Will the Houston Dash defend their Challenge Cup title?
The Houston Dash were the feel good story of 2020. After struggling even with talented players in the previous few seasons, the team won the 2020 Challenge Cup in iconic fashion by playing an exciting style of soccer with electric celebrations to match. With the “Air Groom” celebration, Bri Visalli’s “Come and Take It” meme, and Kristie Mewis’ iconic armful of Budweiser bottles, the Dash became a fan favorite. Even though the Dash also performed well during the fall series, fans have been left wondering if 2020 was a stand-alone good year or if it is the beginning of something greater. While only time will tell, the answer may be both. 2020 will always be a stand-alone year based on how excellent the Dash were in a time of uncertainty, but Houston clearly has more gas in the tank.
The team brought in promising young midfielders Gabby Seiler and Emily Ogle. Houston has talented depth on every line in Veronica Latsko, Ally Prisock, and Katie Stengel. The Dash are expected to be missing six projected starters for the first two of four Challenge Cup matches in 2021, including English striker Rachel Daly, Canadian winger Nichelle Prince, and USWNT midfielder Kristie Mewis, who had a career-defining year in 2020. Due to lack of proven left back depth behind Canadian Allysha Chapman, head coach James Clarkson revealed in a recent media availability that they might consider a three-defender formation in certain situations.
The absence of Canadian Sophie Schmidt will open up the defensive midfield role for Gabby Seiler, who is a promising young player in the position and has been a standout this preseason. Haley Hanson is another top young player at the position but has been converted to right back in an effort to get on the national team radar. While the team is not used to functioning without Mewis, Shea Groom performed admirably carrying the bulk of offensive creativity in the 2020 Challenge Cup final when Mewis had to leave early to injury. Fortunately, the Dash have a bye during the 3rd match round, which ensures that their internationals will have time to return for the final two matches. Houston is the real deal and likely to qualify for the NWSL playoffs in the fall. They have a tough road to the 2021 Challenge Cup final due to missing many key players for half of the matches, but the Dash are up to the task.
By Tim Antoniewicz