Wilf Thorne/Houston Dash

Houston Dash look to build off recent success before Women's World Cup break

As the Women’s World Cup gets underway in Canada on Saturday, the Dash are looking to cap a big day for the sport with a win over Portland Thorns FC at BBVA Compass Stadium (7:30 p.m. CT; TICKETS).

The Dash have found some form and consistency in recent weeks despite missing key players on international duty. Randy Waldrum’s side are seeking to extend a three-game unbeaten streak that was preserved with a 1-1 tie on the road to Sky Blue FC last Sunday thanks to a late equalizer from Allie Bailey, her first NWSL goal and the first goal scored by an amatuer player.

The previous match was an impressive 1-0 road win over Portland, the 2013 NWSL champions, secured with a goal from Jessica McDonald against her former team. Solid defending and key saves from goalkeeper Bianca Henninger helped preserve the scoreline.

“We’re hoping we can get the same kind of result. Portland’s surprisingly, with three losses in a row, certainly going to be coming here desperately needing a win. They haven’t really played that poorly in the three games, they’ve just been unlucky with what they’ve given up and not been able to finish quite efficiently,” Waldrum said.

“They’re going to be very good and desperate for a win but this is a really good opportunity to put them in real bad shape if we can come away with a win at home.”

With a third of the regular season in the books, the standings are so tight that one good result can make a big difference in the standings. The Dash are currently fifth in the NWSL with nine points from seven matches, only one point behind the Boston Breakers in third. After Saturday the Dash do not play again until June 20, when they host the Western New York Flash.

Midfielder Rachael Axon said that defending as a compact unit was the key to the recent victory over the Thorns. “We focused that whole week on our shape and how we were going to to defend and we got the result that we wanted,” she said.

“When you look at all of our performances over the course of the season that’s probably the best one we’ve had to date in terms of our shape, structure and organization and now it’s taking that into the next games and also adding the little, minor pieces that we’re still missing.

“I think we’re just focusing in on the smaller details [like if] you say to someone ‘if you’re five yards more to the left it makes all the difference’. So I think if you start to pick up on the minor details they have an effect on the entire game and I think that’s been a result of the past two or three games.”

Axon, who represented England at junior levels, is excited for the start of the tournament in Canada and what it could mean for the development of the sport.

“I’ve watched a lot of interviews and videos and I think going into this World Cup, this is probably the [tournament with the] most countries that have professional athletes, where players are actually getting paid full time where they can just focus on training and playing. So I expect the standard and the quality will be as high as everyone expects and hopes. If you can get that out of this big event, then take it into the Olympics, then I think more funding is going to be pumped into the women’s game,” she said.

Waldrum is hoping that the national attention on the World Cup will create a ripple effect that boosts the Dash, the NWSL and the sport as a whole. “It happened the last go-round with the WPS, I think we saw the gates go up a little bit after the World Cup was over, so we hope it has a positive effect. I think as much as we can see the U.S. team going far it’s only going to help the game here. I think it’s going to help the game around the world,” he said.

“I do think it’ll have a real positive effect once the World Cup’s over, once those players come back and it’s on everybody’s mind I think we’ll see the gates improve. Hopefully it’ll bring more people out during the time the World Cup’s going on as well.”

While Waldrum is having to cope without his internationals this month, he’s pleased that his stars are attracting attention and knows that the number of absences is an indicator of the level of talent on the Dash roster.

Six Houston players are representing their country in Canada: Carli Lloyd, Morgan Brian and Meghan Klingenberg with the U.S. and Erin McLeod, Lauren Sesselmann and Allysha Chapman for the host nation.

“If Sesselmann is healthy enough to start and play we’re going to have six national team starters where I think there’s other teams that have quite a few players that they’re missing but not all of them are starters,” Waldrum said. ”That’s pretty impressive to know that we’ve got that many on our team.”

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.