There were hugs and smiles as Meghan Klingenberg greeted Seattle Reign’s players at training on Tuesday, but that warm familiarity with her U.S. national team colleagues is one reason why the Dash defender is so eager to get the better of them on Wednesday.
The stage is set for one of the most eagerly-awaited Dash games to date, as the star-laden Reign make their only visit to BBVA Compass Stadium this season (8 p.m. CT; TICKETS). Seattle’s roster includes U.S. standouts in goalkeeper Hope Solo, forward Sydney Leroux, attacker Megan Rapinoe and defender Stephanie Cox, as well as a host of players who have represented the country at junior levels.
Klingenberg, who has 13 U.S. caps, knows plenty of Seattle’s squad and is relishing the chance to line up opposite them—and hopefully beat them. “They’re good people and they’re great players and it’s fun to play against your friends, it’s always a grudge match and so hopefully we get the best of them so we can kind of rub it in a little bit,” she said at Houston Sports Park as Seattle arrived to train on a field just vacated by the Dash.
"You can’t lose to them, they’ll never let you live it down,” she grinned. Most of the time, though, the Reign get their way. Laura Harvey’s side are the runaway NWSL leaders, with a 14-1-4 record that has put them nine points clear of second-placed FC Kansas City. Last Sunday they demolished their Pacific Northwest rivals, Portland Thorns FC, 5-0. Seattle are in Texas aiming to clinch the NWSL Shield, which is awarded to the team with the best regular-season record.
What’s more, the Dash have to face them twice in a week. Randy Waldrum’s team head to Portland after this match to meet the Thorns on Sunday, then travel north and play Seattle again on August 6. “It’s a tough stretch, getting the league leaders twice in a week and getting Portland even though they’ve been so sporadic with their performances,” said Waldrum.
Still, the week should be a useful yardstick for the Dash as they measure themselves against the league leaders and last year’s NWSL champions. “Clearly they’re the best team in the league right now and they’ve been putting together really good performances all year, I think that it’ll be a really good test for our team to see where we’re at,” Klingenberg said.
The defender was encouraged by Houston’s previous result, a goalless draw away to the Chicago Red Stars. “We’re starting to get together better organizationally on defense and being able to stop teams’ attacks and this is the most potent attack in the league,” she said. “So it’ll be fun to play against them and to see where we’re at and what we need to work on and how we stack up against the best team.”
Seattle’s success so far this year should give the Dash encouragement for the future. The Reign finished a lowly seventh in the standings last year, picking up a mere 18 points from 22 matches. But they have transformed their fortunes in 2014 with the help of some shrewd transfers, including the signing of Scottish midfielder Kim Little, who is a strong candidate for league MVP and is leading the race for the golden boot with 12 goals.
“They’ve done a great job of putting together a world class roster,” Waldrum said. “I would think this Seattle team could compete with any of the top women’s teams in the world right now. That’s pro soccer, you’re always making changes and you’re always looking to get better and they’ve been a great model not only for us but for all the teams in the league.”
Wednesday’s match will be broadcast on ESPN3. Waldrum hopes for a big turnout at BBVA Compass Stadium and a strong Dash display that will show a nationwide audience that the new franchise is already strong on and off the field.
“It’s great that we get a chance to be on, I hope our team continues to perform the way they have and I expect them to show the country that we are not a typical expansion team, that we do have some competitive bite to us and we’ve been a pretty decent side all year considering how young we are,” the head coach said.
“Especially on national television we want to showcase the venues that are soccer venues and what better place than our stadium at BBVA, hopefully the fans will get out there in full force.”
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The match is the Dash’s penultimate home game of their debut season and a chance for fans in Houston to see some of the sport’s most famous names up close. “The players in this league that are those ‘star’ players have done an amazing job of being very good with the fans, they take time to stay after and take pictures and autographs and it’s not the typical high profile athlete that just kind of walks by and goes back to the locker room,” said Waldrum.
“They understand that we’re still trying to sell the league and I’m in awe of some of these players just in terms of how professional they are about growing the game.”
Klingenberg is hopeful that the infamous Houston heat will be a form of home advantage. “You have to take more recovery here, it’s kind of a give and take thing. You can train really hard but then you need to recover longer than you would in Seattle, Portland or any of these other places. We just need to make sure that we’re getting all the work done that we need to get done but also recovering adequately so we’re ready for our game,” said the 25-year-old.
The week ahead will be a mental test for the Dash as well as a physical examination. “We get to show a little bit of our character and see what we’re made of and I think the team’s excited to take on this challenge,” she said.
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.