Treading water: Why the Houston Dash moved on from Randy Waldrum

ISI Photos-Roy K. Miller

With results still lacking, the Houston Dash had little choice but to move on from its first coach.

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What changed for the Houston Dash since last year? Unfortunately for the club and its fans, nothing much, which is why the Dash decided to move on.

The four-year-old National Women's Soccer League franchise announced on Monday that the only coach it had ever known, Randy Waldrum, had ended his time with the club. While the move was officially described as a mutual parting of ways, Dash president Chris Canetti’s implication was clear. When he sat down with his coach to discuss a path forward, they couldn’t find one under Waldrum.

“At the end of the day,” Canetti explained to reporters in a media conference call, “Randy and I both sat there and looked each other in the eye and said perhaps this team just needs a new breath of fresh air  – a new voice, something different that can lead it and can give the players a different outlook when they come back and try to take the field tomorrow to prepare for the next day.”

Thus ends the slow decline of what, in its first year, looked like a promising project. The first expansion team in NWSL history, Houston joined in 2014 and finished its inaugural campaign with a reputation as one of the hardest-working, best-organized teams in the league. The only thing holding it back, it seemed, was expansion-level talent.

That changed in year two, with the arrivals of U.S. internationals Carli Lloyd and Morgan Brian. Houston surged to the doorstep of the playoffs, but the team collapsed to eighth last year, faltering after a knee injury to Lloyd and ending the season in a state of discontent. Waldrum earned a one-year extension, but with general manager Brian Ching moving on to different pastures, 2017 set up as a referendum on Waldrum’s future.

“I think Randy knew, and everybody knew, that this was an important year, for him,” Canetti explained. “We can look back at the last three years, and we can point to legitimate issues that perhaps prevented us from achieving our goals, but we didn’t see any of those things in front of us this year.

“As things started to go the wrong way over the last couple of weeks, you start to look closer and think harder … I know even Randy thought long and hard about himself and where he fits in.”

Unfortunately for the former Notre Dame boss, the fit did not improve, and with his team languishing in ninth place out of 10, the 60-year-old is out of a job, leaving us to wonder if he was ever made for NWSL success.

Waldrum built a Hall of Fame-level resume at the college level, succeeding at Tulsa and Baylor before leaving his native Texas for a job with the Fighting Irish. There, he helped push a powerhouse to new heights, winning 279 games and two national championships over the course of 14 seasons.

Having accomplished all he could in South Bend, it was natural for the Irving, Texas-born coach to jump at the Houston job in 2014. But over the last two years, it became clear that he was a poor fit for the NWSL world. Though he was the most important part of a surprisingly competitive first-year team, Waldrum’s message eventually became stale, and a lack of communication that usually goes unchecked in college soccer created uncertainty in Houston.

At the NCAA level, players cycle out within four years, and most of the talent you bring in doesn’t expect to be truly featured until their third or fourth seasons. There’s no need to explain why you’ve established your pecking order. For the most part, seniority is also tied to player development. With limited scholarships, the depth chart often writes itself, and when it doesn’t, the command a college coach has over his squad is authoritarian.

At the pro level, it’s different, and not only because you are dealing with more mature, more knowledgeable athletes. In the NWSL, you are with a team indefinitely. If a player is on the bench and thinks she should start, it’s harder to see a path to change, to say, “well, next year, that player will be gone and I’ll have a shot.” Players don’t graduate from their teams in the NWSL.

A long time coming

Houston finished last season with players questioning where they sat in Waldrum’s pecking order, and while many of those players ended up moving on, some stayed. With both them and the new blood the Dash brought in this winter, Waldrum needed to reestablish himself. He had been given a contract extension, but he still needed to show he was the right man for the job.

There was no progress from last year, though, a state that made Canetti’s decision straightforward. Where Houston goes from here, however, isn’t as clear.

Randy and I both sat there and looked each other in the eye and said perhaps this team just needs a new breath of fresh air – a new voice.

- Chris Canetti

The Dash is hoping to replace Waldrum within three weeks, and a list of candidates was already well underway by the time Canetti discussed his decision Monday evening.  Between the Dash and its brother club, MLS’ Houston Dynamo, this will be the third coaching change Canetti has overseen in 12 months. While it’s tempting to wonder if struggles on the men’s side delayed solving the women’s problem, Canetti insisted one process never interfered with the other.

“Those two were not connected at all,” Canetti said. “I can say that without a doubt. I will say this: I did learn quite a bit from that process last year, of how things played out with [former Dynamo coaches] Owen [Coyle] and Wade [Barrett] and so forth, and will take, and have already taken away, my learning from that challenging situation and unfortunate situation and apply it to the Dash, here. They’re not connected, there are no ties there, but there’s definitely experience [to] take from it that can be learned and used.”

Wherever those lessons lead, the next Dash head coach will enter a highly competitive NWSL landscape, one that is already overloaded with coaching talent. Seeing the struggles Seattle’s Laura Harvey had last season, or those Kansas City’s Vlatko Andonovski has when his strikers go down, or Paul Riley had in Portland reminds us that coaching acumen isn’t enough. Those three have combined for five major NWSL honors, yet all have faced adversity and struggle in this league.

If Houston can find a coach of that caliber, though, the tools at their disposal are another issue. Canetti insisted that Houston has the talent. He believes it, and other people in the women’s soccer world assure him he’s not wrong. Yet when you see how the Dash’s best XI stacks up to those found at NWSL contenders like North Carolina, Portland, Chicago and Seattle, there are obvious problems.

The Dash’s back line isn’t nearly as strong as the defenses of proven playoff contenders. The team’s midfield has talent, but the balance and combinations have never been right, leaving the team reliant on the soon-to-return Lloyd to create goals when she returns from her loan stint at Manchester City. The squad depth gives the team’s future boss very few ways to change the setup, and given Waldrum’s propensity to draft college players who also take up international spots, a team with resources that should draw major talents has less flexibility to fit them within the NWSL’s roster rules.

That’s not to say the Dash can’t improve. The NWSL hasn’t seen a team in such desperate need of a new voice since the Boston Breakers two years ago, or the struggling Breakers and Spirit teams of 2013. But even if Canetti can find the next elite NWSL boss, his team may not have the talent to catch the squads Harvey, Riley, Rory Dames (Chicago) and Mark Parsons (Portland) have now.

Houston will need an offseason of rebuilding. It will need another draft, and it will need to make some trades so that the talent imbalance between defense and the rest of the field can be evened out. Some tough decisions on some international players have to be made, and the squad’s faith in its decision-makers needs to be restored. Right now, that psychological element has to be job No. 1.

Unfortunately, Waldrum isn’t the person to do that. In time, he’ll be remembered more for his legendary time in South Bend than his spell with Houston. That’s only right, even if at the moment he’s left the Dash searching for someone to become a legend at the NWSL level.

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Richard Farley is the deputy editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.