new club was revealed, giving the new franchise a tangible identity.
"It's amazing that we haven't even played an official game. Having this kind of support is really a testament to the city," Toulouse told HoustonDashSoccer.com. About 1,200 people turned up at BBVA Compass Stadium on February 8 to meet many of the players and staff on Dash Day. An estimated 500 spectators saw the Dash beat Texas A&M 1-0 in a scrimmage at Houston Sports Park on March 22. (The return fixture is this Wednesday in College Station.)
Walk around Meyer Park on any given day and the Houston community's enthusiasm for soccer is evident: there are goalposts galore. According to the parks' office there are 26 soccer fields at the facility. It was here that former Dynamo and U.S. national team midfielder Stuart Holden developed his talents as a youngster with a local club.
"Texas in general is a big soccer hub," said Diggs. The 21-year-old grew up in Rowlett, near Dallas, and went to the University of Central Florida. She was picked by the Dash in the second round (11th overall) of this year's college draft. "I feel like everything we've done there's been a good [attendance]. I was getting lunch the other day and I had a Dash shirt on and a few people came over and were like, 'oh yes, we've got season tickets'. It's cool to see the community supporting."
Professionals know that they are expected to act as ambassadors for their clubs, to embrace the opportunity to be role models and be active in the community. The Dash players are also educators since the league is so new.
"When the games are, when the season starts, is a pretty common question," said Toulouse. Born in Arlington, Virginia, the 24-year-old spent last year with the Washington Spirit. "A lot of people are just curious to know where we came from, whether we're fresh out of college like Marissa. Or what team we played for last year in the league. Because the league is still pretty young so a lot of people weren't even aware that we had a league."
As the second MLS club to run an NWSL franchise, after the Portland Timbers, the Dynamo are set to play a role in boosting the nationwide profile of the fledgling competition, which is the third attempt at establishing a major U.S. women's league.
Thorns FC were successful on the field and in the stands in 2013: they won the title and their average attendance was the highest in the league, underlining Portland's status as a soccer hotbed and the potential when MLS and the NWSL work in tandem.
The Dynamo's involvement provides the Dash with a large, modern downtown home in the U.S.'s fourth-largest city. In the NWSL, only Chicago's population is bigger, though their Red Stars play in the suburban town of Lisle. With an average MLS attendance of nearly 20,000 last year, the Dynamo also has an established fanbase which the Dash will try and tap in to.
There may also be a few celebrity fans if Kealia Ohai can work her connections. The Dash forward, who scored in Saturday's 7-0 scrimmage victory over Texas Tech, knows some of the Houston Texans as her sister, Megan, is married to linebacker Brian Cushing. "I've been trying to tell them, you've got to come out to a Dash game, so hopefully they'll get their season tickets and come out," she said.
"I think Houston is such a great city to have this start up in. In such a great sports city with all the teams it's really going to be cool to try and get us connected and I know with Brian and the friends that I have on the Texans I'm going to try and get them involved too. And the Dynamo players have come out to some of our games, so I think if we can make this all connected and support everyone it could be really, really cool."
As for the on-field product: "We're getting there," said Toulouse. "We're a brand-new team so we were kind of joking, everybody's technically a rookie on the team even though we have some veteran players who've played in the leagues before. But it's coming together, I think we all have the same mentality and the same goals. When everybody buys into that, progress is pretty inevitable."
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.