The Houston Dash won the NWSL Challenge Cup Final on Sunday, the team’s first-ever trophy since they came into the league in 2014. Led by second-year head coach James Clarkson the Dash beat the Chicago Red Stars 2-0 in Sandy, Utah to secure the title.
Clarkson pushed a narrative with his players that they were going to Utah for the unique tournament to win it, despite being one of the longest odds teams heading into the tournament. Oddsmakers placed the Dash at 200-1 odds before the eight-team tournament kicked off.
“I just hope all of those people that I told before the tournament that we were 200-to-one favorites, and stick $100 on us, took me up on my advice,” Clarkson said after Sunday’s match. “If they did, congratulations and spend your money wisely.”
The NWSL Challenge Cup was not a normal tournament. With eight of the nine teams from the league sequestered in a bubble, it served as a kickoff to pro sports after the COVID-19 pandemic eliminated seasons and leagues across America and the world. It was a unique situation for the teams to come into, but the Dash handled it all in stride. Clarkson lauded the efforts of his players.
“I'm so proud of the players, throughout this whole experience. Their effort, their commitment on and off the field has just been incredible,” he said. “We saw it again today and couldn't be any prouder of them. They deserve all the credit. They've been absolutely fantastic. I’m just so happy to be involved with them.
“This hopefully is the first of many (titles), and the players have now got a taste of winning,” he continued. “Hopefully, we can go on and continue to win. I know what they've been through, so it's a release, it's a relief to see how excited (they are) – it is still going on the they're still in the locker room, nobody's got changed, the celebrations. Everything is just – you know, we've been in this bubble for four weeks that they've been in Houston since March in lockdown, and this is just a reward for their professionalism.”
The Dash team coming into the season, before it was put on hiatus, looks a lot different than the one that Clarkson coached in his first season. He traded away the team’s captain, forward Kealia Watt to Chicago, moved attacker Sophia Huerta and co-captain Amber Brooks in exchange for pieces to shore up the team’s defense ahead of 2020. Two of the pieces he brought in were Megan Oyster and Katie Naughton, the center back pairing that helped keep teams scoreless through the knockout rounds, despite Oyster cracking a rib in the quarterfinal and missing the semifinal.
“We conceded too many goals last year we needed to get better. We've kept four clean sheets in seven games. We only kept six all season and that was a club record last year,” Clarkson said of Oyster, Naughton and Ally Prisock, who stepped in for Oyster during the semifinal. “All three of them have been absolutely magnificent and the way they've adapted, and they've done the things I've asked them to do, has been superb. Not only the way they fought and really protected the goal and blocked and put their bodies on the line, but the quality in possession has really helped us as well and given us a new dimension in how we want to play.”
Another be factor for Clarkson during the offseason between Year One and Year Two was to get a group of players that would work well together on and off the field. The unforeseen onset of a global pandemic tested how close a team could become when you can’t actually spend physical time with one another. Clarkson held “Forced Family Fun” zoom calls and tried to make sure the women enjoyed each other off the pitch as much as on it.
“We had to make some tough decisions and some big decisions in the offseason. We really had to look at it, and I feel that it wasn't just the two center backs that made a difference,” Clarkson said after the championship. “We brought in Erin Simon at fullback and she gave us some depth there, but Shea Groom has come in. She won MVP today of the game. So, the players that we've brought in have made a big difference. But we went to great lengths to make sure that the people that we brought in, fitted the culture and everything that we wanted to do with the Dash, so it's been a plan. We looked at it last year, we were disappointed in how we performed and how we finished last year. But we've tried to make progress. There's still a lot of progress to make.
“We've got to make sure that we bring the right type of personality, the right type of person because I think you've seen it over the last four weeks. It's good people who will make the difference. We've got a locker room full of really good people that have put the team first,” he continued. “Everything about the team, the team chemistry, all of it is at the forefront of everything that we do. When you look at it even today when we got the penalty kick, Rachel Daly's our penalty kick taker. She wants to win the Golden Boot. I think it's $10 grand on the line for it. You know, she wants that $10 grand, but she gave the penalty kick to Sophie Schmidt because she wanted to win. The team is more important than any individual award. That's why we've made such progress and I have gone on record before, in the offseason. I said that we may not have the strongest squad, but we want to be the best team. I think collectively over these four weeks, I think we've proved that we've got the best team spirit, the best camaraderie and we're the best team.”
The NWSL has not yet decided if the Challenge Cup will be the only competition in 2020, but no matter what the future of this year holds, the Houston Dash are Champions. Clarkson and the team that he has built are not looking for it to be their last.
“These are exciting times, and hopefully we continue them, grow the fan base and really make Houston a destination that people want to come and play for,” Clarkson said.