The Houston Dash are yet to play a game, but the brand-new expansion team is already being represented on the international stage.
Three Dash players started on Friday night at the home of FC Dallas as the U.S. women’s national team defeated Canada 1-0 thanks to a late goal from Sydney Leroux.
American center back Whitney Engen faced her new club teammates, Canadian defender Lauren Sesselmann and goalkeeper Erin McLeod, in a high-profile and competitive friendly in front of 20,862 fans—the biggest home crowd for the U.S. since November 2003.
Formerly in England with Liverpool Ladies, Engen is currently playing her club soccer at Tyresö but is looking forward to joining up with Randy Waldrum’s Houston after the Swedish side finishes its UEFA Champions League campaign.
“I’m really excited, I’ve heard wonderful things about Houston the city, I’ve already done a little research and I’m excited to pop on down there. I think they’re putting together a world-class organization on the women’s side,” she told HoustonDynamo.com.
The 26-year-old is optimistic that being owned and managed by the Houston Dynamo will be positive for the Dash and for the National Women’s Soccer League as a whole. “Bringing Brian Ching, a former player, in [as managing director] is I think a great step for the game,” she said.
“I think having that kind of experience on a team is going to help grow the entire league and I think that’s one of the main reasons that U.S. Soccer encouraged Houston to join the league.”
Reliable at the back, Engen frequently ventured forward at set pieces and even had the ball in McLeod’s net in the first half, but the effort was correctly ruled out for offside. “I gave Whitney a big hug after the game, I haven’t met her before. I’m really excited about the upcoming season and the NWSL, I’m proud to be a part of it, so I’m just waiting for the season to start,” McLeod told HoustonDynamo.com.
The 30-year-old has made 94 appearances for Canada. She was acquired by the Dash through a trade with the Chicago Red Stars. McLeod made a sharp save from Leroux in the 13th minute and was frequently called into action in the first half as the U.S. tested the Canadian defense with several dangerous crosses.
Her solid performance drew praise from John Herdman, Canada’s head coach. “She had one save to make. She came out and did some great crosses but she made one world-class save tonight. Outside of that it was her ability on the crosses,” he said.
Winning her eleventh cap, Engen was substituted in the 77th minute after sustaining a minor leg injury. After the game she said she was fine.
Though the home nation were on top for much of the match, it was a battle with few clear-cut chances. Sesselmann and her teammates worked hard to frustrate the potent American attack.
“Any time you play a rivalry game there’s so much emotion and so much that goes into the game behind the scenes, just knowing the team for a while, knowing how close they are, just a short trip across the border, they’re one of our biggest rivalries for sure,” Engen said.
“We always expect it to be a really difficult game, they’re a physical opponent, they’re relentless, they’re going to go into every single tackle and you have to make sure you play your best game if you want to beat Canada.”
McLeod believes that her team is improving and might have grabbed a tie or even a victory at Toyota Stadium with better finishing on the counter-attack. “I feel like every time we play the U.S. we get better and better … they punish mistakes and that’s why they’re number one in the world,” she said.
“If we’d have put a couple of those breakaways away it would have been a different game. So we haven’t given up, if anything we’re very positive after this performance.”
The U.S. next face Russia in a two-game series on February 8 in Florida and four days later in Georgia. As hosts of next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, Canada qualify automatically for the tournament.
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.