Twenty-two. That was the age of the two players that combined for the goal that booked three points for the Houston Dash in a 1-0 win over the Boston Breakers Saturday night, making it a club record six-game unbeaten streak.
The beauty of the pass from Brazilian Andressa was noteworthy as was the strength and precise finish of Nichelle Prince. But in the big picture the goal, which was held steady on the scoreboard by another good performance from goalkeeper Jane Campbell – also 22-years-old, a mantra that has buoyed the Dash's recent run comes to mind: Play your kids.
"I think from Jane on up everyone is doing their part. Jane had another heck of a save today. The defense was solid again and everybody coming off the bench has really helped us tremendously because we're a bit tired towards the end of the match and they come on with fresh legs," Carli Lloyd said after the game. "Overall, I think it's great, Nichelle is continuing to grow in confidence each and every game. It was a class finish by her, and overall I'm really proud of the group, and we just have to keep going."
Of the fourteen players Houston deployed Saturday night, seven were 24 years old or younger – including five in the starting lineup.
Houston's investment in the youth is not a surprise. When the club needed a lift, head coach Omar Morales took the approach that youth could provide a spark. That's what has happened.
Campbell has settled the back of a defense that kept a third clean sheet in six games and has allowed just three goals in that span of time. Andressinha is having a breakout season, and Prince and fellow attackers Rachel Daly and Janine Beckie have seen their form come around. Add in a proven star in Morgan Brian and the kids are helping propel the club into the playoff discussion.
"I definitely think it stems from the leaders we have in the team, the veterans," Campbell said. "They definitely set the example. You know we are not always going to be perfect, not everyone's going to have a good game, not everyone is going to shine.
"I think that when those players don't shine as well, it gives other people the chance to shine and I think Nichelle Prince took that opportunity and slammed it home, so that was awesome of her. I know that a lot of players had chances today and that's good that we are creating. Hopefully in the future we just put them away."
That mix of youth and veteran savvy is optimal. Lloyd is the standard that many players around the world want to rise to, and her day-to-day example is a valuable ingredient to the young mix Morales is putting together.
Against the Breakers that youth came in handy. If the young pups can continue to bite, the club's playoff aspirations will continue to grow. Sure, there will be down times and learning curves will get extra bumpy; that's not on Houston's radar.
The kids have helped them get to where they are and if grind-out victories like Saturday nights continue; there's no reason to pull away from the formula.