Ok, this is it. In a final no-one would’ve predicted, Chicago Red Stars and Houston Dash will be battling it out to win their first ever NWSL title.
The Red Stars have had a fairly consistent road to the final. No huge losses; no vast wins. The defensive-mindedness of the Red Stars has come up trumps with their back line seeming almost impenetrable at times. Bianca St. Georges, Casey Short and captain Julie Ertz holding firm throughout. When it comes to playoffs, the Red Stars are no strangers. In fact, this is their second consecutive finals spot and this all-important experience could finally take them all the way.
Whilst Chicago have the upper hand with experience, Houston have a raging momentum. The Dash came blazing into the tournament, and have played with an exhilaration that has kept tongues wagging ever since. Forwards Nichelle Prince, Bri Visalli and captain Rachel Daly have kept defensive lines on their toes with their lively attacks. More of the same could well see the underdogs lift the trophy for the very first time.
That unfortunate semi-final own goal aside, the Red Stars have displayed some of the most impressive defensive work of the tournament. Yet, as fate would have it, the Dash have produced some of the most exciting offensive plays. Chicago’s back four and Houston’s forward three certainly look to make life rather difficult for each other. In particular, the formidable defensive abilities of Ertz, against the inspired attack of Daly, is a clash to look out for.
In their only meeting of the tournament, both sides are likely to note a couple of recognisable figures in their opposing line-ups.
Houston Dash will likely see their former captain, forward Kealia Watt, lining up against them. Watt played six seasons with the Dash and is currently their all-time top goal scorer. Watt sits just above Daly with 28 goals, although considering Daly’s performance so far, the Lioness could well take the top spot today.
Chicago will also come up against a familiar face of their own. Former Red Stars defender Katie Naughton now makes up one half of Houston’s centre-back duo. Naughton has been a key figure for the Dash, starting every game so far.
Two very physical teams will produce a very physical game, and with each side bringing the very ingredients to fully oppose the other, this could well turn out to be a test of stamina. Both teams undoubtably have the tools to take them to the top. But one cannot help but put their faith in the side that has brought the thrill, the drama and the grit to the Challenge Cup. Houston Dash embrace a self-belief and a team spirit that may just see them victorious.
by Charlotte Stacey