Anthony Vasser/Houston Dynamo

Houston Dash head coach Randy Waldrum isn't just building a team, he's building a culture

One week of preseason down, less than four to go before the Houston Dash start life in the NWSL against the Portland Thorns at BBVA Compass Stadium on April 12.

For head coach Randy Waldrum and all associated with the Dash, these early days are about setting a tone, establishing a rhythm, developing relationships and forming habits. It’s a daunting, exciting time. Waldrum and the Dash staff are not just building a roster, they are creating a culture.

A task that would be a challenge if they had an entire season, let alone the few weeks left before the reigning NWSL champions visit Houston. But the Dash do not have to look far for a blueprint to follow. In fact, they need only gaze most mornings from their training field at Houston Sports Park across Mowery Road to the Dynamo’s pitch, where longtime head coach Dominic Kinnear can be found drilling, cajoling and encouraging his players.

In the coming years the Dash would love to own the kind of playoff record held by their parent club. “Dom’s done a great job here obviously, not only the success but he set a culture, he set the bar, the standards he wanted each of his teams to live up to,” Waldrum told reporters last week. 

“That’s what you do, you create a culture with a standard that you want your teams to be. Those things take a little bit of time but that’s certainly something we’re going to try to emulate here.”

The Dash’s squad construction is following the Dynamo template, with an emphasis on the quality of the unit not the star power of a few individuals. “People look at our roster, we’ll still miss a marquee name like an Alex Morgan or an Abby Wambach,” Waldrum told HoustonDynamo.com. 

“But I think we’ll have something very similar to what Dom’s built on the men’s side where you’ve got a team that fights for each other; not a bunch of stars who are well known nationally or internationally but a group that collectively could be a really good team together. So I’m excited about it, I’m very excited about the first year.”

Much of the first week was spent whittling 17 trialists down to the current total of 10. Many had traveled long distances at their own expense to try and earn a spot on the roster. There are 25 players in camp at the moment, with several of the Dash’s internationals yet to arrive. Canada goalkeeper Erin McLeod is expected to arrive in Houston on Tuesday. Ultimately, Waldrum will have a squad of 20 players. So the ten trialists might be battling for just one or two places. 

“Seventeen, all here on their own dime, it says a lot about the willingness of trying to make it here in this pro league—these players have been here for a full week paying for everything,” said Waldrum. “That’s the difficult part of it, that they have to do it that way, but it’s an opportunity of a lifetime for them. The league is so new, the excitement of having a chance to get in is great for those players.”

Trialists wore different colors to the contracted players last week but the mood of cheerful enthusiasm appeared to be universal. “The effort’s been great, the chemistry’s been good with the team so there’s a good foundation that we can build on here. If that chemistry’s not good you’ve got a lot of problems. So a lot of credit to our veterans, the way they’ve come in and taken the young players under their wings. That part has been fantastic,” Waldrum said.

“We are an expansion team and it’s going to take us a little bit of time to do it. But I think that’s why we paid so much attention to the character of the players and the type of players we recruited in the expansion draft.”

The Texas-born former Notre Dame coach is vastly experienced but admits that the logistics of giving birth to a franchise at such short notice have been demanding. “Trying to pull a team together has been a little bit of a challenge because we came in so late. We’re starting to settle down with where we are,” he said.

“First week was good, I thought the level of the trialists that we’ve brought in was really good. Some hard decisions there with some cuts. The players that we picked in the expansion draft, I think we hit it pretty well on the head with what was available and what we got, I’m happy with that group. Our college draft choices have looked pretty good as well so far. We’re still going to miss a couple of pieces, being an expansion team.”

This Wednesday may provide a first hint of how the jigsaw is shaping up, with an evening scrimmage against Rice University. When he is not coaching and assessing on the field, Waldrum is scouting for new signings off it.

“All my spare time is watching video and on the phone to agents and international prospective players trying to see who’s a possibility and how quickly we can get them,” he said. 

At some clubs, preseason seems to drag on, resembling an interminable succession of training sessions and exhibitions before the real fun starts. For the Dash, it’s flying by. Because every day truly matters. The upside to the uncertainty is that with a completely new beginning, anything really is possible.

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.