It became official on December 12 last year: professional women's soccer would be coming to Houston. A whirlwind four months later, the big day is here as the Houston Dash open their first National Women's Soccer League season at home to Portland Thorns FC on Saturday night (7 p.m. CT; TICKETS).
The capacity for Dash fixtures at BBVA Compass Stadium will normally be capped at 7,000, but demand to see the first-ever match has been strong and the club will open part of the upper bowl on Saturday.
Give some of the credit for the expected large attendance to Dash defender Nikki Washington. "I'll have a good amount of family and friends coming in, you'll hear the Washington clan for sure," she told HoustonDashSoccer.com. Most will not have too far to come—the 25-year-old hails from Mesquite, near Dallas, and grew up in the area.
Washington will also have some friends on the opposite end of the field. She spent last season with the Thorns before the Dash signed her via a trade at the NWSL College Draft. She was a regular in the Portland lineup in the 2013 campaign until suffering a knee injury in July.
"I think it'll be a good match up, playing the defending champs is a good test to see where we are, a good measure," she said. "I'm sure they'll be well prepared, very organized, with great individual talent. It's a big game for everyone, we'll hope to catch them off guard a little bit."
Portland and the Dash are the only two of the nine NWSL clubs affiliated to MLS organizations. The Thorns won the inaugural championship last year with a 2-0 victory over the Western New York Flash in the title game.
Saturday's visitors have undergone some roster turnover since last year but in Paul Riley have a new head coach with plenty of experience in the women's game. They are without two U.S. stars, midfielder Tobin Heath, who is currently with Paris Saint-Germain, and the injured Alex Morgan.
Canada goalkeeper Erin McLeod will be wearing the captain's armband for the Dash this season after a vote by the players gave her the honor. At 31, she is the most senior player on the roster, has taken part in three Women's World Cups and is approaching a hundred caps for her country.
On a young team constructed during a hectic offseason, head coach Randy Waldrum is also looking to forward Ella Masar and midfielders Brittany Bock and Becky Edwards to act as mentors and leaders. "I think all four will be clearly our leadership group. I think Erin will be a good decision. She's played in World Cups, she's played in the Olympics, a medalist in the Olympics, so I think from an experience and age standpoint she'll be really good for us," he said.
At the end of the 24-match regular season (half the games at home, half away) four teams will progress to the playoffs. That's the Dash's target, of course, but Waldrum also wants the players to show patience and focus on gradual improvements.
After all, this is a brand-new group that has only spent a month training together. Nor will Houston start the season at full strength, especially in defense. U.S. players Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenberg are currently with Swedish side Tyresö, possibly until the end of May, and Canada defender Lauren Sesselmann is out with a long-term knee injury suffered last month during training with the national team. Engen and Klingenberg both featured for the U.S. on Thursday night in a 3-0 friendly match win over China in San Diego.
"I tried to get across to the players from day one, let's don't be a result-driven team right off the bat. We want results, we want to win, we have goals like getting into the playoffs. Let's go that way but let's don't be focused every week on the result. Let's focus more on the process that gets us the result," said Waldrum.
Washington is optimistic that the Dash will impress. "Our motto I think is going to be: 'why not us?' I think we're going to come in, set our goals high and go through the process to get there. There will be ups and downs, as every team will have in this long season, but we're aiming to bring the championship back to Houston," she said.
Regardless of the scorelines, Waldrum wants to keep fans entertained, week-in, week-out. In the short time since the Dash were born, the 57-year-old recruited from Notre Dame has tried to mold a roster that will produce an appealing, exciting style of play. That's already been evident during several goal-laden preseason victories.
"We've spent a lot of time trying to be—I said it off-the-cuff in one of the early press conferences and now everybody's kind of run with it—but I said I want to be like the Barcelona of women's football. We want to be a very attractive team in the way we play," he said.
"We've been pretty successful with it so far but now we're up to a new challenge, now we're going to be playing pro teams instead of college teams. Hopefully we can keep that going. I think the fans will see we're going to try to be a very attack-minded team. By design it won't be a team that sits back and defends. There may be some games that we're on our heels and we have to defend but for the most part I think the fans will see that we're a very up-tempo, fast and attacking oriented team," he said.