The Houston Dash made the playoffs for the first time last season. They finished 2022 in fourth place but tied for 36 points with two other teams (San Diego Wave and Kansas City). The Dash ended up losing to Kansas City in the 90+10th minute in the first round of the playoffs, and they’ll undoubtedly be on a mission to avenge that loss in 2023.
So, what should we look forward to this season?
A new head coach
Last season saw three head coaches for the Dash. Former head coach James Clarkson was suspended in April 2022, and first assistant Sarah Lowdon stepped in as the acting head coach while the Dash searched for a new person to fill the role. Once Clarkson was dismissed, the Dash started turning around their 2022 ship. Lowdon went on the record preaching the importance of defensive organization off-the-ball movement. The first four games of Lowdon’s short tenure saw those principles translate on the field after Houston improved in goals conceded per game for the Dash: on average, they were conceding 1.7 fewer goals per game (0.5 goals conceded/game vs. 2.2 goals conceded per game). Of course, it goes without saying here that the sample size was quite small, but it’s important to acknowledge Lowdon’s successes.
Juan Carlos Amorós was hired as the interim head coach in June 2022. Amorós saw immediate success in the NWSL as a first-timer. In fact, he became the first head coach in history to win their first three games. He also led the Dash to their first playoff berth in their nine-year history, and hosted that match-up to boot. Despite those successes, Amorós left the Dash almost immediately in the offseason. He’s now the head coach at NJ/NY Gotham FC, and longtime OL Reign assistant Sam Laity has taken the reins at the Dash.
This will be Laity’s first head-coaching gig, so it remains to be seen if he’s up for that challenge. Houston’s actually returning players that accounted for a huge portion of their 2022 minutes (80%), and those players were obviously successful last season. That will help Laity this season, but he also brought in a huge squad–made of up 34 players–for preseason. That might indicate that he’s hand-picking his roster additions, and rounding out his roster with players that best fit his coaching style.
Some exciting attackers
Speaking of additions, Diana Ordóñez’ trade was one of the biggest stories to come out of the 2023 NWSL Draft this year. Ordóñez requested the trade in the offseason, and North Carolina clearly made it happen. The Courage sent Ordóñez and the No. 30 overall pick to Houston in return for the No. 8 overall pick, which North Carolina used to draft defender Sydney Collins. It was an interesting move for the Courage, considering Ordóñez made 17 starts in 19 appearances in North Carolina, but head coach Sean Nahas said the team wanted to honor her requests to be closer to home. Ordóñez also finished fourth in the NWSL Golden Boot race with 11 goals, only behind Debinha on the Courage roster. Those 11 goals even broke the league record for goals scored in a rookie season.
North Carolina’s loss is Houston’s huge gain.
There’s no doubt that Ordóñez will be headlining the Houston attack this year, paired with Ebony Salmon. Ordóñez scored 11 goals on 7.27 xG, and Salmon scored 9 goals on 5.38 xG. That translated to 0.83 goals on 0.46 xG per 96’ for Salmon, which was the highest goals minus expected goals value in the league (read: overperformance). Unfortunately for Houston, Ordóñez was ranked third in that overperformance measure, having scored 0.71 goals on 0.24 xG per 96’ mark. We should expect some regression to the mean for these players, which might translate to fewer goals scored.
María Sánchez will also be a player to watch in Houston’s attacking third. Sánchez was second on the entire Dash roster in passing goals added in 2022, though the player ahead of her (Julia Ashley, CB) only played 172 minutes. Sánchez also recorded two goals and four assists last season, which was her first full season in the NWSL.
Sánchez, who is known for her signature footwork on the flanks, led the team in crosses into the penalty area in 2022. We should expect her to do that again this season, especially now that one of her targets will be 5’11” Ordóñez, who also happens to be her Mexican women’s national teammate. Both Sánchez and Ordóñez will be available for the Dash through the 2023 World Cup window, considering Mexico failed to qualify last summer. Heartbreaking for both players, but very good for Houston.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Nichelle Prince in this discussion of the Dash attack. Unfortunately, Prince tore her Achilles in the offseason during a Canadian women’s national team friendly and will be unavailable this season. Prince was second in scoring and assists for the Dash last year, with five goals and three assists. She posted the second-highest xG+xA value (0.40) of all Houston players who recorded at least 1000 minutes in 2022. Her injury is a huge loss to this Houston team, but hopefully for them, Ordóñez will make up for at least some of it.
A high defensive line
Houston conceded 27 goals last season, which came out to 1.14 goals against per game. That’s actually their best mark since 2016 (i.e., as far back as our database goes). Digging into the numbers a little more, Houston ranked second-to-last on total clearances last season, but first in interceptions. They also led the league in offsides provoked. An ‘offsides provoked’ event is awarded to the last defender when an attacker is called offside.
Since the San Diego Wave entered the National Women’s Soccer League last year, every match with the Portland Thorns has been close, with only one game decided by more than one goal. Heading into Week 9 of the 2023 NWSL season, both West Coast teams sat at 15 points, one behind current table leader NJ/NY Gotham FC. Both squads were coming off slight rough patches, so their matchup on Friday was going to test their resilience.
Earlier in the week, San Diego and Canadian national team goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan told The Equalizer, “I think there’s always [an] edge when you play Portland. They’re consistently a top-level team, and you always want to beat the top. They’re coming for us just as hard as we’re coming for them. But yeah, definitely a little edge there. And I’ve got a bunch of my Canadian crew over there, so it always feels good to hand them the loss.”
Portland came out aggressive early, maintaining possession and using its press to keep San Diego away from the ball and out of the Thorns’ defensive third. In response, San Diego did what it’s been known to do well: It absorbed the attack, defended well, and tried to use its speed and counterattack to create chances.
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Only eight weeks remain until the first match of the 2023 World Cup kicks off, but U.S. women’s national team head coach Vlatko Andonovski is still facing some uncertainty regarding his World Cup roster.
On Tuesday, forward Catarina Macario announced that she has removed herself from World Cup selection due to the setbacks she’s faced recovering from the ACL tear she suffered last June. Despite hopes that she would rehab in time for the tournament, she has yet to take the field competitively in almost a year. Tuesday also brought the news that midfielder Rose Lavelle might not get any club minutes ahead of the World Cup, thanks to a setback in her recovery from an unspecified knee injury.
These two injuries are worrying enough, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg in terms of injuries the team has faced over the past couple of years. Players are out or of a questionable fitness level across all lines, but with the United States talent pool as deep as it is, there are plenty of choices Andonovski can make to round out the squad.
It’ll be another month or so before the roster is revealed, but here’s a rundown of the biggest challenges the team is facing and what solutions they may find.
Injuries are an unfortunate fact of life for most professional athletes. What’s been so concerning these past couple of years is the sheer number and severity of the injuries.
In addition to Macario, Mallory Swanson is also out after tearing her patellar tendon this past April. She had been in phenomenal form up until her injury and many people expected her to lead the attack in Australia and New Zealand. Additionally, midfielder Sam Mewis, forward Christen Press and defender Abby Dahlkemper were all key parts of the 2019 World Cup team and all haven’t seen competitive minutes since last year after all facing serious injuries.
Even among players that are shoo-ins, there are questions about fitness. In addition to Lavelle, captain Becky Sauerbrunn has been out with a foot injury for the past few weeks. And although Julie Ertz is back and looking good after more than a year away from the field, we’ve hardly been given a big enough sample size to really gauge her form. And, like Lavelle and Sauerbrunn, she’s also been marked as questionable thanks to what was reported as a thigh injury.
Of course, it’s very possible Lavelle, Sauerbrunn and Ertz are on minutes management specifically to keep them fresh for the World Cup. But the fact three key players need such careful management isn’t exactly confidence-inspiring amidst all the other injuries – especially with so many bubble players also in questionable form. For example, defenders Tierna Davidson and Casey Krueger have had a rough time finding their form after returning from injury. Lindsey Horan hasn’t quite been herself either after rehabbing from a lingering knee issue. Taylor Kornieck has just returned from an extended abdominal injury and Midge Purce has missed games with a hip injury. Although not currently injured, Kelley O’Hara and Megan Rapinoe have been increasingly injury-prone in recent years.
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The last time the United States previously faced even close to this many injuries was when Abby Wambach, Leslie Osborne and Cat Whitehill all missed the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Wambach broke her leg in a friendly against Brazil while Osborne and Whitehill both suffered ACL tears. Despite a less-than-perfect performance in the final against Brazil, the U.S. did in fact go home with Olympic gold that year off a game-winning goal from budding star Amy Rodriguez in her first major tournament.
Likewise, Andonovski is going to have to look for up-and-coming young talents to be the difference-makers during the World Cup as the U.S. looks to defend its title and compete for a third consecutive championship. Luckily for him, there are quite a few to choose from.
Exploring the depth
Although it seemed unlikely at the beginning of this year, it is increasingly likely that Angel City forward and teenage phenom Alyssa Thompson has worked her way onto the World Cup roster. She’s the closest the United States has to a replacement for Swanson which is evidenced by her being immediately called up to finish the second of the pair of friendlies against Ireland after Swanson was injured during the first leg. Whether Thompson gets significant minutes with players like Alex Morgan, Trinity Rodman and Sophia Smith ahead of her is yet to be seen, but there’s no question she’s a player the team will want to build around in the future.
Although not a young up-and-comer, it is as good as certain that Lynn Williams will be on her way to her first World Cup this July. After returning from her own major injury in 2022, she’s come back in excellent form and has five goals in eight games with Gotham. Although the loss of Swanson and Macario will be felt acutely, an attack featuring Smith, Morgan, Thompson, Rodman and Williams is hardly something to sneeze at. Ashley Hatch and Megan Rapinoe are also good bets to step in and round out the group. Although Hatch has been getting called up to the senior team since 2016, this will be her first major tournament, should she get the call from Andonovski.
In terms of midfield depth, both Sam Coffey and Taylor Kornieck have received senior call-ups, although they’ve missed the most recent camps. Coffey has been on a hot streak with the Portland Thorns and notched two assists last week against the Chicago Red Stars. Kornieck is just coming back from injury, but offers versatility across the line, and at 6’1″ she’s the tallest field player in program history which gives her a unique angle no other player can match.
There’s also been increasing noise around whether versatile midfielder Savannah DeMelo is deserving of a call-up to the national team. The Racing Louisville player has been on fire lately and has scored four goals and notched an assist in her last five appearances. With all the questions surrounding the midfield, could DeMelo have a shot at making the roster? Possibly, but Andonovski has said in the past he wants to bring players with senior team experience, and DeMelo, unfortunately, remains uncapped. Only once in United States history has a player with no caps made a World Cup roster – Shannon Boxx in 2003 – so it seems unlikely, but if Lavelle faces an even more severe setback or another player drops in form significantly, DeMelo may find herself on the plane to Australia and New Zealand.
While it’s certainly far from a positive development, the one thing the United States has going for it in terms of injuries is that they’re far from alone in losing key players. Almost every single top team has lost at least one important player, most often to ACL tears. To name just a few, Canada’s Janine Beckie tore hers in the NWSL preseason, England’s Leah Williamson ruptured hers in April, and Dutch star Vivienne Miedema tore hers in November. And just yesterday, it was announced that France’s Delphine Cascarino ruptured her ACL as well. Of these players, only Miedema has a shot at making the World Cup roster, but even if she does, there’s no guarantee she’ll be in top form.
ACL tears are nothing new in women’s sports but as schedules get denser and play becomes more physical and demanding, they seem to be happening more often. While more needs to be done to prevent these injuries in the future, in the meantime, they’ll almost certainly impact how this World Cup ultimately plays out as coaches rework their rosters to accommodate missing players. That’s the task ahead of Andonovski as he’s tasked with finalizing the 23-player roster for the United States and seeing if he can put together another championship squad despite some key pieces missing.
Bekki Morgan and Jeff Kassouf react to the news that Catarina Macario will not be on the roster for the Women’s World Cup, and that Rose Lavelle may not play in the NWSL before the tournament. What can we expect from the U.S. women’s national team midfield this summer? How will Mallory Swanson’s injury impact the forward line?