Houston Dash look to end "culture-building year" on a high note against Boston Breakers and Sky Blue FC

Dash head coach Randy Waldrum has reminded his players that last impressions count as the team prepares to wrap up its debut NWSL season with a pair of road trips starting with Sunday’s game against the Boston Breakers (5:30 p.m. CT).

Houston are not in playoff contention but they can guarantee eighth place in the standings by avoiding defeat in New England before traveling down the East Coast to face New Jersey-based postseason hopefuls Sky Blue FC on Wednesday (6 p.m. CT).

For Waldrum, the concluding fixtures of the year are not simply about playing for pride. They are also a chance for his players to show they belong on next season’s roster as he prepares to overhaul the team. “We’re still building, players are still fighting for jobs, we have to maintain our professionalism and go at it,” he told HoustonDashSoccer.com.

“You don’t have anything to play for in terms of playoffs but you do have your jobs to play for because we’re clearly going to be making changes and upgrading the team for next year. You’re still a pro, you’re still making impressions on the coaching staff and as a head coach I’m wanting to make sure Chris [Canetti, team president] and Brian [Ching, managing director] still believe in me and the job I’m doing. We’ve got to finish it out as a pro.”

Several players will head off on loan in the coming days, midfielder Becky Edwards being the first as she heads to Sweden to play with Kristianstads DFF. Meghan Klingenberg will miss the Sky Blue match because of USWNT duty, while her fellow defender, Osinachi Ohale, has a family commitment. Forward Ella Masar is recovering from sports hernia surgery.

Waldrum likes the idea of his charges playing competitive soccer elsewhere during the long NWSL offseason. “I think it’s really important. The season is too short not to be doing something in the offseason, so the players either have to really make sure they’re following a regimented training program, for those that are going back to college or staying and not going somewhere to play. We’ll have a training program for them, they’ll be following a protocol and checking in so we know that part’s going well,” he said.

“It’s such a young team they need the experience and need to keep playing. There’s a lot of value in us getting players loaned out, as many as we can.”

At 31, goalkeeper Erin McLeod is one of the team’s veterans. Despite all she has achieved in the sport, the Canadian international said that this year has been a learning experience, as a new franchise was born, the roster came together in a hurry and evolved quickly and she developed her captaincy skills.

That included being more vocal about expressing her opinions and feelings, as well as gaining a deeper awareness of the technical and tactical details needed to succeed in the NWSL, both individually and as a team. The sort of small details that have made a big difference this year for the Dash, who have been more competitive than a cursory glance at the standings might suggest.

“From an emotional standpoint I’ve learned a lot this year and of course, I’ve commented on getting scored on a lot, which isn’t always the best thing—but at the same time I’m learning a lot about defensive positioning, my positioning and the amount I’ve learned from watching my games, revisiting a lot of situations. I’ve grown a lot and I’m grateful for all those things, especially leading into the World Cup next season,” she told HoustonDashSoccer.com.

“One thing I’m always proud of with this team is the fight. They’re still a very young team and basically to the 92nd or 93rd minute of every game this team has never given up.. Being an expansion team it’s definitely a culture-building year for us, the kind of people that we want here, the kind of personalities, the kind of character, the kind of drive and fight and connection between players I think is something that’s very evident.”

Waldrum is proud that the team did not compromise its principles even during tough stretches, maintaining its commitment to playing a flowing, attack-minded, passing style. He believes that approach will pay off in the long term.

“The one thing I know that we laid is a good foundation, a team that’s got great chemistry, a team that’s got a lot of fight, and that are trying to play aggressively.  We’ve tried to attack teams. We got set back and it would have been quite easy earlier in the year when we lost five or six in a row and only had the one win, to reshape what I’m thinking and just say ‘you know what, let’s change our tactics and let’s sit in in midfield and bunker in games and play for points and ties and hope you get a counter-attack here and there’,” he said.

“I just think it goes against my philosophy and the players too and we all bought into: win or lose, let’s lay our seeds this year so we’re better for it next year … If I knew the season was going to turn out the same way I still would have come in with the same approach, I think it;s the right way to do it. Fans have been patient with us, ownership has been patient with us. Certainly we’ve got to make strides next year, there’s no question that we’ve got to be better and we’ve got to be in the playoff picture next year and I think this is the kind of experience to get us there.”

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.