The first of the fourth and final round of preliminaries looked to be a corker. Defensive mavens Washington Spirit up against the attacking prowess of the devilish Houston Dash.
When first considering the draw, arguably, this was to be Washington Spirit’s least challenging fixture, having already faced Chicago Red Stars, Portland Thorns and table leaders North Carolina Courage. However, Houston Dash certainly did not come to mess around. The Dash have brought not only an exhilaration to the Challenge Cup, but a finishing quality, that has taken the tournament by surprise.
Coming into this game, there was little to separate the two sides. Three games played. One game won, one game lost, one game drawn. The Dash sitting in third place with five goals scored and five conceded; The Spirit in the middle of the table in fifth place, with three goals scored and four conceded. This equal standing is further amplified by last season’s gameday record; two draws, and win for the Dash by just one single goal.
Yet standings aside, Washington looked to be in a slightly favourable position as kick-off approached. Not only did the Spirit have three days rest over the Dash, they ended their previous match with a 1-1 tie against Portland Thorns. In contrast, Houston finished their penultimate preliminary in a lacklustre (well, lacklustre compared to their previous two games that is) defeat against the earlier underperforming Sky Blue FC.
Starting elevens in, and a Rose Lavelle shaped hole in Washington’s middle was notable amongst the line-ups. The USWNT midfield maestro was likely to be a huge loss to the Spirit’s creativity. Yet, perhaps, Lavelle’s absence was to level the playing field just that little bit further.
With those all important three seeding points up for grabs; a game of two halves this was looking to be.
Within the first five minutes of the match, either side had a chance on goal. Washington Spirit’s corner in the second minute met with a shot from Kumi Yokoyuma, that was crucially cleared off the line by Houston’s Rachel Daly. In response, the Dash shot forward but Katie Stengel’s high hit couldn’t reach the target.
The Spirit upped the ante, and a relentless ten minutes of danger for the Dash finally ended with right-footed strike by Bayley Feist. With the ever-threatening Ashley Hatch in the area for Washington, the Dash failed to clamp down on Feist, who with space, put the Spirit ahead in the sixteenth minute. A poor goal conceded by the defence and goalkeeper alike.
The rest of the first half played out in a similar fashion. The intensely threatening trio of Ashley Sanchez, Hatch and Yokoyuma continued to make life difficult for Houston’s backline. Goalkeeper Jane Campbell did extremely well to keep Washington at bay. The Dash, on the other hand, looked slightly reserved, perhaps having taken a little knock in confidence from their previous loss.
Houston did, however, begin to stir as the end of the first half approached. A faultless through ball from Kristie Mewis perfectly met Daly’s flanking run. Daly swept in a curling ball from the left that pinged off the crossbar. Houston’s best chance of the half kept out by the woodwork.
Jaye Boisiere replaced Tegan McGrady as a half time substitution and Washington Spirit once again entered half looking like the stronger side. And they certainly didn’t waste any time in proving it. Within a minute of the whistle being blown Feist sent a driving shot in from range, that, fortunately for the Dash, fell comfortably for Campbell.
The Spirit’s second substitution came early in the second half after captain Andi Sullivan pulled up with a worrying looking injury. Sullivan was replaced by Meggie Dougherty-Howard around the fifty-minute mark. Yet even with their captain now off the field, Washington continued to have the upper-hand and continued to test Campbell’s savvy between the posts.
Nichelle Prince and Haley Hanson replaced Veronica Latsko and Erin Simon respectively for the Dash with just under half an hour to go, and very quickly Houston began to settle into a more familiar rhythm. This had been on the cards, with the Dash seeming to maintain possession and dispel attacks more calmly since the beginning of the second half. Houston’s first real chance of the half came from Prince’s cross in from the left wing. A collision in the area brought Mewis down before Stengel retrieved the ball and sent a shot in from the right-hand side. Stengel’s ball looking for the top left-hand corner was headed away by the vitally positioned Paige Nielsen.
This chance seemed to wake Houston and the final fifteen minutes of the match consisted of continuous looming threats from the Dash. Substitutes Bri Visalli and Haley Hanson having a real impact on Houston’s attack, sending in cross after cross from the right-hand side. The final chance of the night then fell to Daly in the fifth minute of stoppage time. Prince sent in a beautiful ball in to the area, almost perfectly placed for Daly to nod into the net. Yet, with a diving catch, the ever-alert Aubrey Bledsoe held on to the ball. Daly denied; Washington Spirit – 1, Houston Dash – 0.
The close match expected, yet perhaps not the excitement anticipated. Washington Spirit high pressing and relentless with their pressure, especially in the first half. Yokoyama notably dangerous with her runs through the middle, and in her ability to slide a ball through to the equally as dangerous Hatch. Sam Staab and Nielsen completely solid at the back, simply allowing nothing to test Bledsoe for the majority of the game. A well-rounded performance by the Spirit indeed, gaining them their first clean sheet of the tournament, and their first win over Houston since 2017.
But that’s not to say we saw an altogether poor performance from the Dash. Allysha Chapman once again dominating the left wing, pushing herself forward and retrieving balls in risky areas. Fellow Canadian Sophie Schmidt also played an excellent game. Her accuracy in chipping the ball forward, and in sending passes into the area, was paramount to Houston’s limited opportunities. Mewis, Daly and Schmidt were all instrumental in doing an awful lot of work both offensively and defensively, trying to keep the Dash afloat. These were helped also by the confident catches of Campbell, who very much stood out today.
With three games of the final round still left to play, the final standings are difficult to predict. North Carolina Courage are clear and in pole position, Washington Spirit now in second with seven points. Houston Dash currently lie in fifth place, but their negligible goal difference looks advantageous in keeping them somewhere in the middle ahead of the quarter-finals.
By Charlotte Stacey