The 3 theories that explain Houston's remarkable NWSL turnaround
An oft-recurring preseason question around NWSL asked who would finish bottom of this season’s standings. For the Houston Dash, a disappointing eighth-place finish in 2016 combined with controversial draft picks, questionable signings and Carli Lloyd’s absence for the first half of the season made the team a prime candidate for the spot.
Hope was momentarily restored when Houston soundly opened the 2017 season with a 2-0 win over the Chicago Red Stars, but a 5-1 defeat on the road in Seattle the next week was a harbinger of more losses to come. Houston won just one of its next seven games, enduring a six-game losing streak which stretched into mid-June.
Four games into that skid, the Dash fired head coach Randy Waldrum. Assistant Omar Morales, who had no prior head-coaching experience at the professional level, took over on an interim basis. That’s when things changed.
Two more losses with Morales at the helm, and suddenly, the Dash was on an inexplicable six-game unbeaten streak, pulling from the bottom of the table and into sixth place, just eight points behind the first-place Red Stars.
So what has inspired this 180 from the Dash?
Theory 1: The schedule is evening out
One answer seems glaringly obvious: the strength of schedule. During the team’s six-game unbeaten streak, Houston has only faced one top-half team, third-ranked Portland Thorns, which resulted in a 1-1 draw. The other five games have been against Orlando, FC Kansas City, Boston (twice), and Washington, the four teams currently below Houston in the NWSL standings. In comparison, the Dash’s first nine opponents included six matches against top-five teams.
“I think that's crap, honestly,” Amber Brooks said when asked about critics emphasizing the Dash’s recent lack of tough opponents as the main factor in their success. “Maybe in years past you could go, 'Hey, there's one or two that maybe if you don't play your best game you're still going to get points against,’ but that's certainly not true this year.
“Every game is tough. I think that's kind of rude to us and the results that we've been getting and also to our opponents because everyone is quality in this league.”
Theory 2: Stopping the revolving door
However, Brooks did admit that, before Waldrum’s departure from the team, most of the week’s game preparations consisted of changing lineups, formation, and game strategy to adapt to the next opponent. As a result, there was a metaphorical revolving door between the bench and the field, as seven different lineups were implemented in the first nine games. The defense was the most heavily (and noticeably) impacted by the lineup changes; Waldrum only started the same back five three times, all consecutively. With the exception of the Seattle road game, goalkeeper Lydia Williams started each match, but in front of her was a rotating cast of eight different defenders, very few of whom played consistently in any one position. Cari Roccaro started the season at left back, but was shifted first center then to right back in the following two weeks. Even Rachel Daly had a brief stint at outside back, but three losses in three games saw her moved back into the attack.
Once Morales took over, it took only two games before he settled on his preferred lineup and, at least defensively, has implemented it ever since. Jane Campbell has taken over starting goalkeeping duties, with Poliana, Brooks, Janine van Wyk, and Camille Levin lined up in front of her. That defensive lineup has been implemented for each of the six games in the Dash’s current unbeaten streak and has undoubtedly been a factor in the team’s success.
For Brooks, finding the right backline was more about finding the right combination of players than the best players.
“Maybe player by player, are we the best four defenders on the team? Perhaps not, but it seems that we have kind of the best working relationships and work well together,” Brooks said. “You need a good, consistent back four to anchor the six that we have in front of us, to allow them to do what they do best.”
Chemistry has finally developed as a result of consistency. In the first nine games of the season, the team allowed 20 goals; it has allowed three in the last six matches.
Campbell has also grown into her starting role as a rookie, giving up just two goals in her six starts since that disastrous night in Seattle. She has saved 78 percent of the shots she has faced, compared to Williams stopping half.
“I think what I appreciate the most about her is, defense isn't perfect and you're going to let up two, three, four good scoring opportunities a game, and she's been making those two, three, four big saves a game,” Brooks said. “Ideally a keeper doesn't have to make too many, but at this level and with the players on each team, it happens. She's been able to keep us in games because of not letting up an early goal or a late goal.”
Over the last six games, the Dash has also scored eight goals, the same number of balls that found the back of the net in their first nine games. For Daly, consistency in the lineup has been beneficial there as well.
“Keeping consistency in the same XI is obviously very helpful. You get to know a rhythm,” Daly said. “I had a conversation actually with Nichelle [Prince] today, and obviously for us two playing together up top, it's been nice to have that rhythm, to find each other and to have a bit more chemistry, and for that relationship to keep growing.”
Theory 3: Adding one of the world’s best
One other defining feature of the Houston Dash lineup has been the reintegration of Carli Lloyd, back from her jaunt overseas to play in England’s FA Women’s Super League, where she won the FA Cup and advanced to the UEFA Champions League semifinals with Manchester City. Lloyd’s first appearance for the Dash was a 73-minute shift during the team’s 4-2 home loss to the Orlando Pride, the last loss Houston has suffered. It is no coincidence that Lloyd’s arrival immediately precedes the team’s unbeaten streak, as her presence has been crucial to the team’s turnaround performance.
Although naysayers are quick to point out that Lloyd only has one goal so far this season, she does so much more than just score, which she’s notoriously good at. Only two active players, both forwards, have more total shots than Lloyd, and Andressinha is the only midfielder to have more shots on goal than she does (10 to Lloyd’s eight). More important, though, is the link Lloyd provides between the defense and the forwards. Although she creates numerous shooting opportunities for herself, she also creates just as many, if not more, for her teammates. The service that she provides to the likes of Daly and Prince, especially while drawing multiple defenders to herself, has created a number of goal-scoring opportunities for the Dash.
“As soon as she came back, we started to win,” Daly said. "Granted, it's not just her, but I think her presence and her overall dominance is very important to this team.She's just such a phenomenal player, she’s so direct. She's great for the forwards to have someone like that giving you that solid service in from behind, so yeah, she's been fantastic for us.”
Lloyd brings experience and leadership with her, and her famous work ethic isn’t lost on her teammates.
“She brings so much on the field as far as her scoring ability, her work ethic,” Brooks said. “She's someone the other team has to respect. But also just kind of her presence and … the aura around her, she just kind of demands excellence.”
There’s optimism in Houston that the playoffs are still a possibility, but the road ahead is tough. Five of Houston’s last eight matches are against teams currently in playoff contention. Up first is a daunting road test against the Portland Thorns at Providence Park, the most intimidating venue in the NWSL.
“I don't think we're calculating points too much yet, but we know the next four or five games this month are really going to determine whether we can be in playoffs or not,” Brooks admitted. “I think our performance has become more consistent, and when you've got that, the results are possible.”