For fans and media who have watched the Houston Dash during the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup, the narrative seemed fairly straightforward: a perennial playoff outsider seeking to change its fortunes by making a tournament run.
For the players, coaches and staff inside the bubble, however, the focus was more on team culture and belief than simply wins and losses. Head coach James Clarkson has emphasized the importance of coming together for a larger goal from the beginning of the team’s preparation for the tournament, and his final message to the team ahead of the Challenge Cup Championship brought the point home.
“There was a special moment actually, in our pregame today,” Championship MVP Shea Groom said after the match. “James received an email from a woman at MD Anderson who is battling breast cancer and her message was simple. It just said, ‘Your team inspires me.’ James reminded us that we're playing for so much more than just a football game today. I think that really hit us home that, through sport we can bring hope to people that are struggling, we can bring hope to people that are going through this pandemic. We just took that and ran with it, and just tried to be something bigger, something a little bit light in some of the darkness that's been going on in our world.”
The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center is the world’s leading cancer research and treatment facility, and its iconic logo was added to the front of the Dash’s jersey prior to this season. The two-line email from a patient at the hospital stirred emotions in the coach and motivated him to share it with his players.
“I might cry,” Clarkson said postgame when asked about the email, “but I got told that the team inspires them, and thank you. That that was as short as it was, but they're dealing with cancer. So, to see these players do what they're doing and inspire people, the way that they have is just incredible. It's so much more than soccer. This is why this is such a special group. Because it is about these things, it's about the way they affect people, the way that they go about the game.
“People are going through tough times,” he continued. “You know that the city of Houston is struggling at the minute and with everything that's going on, whether it's COVID, whether it's Black Lives Matter and other social issues, whether it's massive unemployment and layoffs and people losing their jobs. I think for four weeks, these ladies have given the city something to rally behind and get behind.”
For Clarkson, a coach who had no prior experience in the women’s game before being named head coach on December 11, 2018, seeing this group of athletes come together as a team and watching them play for a larger cause has been a moving experience.
“It's truly humbling to be involved with them. And the way they go about it, the way that they fight and they don't give in, is just absolutely amazing to be around,” he said. “I'm thankful that I'm involved in it because they are truly inspiring and to see the effort and the work they put in, throughout this and people only ever get to see what goes on game day. But the work and everything they've done away from the field, through all of this has been just incredible. They're doing it for a bigger cause and it's quite amazing.
“We're really thankful to MD Anderson, they are our sponsor because this is something that all the players are right behind. It's an incredible institution that is trying to get rid of an awful disease that affects everybody. So, hopefully, we've cheered some people up, we've got some people excited, we've given them relief from all of the all of the troubles that they're going through. And hopefully we can continue to do it.”
The NWSL hasn’t announced definitive plans for the remainder of the year, but regardless of what the rest of calendar holds for professional women’s soccer, history will show that the 2020 Houston Dash made history, created memories, and inspired a city by playing for something greater than themselves.