Barely 12 hours remain till kick-off of the biggest game in Houston Dash history. On Saturday night, September 24th in front of what will be more likely than not a record setting crowd, the Houston Dash cam claim their first ever playoff berth with a win.
Let's set the stage.
The Houston Dash have endured a season like no other. They replaced their head coach with barely 48 hours ahead of the season opener. They installed Sarah Lowdon with no head coaching experience as the interim head coach. Midway through the season, they replaced her with a seasoned head coach in Juan Carlos Amoros despite the club having the best defensive side in the NWSL and the best road record in franchise history. Then on August 9th, team captain Rachel Daly is transferred to Aston Villa at her request for personal reasons. In spite of all this, they sit, just two points from the top of the table with two matches remaining.
Their opponent, the OL Reign have a story of their own. OLR, a founding member of the NWSL is a two time league champion. After winning just two of their opening seven regular season matches, the team has been one of if not the best team in the league posting a 7W-4D-2L over the final 13 matching coming into tonight's game.
With eight teams vying for six playoff spots in the final week of the season, the Houston Dash and OL Reign kick-off perhaps the hottest competition of them all in literally the hottest venue of them all at PNC Stadium in Houston, Texas. Game time temperature should hovering around 95 degrees on the third day of Fall. You would like to think this is an advantage for Houston especially with a week's worth of rest against a team that is coming off a midweek fixture and three games in eight days.
The last time these two teams met, Houston behind Ebony Salmon's brace won 2-1 in Seattle. It took a span of just two minutes for Houston to grab a statement win back on August 7th. This time around the OL Reign catch a break as Salmon is unavailable for selection due to COVID protocol. Houston has never posted back to back wins against OLR having won just four of 22 games across all competition including 15 losses. They have been outscored all-time 43 - 18. Houston has earned three of their four wins at home and the goals are even at seven apiece so anything can happen in this grudge match with playoff implications. The last time here, the Reign walked off with a 1-0 victory with the only goal of the match coming in the seventh minute of play.
Only the Portland Thorns have found the back of the net more often than the Houston Dash in 2022. The Dash enter as a more well rounded team on the offensive side of the ball. Houston will try to stretch the OLR defense with Nichelle Prince's speed on the wing although she played the mid in the win over Chicago. Rookie forward Ryan Gareis who seems to have found favor in Amoros' has a high soccer IQ and has the speed and timing to ably fill in for Salmon. Maria Sanchez' deliberate and accurate services into the box are a big reason, Houston is dangerous in the opponent's defensive third. Part of the offensive success for Houston has been Amoros' desire to set the high pressure and keep defenses on their back heels. Look for that to continue.
The OL Reign's offense has been nothing short of dynamic particularly since losing at home to Houston in early August. Since then, they have strung together a five game unbeaten streak scoring 11 goals along the way. USWNT stalwart Megan Rapinoe has five of those goals. Along with Rose Lavelle, the two account for mor then half the team's goals over the last five matches.
The Houston Dash have consistently been one of the top defensive teams in the NWSL. in 2022. Currently, they are the third stingiest team when it comes to goals allowed with 24. Houston has done it with teamwork as only Katie Naughton and Ally Prissock have played all 20 matches on the backline. While Naughton has played every minute of every match, Prissock has missed just eight minutes. The duo will anchor Saturday night's playoff push and will be instrumental in determing Houston's playoff fate.
For as good as Houston has been defensively in 2022, the OL Reign have been even better allowing just 19 goals in 20 matches for a 0.95 goals against average. The backline of Lauren Barnes, Alana Cook, Samantha Hiatt, and former Dash player Sofia Huerta have each started 17 of the Reign's 20 games. Consistency and continuity is what has made them one of the least scored upon defenses this season.
Jane Campbell between the pipes for the Houston Dash means just one thing; the opposition will have a hard time rippling the back of the net. Over the course of 2022, she has posted a career high six clean sheets. She has allowed just eight goals in Houston's last eight matches and that gives the Dash a pretty good shot at winning. At home, with the Kennesaw, Georgia native in goal, the Dash are 1W-3D-1L with four goals allowed in five matches.
On the opposite side of the ledger, OLR keeper Phallon Tullis-Joyce has been stellar in the nets posting seven clean sheets and a goals against of less than one through 20 matches. She played the full 90 in the loss to Houston earlier in the season. It's the match in her career in which she has faced off against Houston.
Finally, the Houston Dash missed out on the playoffs last season by one point. Don't expect that to happen this time. Prince summed up the difference between last year and this year..
“I feel a sense of calmness with the team that we haven’t had in the past and the sense of confidence that we haven’t had,” Prince said. “We’re not relying on other teams to drop points.”