Wilf Thorne/Houston Dash

Trust the plan: Houston Dash are sitting pretty in a playoff spot with a month to go in the NWSL season

With one month left in the regular season, the Houston Dash are sitting in a playoff spot. That’s just how head coach Randy Waldrum drew it up.

The mantra coming into the season for Waldrum was to get through the World Cup within striking distance of the top four, and to make their move with a full strength squad when national team players returned to the squad. U.S. players took to the field on July 20 at fourth-place FC Kansas City and earned a 1-1 draw. Then the team defeated the Western New York Flash 1-0 to leapfrog into fifth place, and took down Kansas City 3-2 in a rematch to jump into that final playoff spot. A 3-1 loss to the Washington Spirit on August 1 did nothing to change their position.

Four games in 12 days in four different cities earned the Dash seven points, and moved them up two spots in the league standings. So far, the plan has worked with nary a hitch.

“I think they're all proud of the fact that we did that because all of those teams were ahead of us in the standings,” Waldrum said. “They were almost all must-win games for us, and outside of the 20 minutes of Crystal Dunn's heroics up in Washington, we did well in that stretch and played well.”

The Dash control their fate with five games left to play: one point ahead of FC Kansas City and Portland Thorns FC, and two ahead of the Western New York Flash. It’s different feeling than their inaugural season, when the team was still mathematically in the race but would have needed a host of other results to go their way to finish in the top four. They have already matched last year's win total—five—and surpassed last year's points—18— in nearly 10 fewer games.

“I remember last season, every single game felt like we were hanging on,” said second-year forward Kealia Ohai. “At the end of the season you had to rely on other teams to beat each other. This year it’s so nice to be able to rely on yourself; if we win out, we’re going to make it into the playoffs. As a unit, we’re a lot more confident. With all the players that we’ve gotten in and how much better we’ve progressed throughout the season, we’re confident and we think should be even higher than fourth.”

While the team has their destiny in their hands, it’s not an easy road. Three of the five remaining games come against the top two teams in the league: a home and away series against Seattle Reign FC and the season finale visiting the Chicago Red Stars.

The Dash also get home games against Sky Blue FC and the Boston Breakers, the bottom two teams in the league standings, but those are not a given six points. In three games this year—all on the road—the Dash are 0-1-2 against Boston and Sky Blue.

“We need to take care of our wins at home if at all possible, and then probably still nip some points in the two games that we have left that are on the road,” Waldrum said. “We're not home free by any stretch of the imagination just because we're in that four-spot. Everybody's close behind us and we're still within reach of Washington, even though we didn't get that win. So these next two or three games are going to be crucial, but I think it's almost imperative that we win at home.”

The team’s confidence has never been higher thanks to the stretch run of the past two weeks, and their belief is that the collected group can go even higher, especially as the team gets more training together as a group and players, such as Canadian internationals Allysha Chapman and Lauren Sesselmann and midfielder Brittany Bock, recover from injury.

“It hasn't felt like in the last two to two-and-a-half weeks that we've had a lot of quality training time with the team that's going to be playing that weekend,” Waldrum said. “So I think now if we can get the team together and get them training a little bit more on a regular basis just to get familiar with each other, I think it gives us a great chance to accomplish those goals of making the playoffs.

“But I think everybody can see the addition of having the national team players back and adding Andressa. It's been a great addition, so we're getting it close to where we want it to be.”