For the second consecutive week the Houston Dash found themselves in a tactical chess match. While the individual performance of Kealia Ohai has grabbed all the headlines – and rightly so as she was phenomenal – it was a halftime substitution and tactical switch that made all the difference and sparked the 2-1 win.
The match got off to a difficult start when Heather O’Reilly found Kathryn Schoepfer alone in acres of space between Ari Romero and Osinachi Ohale. Schoepfer deftly took the ball down and buried it into the corner of the net. O’Reilly’s surgical passing did most of the damage the first time these teams met, and her assist on the goal served early notice that she might once again be a thorn in the Dash’s side.
The Dash are no stranger, unfortunately, to falling behind early and there was always the sense that the Dash could get themselves back in the match. The halftime adjustments made by Dash coach Randy Waldrum unlocked the Breakers defense, creating plenty of space for Ohai and Melissa Henderson to work with which lead to the come from behind win off the Ohai brace.
One of the things Waldrum talked about this week leading up to the match was how unpredictable the Boston Breakers have been under Tom Durkin. The Breakers coach has moved players all over the field and used a variety of tactical formations. This has kept opponents off balance and made it difficult to gameplan for Boston.
In this match, the Dash were expecting Boston to most likely come out in a 4-3-3 formation or some variation thereon. Instead, the Breakers lined up in a diamond with four players in the midfield and two up front. Durkin’s penchant for moving players around was reflected in the decision to start O’Reilly at right back, giving the Breakers a player out of the back who could move forward and be dangerous in the attack, particularly where it came to putting quality service into the forwards.
The Dash came out in their familiar 4-3-3 and instantly had difficulty with Boston’s superior numbers in the midfield. The solution for this would be for the opposite side winger to drop back and pinch in to the midfield to even up the numbers, however that did not happen.
As Waldrum put it post match, “Instead of pinching in to congest the midfield so we could keep them trapped on one side, they [the wingers] were staying wide to deal with the outside back. So every time Boston got the ball they could just play in centrally into the free midfield player and it was just shredding us and we could never get enough pressure on the ball.”
At halftime, Waldrum adjusted to what Boston was doing by removing a forward (Nina Burger) and bringing on a 4th midfielder (Kelly McFarlane) and switching to a diamond with Jordan Jackson at the point to mirror what Boston.
The impact from a defensive standpoint was noticeable immediately. The match ups were much clearer and the Dash were able to pressure the ball far more effectively. Likewise, it gave the attack a bit more impetus. “It actually gave them [Ohai and Melissa Henderson] a little bit more room to run and move. I thought we found some more space for both Kealia and Mel. With a little bit of luck, Mel could have had a couple of goals herself,” noted Waldrum.
The chemistry and link up between Ohai, Henderson and Jackson was particularly impressive in breaking down Boston’s back line. For her part, Kelly McFarlane also provided a spark off the bench in getting the ball forward and tracking back in defense.
Sometimes substitutions and tactical adjustments, for various reasons, don’t work. This was one match where the halftime change made all the difference and the Dash coaching staff deserve full credit for the win.
Henderson was a surprise starter after only arriving in Houston on Friday afternoon and having never practiced with the team. It was perhaps a bit of a risk by Waldrum to start her, however her familiarity with his system made the decision a bit easier to make.
“A couple of things went into the thought process,” said Waldrum post match. “If this would have been early in the season, I probably would have kept her off and maybe brought her on late in the game or I would have waited until we had a week of training with her before I put her in.
“I felt like 9 games left and this being a must win, we know what all of our players are capable of doing and I thought she might just gives us that spark. She played for me for 4 years, so she knows the system. She knew what we were trying to do. She didn’t know all the players , but I just felt she might be that one player that gives us that little spark.”
Henderson gave a strong debut performance and came very close to scoring. Her hold up skills, pace and passing were very much in evidence. Ohai gave Henderson a lot of credit for the way the Dash were able to break down the Boston defense.
“Almost every attack that we had or every combination started with her getting the ball and finding a pass. I think she really calmed the game down for us up top and was able to kind of connect and, more than you might notice, I think she did a really great job,” said Ohai.
Asked whether starting Henderson was also linked to trying to boost her confidence after sitting on the bench for most of the season with Kansas City Waldrum replied, “I think there was a little bit of that too. When we made the trade for her I wanted her to know that we believed in her.”
Waldrum put pressure on the team this week calling this a “must win” game and the team clearly responded. The win pushed the Dash back up to 7th place in the table ahead of Sky Blue FC with the Dash having a game in hand. Thursday night’s match against Washington will also be a must win given positions in the table and the fact that the Dash schedule gets considerably more difficult thereafter.
Following Thursday night, the Dash hit the road to play Chicago followed by a home meeting with Seattle and a Cascadia road trip through Portland and Seattle. They finish the season out with matches against Sky Blue and Boston.
Waldrum was pleased with the way the team reacted under the pressure. “I’m extremely proud. I put pressure on the players this week and said it is a must win game. To be down at halftime and come in and come back…”
No word yet on Ella Masar who left the match with a head injury. Masar was to come on for Henderson at forward, but as instructions were being given it became clear that Jordan Jackson was gassed and needed replacing, leaving Masar to come into the midfield.
Masar took the penalty for the Dash that could have put the match away. Waldrum talked about the missed penalty after the match, “Things like that can change games. We’ve got to be better because if we hit that one it’s over with instead of making it a little scary all the way to the final corner kick.”
“One of these days I am going to find somebody that can take penalty kicks so we can go ahead and put the game away and not worry about it at the end,” he jokingly added.
Ohai gave a performance worthy of NWSL Player of the Week. She took over the match and put Boston under tremendous pressure with her constant running. Her first goal was a moment of individual brilliance. Her second goal was created through some outstanding passing in the midfield.
Post match, Waldrum called Ohai the Dash’s best player since the away loss to Washington on May 26th. She has clearly grown in confidence and in her performances over the course of the season culminating in this, her strongest statement of the season; a match in which she basically took over and dominated the Boston defense.
“I’ve been frustrated lately because I haven’t been scoring. Every game I start I want to take over that game and be a gamechanger. Today it finally clicked for me,” said Ohai. Waldrum was delighted that Ohai finally got a return for her efforts in recent weeks.
Onward now to Thursday and a match that would go a long way towards helping the Dash achieve Waldrum’s objective of having something to play for in August.
Tags: Houston Dash