A lifelong Leeds United fan who grew up going to games at famed Elland Road stadium, Rachel Daly watched every minute from afar this past week as that storied team finally ended its 16-year exile from the Premier League. Perhaps alone among the club’s legion of fans, it was the least dramatic soccer experience of the Houston Dash captain’s week.
Houston’s spell of irrelevance is hardly less notorious in NWSL circles. In the team’s first six seasons, it accumulated 40 wins, 70 losses and nary a playoff appearance. On Sunday, the Dash will play for a trophy in the NWSL Challenge Cup final against the Chicago Red Stars.
Daly spent her month in Utah solidifying a place as the face of a franchise suddenly eager to be seen. For so long a player not quite here and not exactly there — first a standout far from home in American college soccer, then an emerging talent for a forgettable franchise in NWSL and a World Cup semifinalist in search of a position for England — she now appears to be in the right place at the right time in the right role. She is the star the NWSL didn’t know it had.
“It’s where we wanted to be,” Daly said of the final. “From the minute we started preseason, we knew the way we wanted to end was at the final and we wanted to win the whole thing. We didn’t think it was out of our reach. So to be here on the last day is obviously so special for us. I think there have been a lot of doubters for the Houston Dash, but I think we proved everyone wrong.”
• Dash beat Thorns to reach NWSL Challenge Cup final
• Red Stars book NWSL Challenge Cup final against Dash
• The mental toll of life in the NWSL Challenge Cup bubble
As surprising as a Dash title would be, it wouldn’t rank as much more surprising than the Red Stars, playoff participants in each of the past five seasons, finally winning their first trophy the summer after two-time former league MVP Sam Kerr departed for Chelsea.
Always well-coached and never short of talent, Chicago finally found goals in the post-Kerr world in a 3-2 semifinal win against Sky Blue FC. That game saw the Red Stars take command early against an opponent largely unfamiliar with such high-stakes knockout surroundings.
If that doesn’t happen in the final, expect it to be because Houston follows Daly’s lead.
Daly enters the final as the tournament’s leading scorer with three goals. She scored twice in the opening game against Utah Royals FC, a 3-3 draw in which the Dash surrendered a late two-goal lead but showed they could at the very least entertain in their second season under coach James Clarkson. After she converted the decisive chance in a penalty shootout against the same Utah team in the quarterfinals, she headed home the lone goal in a 1-0 semifinal win against Portland Thorns FC.
“That’s exactly what we want from her,” Clarkson said afterward. “She’s the leader on the team, her and Jane [Campbell]. And they lead by example. She’s been fantastic. Led the line on her own again today. Constant threat. It was just great to get a goal, and now she’s the leading goal scorer in the tournament. Hopefully she can go on and get another one, win the Golden Boot.
“It’s another player that just has so much quality. And the attitude and commitment she brings every day is fantastic.”
The skill has been on display for a long time. St. John’s coach Ian Stone recalled that it took him all of one afternoon’s practice to feel confident that “this kid’s probably the best player that has ever or will ever play for St. John’s University.” That was in 2012 on a blistering summer day in the Big Apple, hotter than much of anything the new arrival was used to in her hometown of Harrogate in England. Daly ultimately scored 50 goals in 60 games in three college seasons — that despite arriving stateside as an outside back before moving to forward, a positional back-and-forth that has continued through her NWSL and England careers.
If some remained unsure about Daly’s prospects when five players were selected ahead of her in the 2016 NWSL draft — she was the second of back-to-back picks by the Dash — her answer was a blend of physicality that fit the North American game and savvy honed growing up around the game in England. That didn’t surprise Stone. But what increasingly stood out to him is the will she increasingly exerts on those around her.
“She’s a natural competitor,” Stone said. “She’s somebody that didn’t always get it right growing up, in terms of she would get frustrated with her teammates, would demand a lot out of them but didn’t always put it across the right way.”
Daly wanted to win. She wanted the best from her teammates. Figuring out how to make those instincts work in concert took some trial and error.
“There were a lot of tough conversations we had to have about it — and when I was coaching her there were a lot of conversations I’m having with people she shouted at to explain where she’s coming from,” Stone recalled. “I think she’s got that right in this tournament. She always got the bit that ‘I’m good, but I need my teammates to be good if my team is going to win.’ But she couldn’t always control her emotions, in terms of the frustration would build up, and so she couldn’t communicate it properly. I think that’s probably the biggest difference I’ve seen.”
At one point not long after she joined the Dash, Daly returned to the soccer offices at St. John’s to deliver a jersey from her new team. As both parties recalled, she also delivered a message to her old coach only partly in jest: I get it now. I’m sorry I made it so difficult.
“When I went to college, I wasn’t mature enough yet,” Daly said. “I’d moved to a completely different country a million miles away from family and friends and home and my comfortable life. It was a hard transition. I thought I had all the answers, and I definitely didn’t.”
That growth, as she noted, didn’t just begin this preseason. But it has been imperative in recent weeks for a team that traded all-time leading scorer Kealia Watt to Chicago, as well as high-profile veterans like Sofia Huerta and Amber Brooks in the offseason. Many of those coming the other way, like defenders Katie Naughton and Megan Oyster and midfielder Shea Groom, weren’t raw recruits who needed someone to hold their hand, but they were new to this particular group.
Someone had to take the lead, and the captain’s armband made it clear who it should be.
“I’ve had to sort of take a step back from being sort of within myself and thinking about myself,” Daly said. “I think I’ve always been a great team player, but having to actually lead a group of people and not just think about your own development and your own agenda, that’s a tough transition.”
How does that manifest itself on the field? Well, it’s easy enough to lead in good times. Despite settling for the opening draw against Utah, the Dash played well in that game and followed it up with a 2-0 win against OL Reign. They were suddenly the talk of the tournament.
But back-to-back losses followed against Sky Blue and Washington. For players already dealing with the stresses of life in the bubble, it would have been easy for things to revert to the script of the team’s first six seasons. Instead they played Utah to a standoff in the quarterfinal and held their nerve behind Campbell’s goalkeeping and Daly’s clincher in the penalty shootout.
“I think we finally found our identity,” Daly said. “I think it was Katie Naughton that said the Dash are the first team to start a fight. And I think that I can reason with that. I think we do. I think we will fight every single game. We can always revert back to what we’re good at. When Plan A doesn’t work, Plan B doesn’t work, Plan C doesn’t work, we can start again.
“I think we’re a hard team to break down and probably an annoying team you don’t want to play against.”
Houston has yet to have the majority of possession in a game in the tournament. The Dash haven’t matched an opponent’s passing accuracy since the opener nearly a month ago. They also don’t really mind. Two of Daly’s goals came when she was more aggressive than defenders on opportunities resulting from corner kicks. The other goal came when the Dash went nearly the length of the field in just over 10 seconds. Daly described a wolf pack mentality — they want to be quick, coordinated and aggressive.
“Every coach in the world wants to play like Man City, Barcelona back in the day,” Clarkson said. “But unless you’ve got those types of players, then you can’t really do it. We’ve looked at what we’ve done and how we want to be successful.”
Houston doesn’t have history. It doesn’t have any U.S. World Cup winners. But the Dash believe they finally have an identity worthy of a team capable of more than filling out the standings.
The best teams, you see, often are a reflection of their captains. Daly waited a long time for this week. And for once, that has nothing to do with Leeds.