Wilf Thorne/Houston Dash

Houston Dash learn tough lessons in opening season, but are confident team will make stride in year two

The Dash’s inaugural season ended as it began, with a narrow 1-0 defeat. But the four months between April’s loss to the Portland Thorns and Wednesday’s single-goal reverse at Sky Blue FC have been a valuable learning experience for everyone connected with the club.

The Dash were a franchise born in a hurry, created in a whirlwind offseason as the Dynamo decided to follow the Portland Timbers and become the second MLS club to run an NWSL team.

Head coach Randy Waldrum, team president Chris Canetti and managing director Brian Ching and their staff were tasked with creating the club’s roster, infrastructure and culture with the target of producing a team that could be genuinely competitive straight away. The standings show that the Dash finished last among the league’s nine teams. Yet nine of their 24 matches were defeats by only a one-goal margin, which offers plenty of hope for better results in 2015.

Canetti praised the passion and dedication of the Dash fans, who enthusiastically embraced the team from the first kick. He is aiming for improved home form next season to help build crowds. Even though the Dash only won twice at BBVA Compass Stadium, their average attendance of 4,650 was second in the league behind Portland. He believes that in a city the size of Houston there is room for growth.

“I’m definitely pleased that we took on this venture this year and while we fell short of our goals and expectations for wins and for things like attendance I’m very pleased with the foundation that we laid and believe there’s a very bright outlook for the future,” he told HoustonDashSoccer.com.

“What we were able to do this year was see the vision. We know that there’s an opportunity in front of us that we still have to capture. I see an opportunity going into 2015 where we can do substantially better as a business and I believe that we’ve laid the foundation for the team for which a few changes and improvements can make us compete for the playoffs.”

Ching agrees. The Dynamo legend retired as a player at the end of last year and was quickly thrust into front-office life, having to adjust as he swapped his orange jersey for a suit, his cleats for dress shoes. 

“I take this as a learning experience not only for myself but for the team, for our organization. We learned about a new league, we learned about being an expansion team, we learned about selling professional women’s sport in the city, we learned about the level of competition in the NWSL and I think we have a lot better grasp of everything than when we started and I think that’s really going to help us be successful for next year,” he told HoustonDashSoccer.com.

“We came in with high expectations, not really knowing what we were getting into on one level and I definitely put a lot more pressure on myself to be successful both on and off the field next year … I think we’re going to be a lot better prepared.”

This offseason the Dash staff have the luxury of time, the benefit of experience and the comfort of not having to start from scratch as they look to form a team that can achieve a top-four place in 2015, the NWSL’s third season.

“If you look at the roster we’ve got a great goalkeeping situation with Erin McLeod as our number one and Bianca Henninger as our number two, we’ve got some stability in the back line with Whitney Engen, Meghan Klingenberg and Arianna Romero, Becky Edwards is obviously a very solid midfielder for us and in the front line Kealia Ohai showed a lot of improvement and a lot of reason to believe she’s going to be a very substantial contributor. So there’s a foundation. We’ve got to make some tweaks, some changes, I think to be able to compete with some of the better teams in the league and get into the playoff race,” said Canetti.

“We think we need to look internationally, add some players that can be impact players on the field. If you look at some of the top teams in the league that are in the playoffs this year there are plenty of examples of those kind of players that are on a different level of play. I think that’s our opportunity for growth and improvement on the pitch and having a nice offseason here of six months gives us the time we need to really hone our plans, both from a business perspective and from a competitive prospective.”

After a season spent watching the league and improving his knowledge of women’s soccer, Ching is ready to put his scouting skills to work and help Waldrum add the right players to the mix. “I’ve been fortunate to learn every aspect of the business this year, from dealing with player visas, dealign with agents, selling sponsorships, selling tickets, to in-game promotions, the customer experience,” he said.

“Next year I’ll be able to help Randy a lot more as far as identifying players from around the league and around the world that can really benefit us on the field and I think I learned a lot about what we need to do to bring fans to the stadium. I think this offseason really allows us to plan for those types of things in a lot more detail whereas last year we didn’t have that opportunity to plan.”

Women’s soccer is sure to attract plenty of attention in the next two years, with the FIFA women’s World Cup taking place in Canada next summer and the Rio Olympics following in 2016. Canetti expects those major global tournaments will boost the game here in Houston.

“I think the next two years you’re going to see a showcase for the women’s game at the highest level and an opportunity to build it and grow recognition and brands of the top stars that are competing in the league and I think that can only help in terms of helping us grow and achieve new heights for both the Dash and the NWSL,” he said.

Before the season the Dash were envisioned as a team in the Dynamo mould: a battling and spirited unit. Determination and teamwork were two hallmarks of Ching’s play and it delighted him to see the Dash embody those qualities. 

“The way they stuck together, the way they fight, they’re known as a team around the league that is not an easy game, even though our record isn’t where we want it to be,” he said. “I think they’ve developed a reputation as being a solid team that comes out and competes every game and if you ask me that’s probably what I’m most proud about, the way that the team approached their games and the way the team stuck together through all the adversity that we’ve had this season.”

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.