Houston Dash earn NWSL Challenge Cup title with win over Chicago Red Stars for first trophy in franchise history

Houston Dash forward Rachel Daly holds the trophy alongside teammates as they celebrate their Challenge Cup championship win over the Chicago Red Stars, Sunday, July 26, 2020, in Sandy, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Sandy • It may not have been a normal, eight-month National Women’s Soccer League season. And it may have been under the most unprecedented physical, mental and emotional circumstances. But the Houston Dash will take it.

The Dash made franchise history Sunday by winning the National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup championship. It’s Houston’s first trophy since coming into the league in 2014.

The Dash beat the Chicago Red Stars 2-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium to win the title of a monthlong tournament that signaled the return of team sports in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“From Day 1, we had a goal to win this thing,” Dash midfielder Shea Groom said as she wore her championship T-shirt and periodically drank from her celebratory can of beer.

And win it they did. Houston doesn’t boast much star power in likes of the U.S. Women’s National Team players scattered throughout the league. But the Dash prevailed with a culture change and team-first mentality.

As the Challenge Cup reached the knockout stages, no one had the Dash making the final — except for them. The North Carolina Courage had won four consecutive games after winning the 2019 NWSL championship and were expected to breeze through another set of games en route to hoisting another trophy.

But the Courage were eliminated in the quarterfinals, and Houston prevailed over the Utah Royals FC — hosts of the tournament — in penalties. From there, the Dash started turning some heads.

Internally, however, nothing had changed for Houston.

“It wasn’t luck, it wasn’t fluke,” striker Rachel Daly said. “We comfortably won that game. We’ve comfortably won a lot of games.”

The Dash did it Sunday with the help of an early goal and a strong defensive performance throughout. Dash midfielder Sophie Schmidt converted after Kristie Mewis drew a foul in the 18-yard box in the fourth minute of play.

For the next 85 minutes of play, Houston defended expertly stifled any attempt the Red Stars had at an equalizing goal.

And just when stoppage time started, Groom put the game away for good after beating Red Stars keeper Alyssa Naeher, who was well outside the 18-yard box, and calmly finishing an insurance goal.

“I was just excited that we could come in here and show that Houston Dash is an incredible organization and not a joke and not a team that you can just roll over,” Groom said.

Daly said the team wanted to get a goal early, sometime within the first five or 10 minutes. While the way Houston got it may have been unexpected — it was the first PK award in regulation during the entire tournament — scoring soon was part of the game plan.

But Daly did acknowledge that it took some of the edge off for the Dash.

“It helped us settle all of our nerves,” Daly said.

The Dash didn’t concede a goal during regulation in any of the three knockout games. Dash coach James Clarkson said that type of defensive performance was a testament to his players following the game plan every time out.

Throughout the tournament, Clarkson never shied away from the nobody-believes-in-us mentality of Houston. And as he sat at the podium while drenched in beer from the locker room celebration and fielded questions from reporters, he quipped about it one final time.

“I just hope all of those people that I told before the tournament that we’re 200-to-1 and stick $100 on us took me up on my advice,” Clarkson said. “If they did, congratulations and spend your money wisely.”