A hotly anticipated match this was indeed. Houston Dash coming in confident from their goal-laden 3-3 draw against Utah Royals; OL Reign fresh from their clean sheet against Sky Blue.
Looking at their opening games, this was to be a test for both sides. On paper, even with their notable absences (Megan Rapinoe, Jess Fishlock, Sofia Huerta), OL Reign look to have the stronger roster. Yet, so far, Houston Dash has been the ones to watch (we’ll say no more about hat trick hero gate).
Two very different debuts into the Challenge Cup, two different styles of play; but both teams seemingly harbour the recipe to exploit each other’s weaknesses. The Dash with the finesse to finish; Reign with the defence to stop them in their tracks.
How would Houston’s poor defending at set pieces fare against Reign’s aerial menaces? How would Reign’s slower build deal with the quick pressure put on by the Dash?
With exceptionally close encounters last season, this looked to be anyone’s game. Both teams currently at one point apiece. Both teams hungry for a win.
Kick-off commenced under the dreaded glare at Zions Stadium. OL Reign opted for a 4-1-2-3, Houston appeared to be playing a more typical 4-3-2-1 (or 4-3-3). The opening ten minutes were fairly uneventful, with both sides even in possession, no real pressure coming from either. But, in the eleventh minute, a poor clearance from Reign’s goalkeeper Casey Murphy landed in the lap of Houston’s Bri Visalli. Visalli slid it to Shea Groom, who sent it across to Kristie Mewis with a nifty back heel. Mewis took stock, hit it with her left; the Dash took an early lead.
Reign responded by building up possessive play in and around the final third. At twenty minutes Kristen McNabb put in a blinding cross from the left-hand side, Yuka Momiki met it with a head but sent it wide of the posts. Unfortunately for Reign, this was to be their best chance of the night.
Much of the half then followed a pattern; Reign keeping a steadier possession, continuing to build pressure, yet remained lacklustre in their final attack. Houston, on the other hand, held off the rousing build-up but quickly pounced on any opportunities to counter-attack, meaning the Dash, although not seeing as much of the ball, looked more likely to score.
The second half kicked-off and within seconds Mewis was on target for her second of the night. A pass into the box from Rachel Daly saw the midfielder fire another belter at Reign’s goal, but this time, no net found. This first minute of the second 45 turned out to be a sign of things to come.
New Zealander Rosie White had Reign’s best chance of the second half in the 50th minute. A high ball in from Momiki was chested down by White, who had slipped in behind Houston’s centre backs. White turned with the shot but couldn’t keep it down and sent it over the crossbar.
The Dash dominated the rest of the match. Reign showed sporadic glimpses of an attacking setup, yet ultimately, they presented no real threat. Houston scored their second goal in the 53rd minute. Sophie Schmidt sent a pass forward to meet the run of Daly along the right wing. Daly swept in a cross that Shea Groom climbed an almost impossible height to meet. Unmarked, Groom forcibly nodded the ball straight past Murphy. A pinpoint delivery; a perfect finish. The Dash were now two ahead.
Reign desperately needed to shake things up, and in the 62nd minute, in a triple substitution, their entire forward line was replaced. Jodie Taylor, Jasmyne Spencer and Dani Weatherholt on for Bethany Balcer, Momiki and White. Unfortunately, these changes did not have the desired impact and the Dash continued to wreak havoc. The last twenty minutes played out much as the rest of the game had, Reign’s attempted rousing efforts meeting Houston’s brick wall approach to defending. The match ended with a comfortable two-nil victory for Houston Dash.
We were perhaps hoping for more of a showdown after the draws each team ended their previous matches with. However, it was clear very early on that Houston Dash were not going to make the same mistakes that they did against the Royals. The Dash cleaned up those defensive errors and were much tighter as a unit. In fact, so much so, that not only did they manage to keep a clean sheet, they managed to not allow Reign to have a single shot on target. However, there were still some miscommunications at the back and the Dash will need to be careful of these moving into their next game against Washington Spirit.
OL Reign did not have the best of nights, but there were still positives to draw on. The Dash presented a constant looming threat and they did well to only let two goals cross the line. Allie Long, Kristien McNabb and Rosie White certainly stood out, with most of the creativity stemming from the runs and deliveries of these three. As they move forward, Reign must rethink their plan of attack. They have the possession, but so far, no conviction, meaning they are still chasing their first goal of the tournament. Reign need to improve their movements in the final third if they are to stand any chance of challenging the Royals in their next fixture.
Having now scored five goals across two games, the Dash looking very strong indeed. Shea Groom and Rachel Daly sit tied as Houston’s top scorers with two goals and one assist a piece. Today’s celebrations seemingly fitting for the Texan team; as fourth of July fireworks go, Houston Dash lit the biggest sparks of the night.
By Charlotte Stacey
Photo Credit: Nikki Flores @ Footy Day Photos