Soccer: NWSL Challenge Cup-Houston Dash vs Utah Royals FC
Jeffrey Swinger / USA TODAY Sports

Preseason is currently underway for NWSL as the 2021 Challenge Cup approaches in April and the regular season kicks off on May 15. Houston Dash are current Challenge Cup champions, and find themselves in a new position ahead of the second annual tournament as title holders fending off the rest of the field.

Much of Houston's roster has returned for another run in 2021 as the team's active offseason revolved around unveiling not only a new team crest but also new multi-year contracts for a number of players including English international Rachel Daly and Canadian international Sophie Smith. The club also announced a new contract deal for head coach James Clarkson after strong performances from the team in Challenge Cup and Fall Series, and the acquisitions of Emily Ogle and Gabby Seiler from Portland. 

Now the team that caught the eyes and attention of so many during a standout 2020 have a new year in front of them as they chase the title of back to back champions

Coaches Perspective

Formerly the youth development director of Houston Dynamo Academy, Clarkson was appointed head coach of Houston Dash ahead of the 2019 season. He was given the reigns to a Dash team that had never been been in playoff contention since their arrival to NWSL as an expansion side in 2015, and was in desperate need of culture building and long term vision.

Coaches and clubs have commended the longer NWSL preseason this year, and Clarkson and the team have settled into their extended time together, but are eager to head into competitive fixtures.

"Time will tell whether it's benefited us or not. I think it's been it's been pretty tough to be fair, because not having the ability to play the games, you know, we've played two college teams, but not being able to play the academy and things like that and played some boys teams in terms of real preparation to get us up to speed has been has been tough. Obviously, when we play each other, the games are very competitive. But it's getting to the stage where, you know, the players are desperate to play. So, I'm excited for them to be able to play and play in proper game." 

Houston Dash and Chicago Red Stars will kick off the Challenge Cup on April 9, though Clarkson believes that first game could very well echo a preseason feel.

"I'm not sure what the quality of the first 30 minutes of their first Challenge Cup game will be. Because I think I'm sure Chicago are exactly in the same position and their players will be desperate to play as well. So, I think it might be a little bit frantic. But I think from a physical standpoint, I think we're in a good spot. And I think the players are fit and healthy which is which is the most important thing and making sure they're all fit and healthy as we go into [the final] weeks of preparation."

One thing we don't know

Who will be the starting goal keeper when the Challenge Cup kicks off? International windows in April mean that players across several NWSL teams will be without key players for opening matches of the 2021 Challenge Cup. Dash midfielder Kristie Mewis and starting goalkeeper Jane Campbell will be with the U.S. women's national team for friendlies against Sweden and France on April 10 and 13. 

Without their starting goalkeeper, the question of who will be in net for at least the first two matches during Challenge Cup remains unanswered as Amanda Dennis and Lindsey Harris fight for the job. Clarkson is currently evaluating both.

"Both of them have done very well. They're both working incredibly hard in practice. It has been a long preseason. But it's good to see both of them make progress. Both of them were frustrated that they didn't get to play last year and certainly we were hoping for some opportunities to play them. Now, there's a massive opportunity for them both, hopefully one of them takes advantage of it." 

Three things we know

The extended preseason has been a welcomed change for the clubs with final stretch of preparation for Challenge Cup filled with anticipation. Clarkson welcomes the tournament as most players are eager to get games at this point in the preseason. Post Challenge Cup, there's still several weeks to prep for the regular season, and the Dash are focused on maintaining regular training sessions, and being the team chased instead of doing the chasing.

Shifting from early preseason to Challenge Cup prep: "The first period of preseason was was a lot more about the physical preparation and getting the players fit, and getting them to a place where we'll be peaking at the right time. [Instead of] super fit after five weeks, and then can't run around in in week 10, or 11. So, it's important, we've managed that. We've looked at different concepts, different lineups, different tactical things that we want to improve on within our style of play. And then really just trying to keep it fresh, keep it interesting, keep it different for players, and try not to let boredom or anything like that kick in."

Maintaining a regular schedule for players: "[As] we go into this final part of the preparation, it's really trying to put the finishing touches so we are competitive on April the ninth, and even from then we've still got another five weeks before the actual regular season starts. So, by the time we start, we'll have already have done more training sessions in preseason than we did in the whole of last year. So [keeping] the players engaged, keeping them sharp, has been really important.

New era for the Dash: "I think it's a whole new position for us to be in. And obviously, we're going to be the target now, rather than, you know, we're going to be the chased rather than doing the chasing. And that's a whole different mindset and different mentality to it. I think having the first game at home opening up the Challenge Cup that had some pressure as well, which is good, and we've got to be able to deal with these sorts of things, I think is a whole new exciting era for the Dash."

Looking ahead

Preseason will run through April as teams prepare for the upcoming Challenge Cup which will kick off on April 9 with Houston playing Chicago in a repeat of the 2020 Challenge Cup final. The regular NWSL season begins on May 15. 

The preseason roster

The 28 player roster will eventually have to be narrowed down ahead of the Challenge Cup and the start of the regular NWSL season. The current preseason participants consist of players acquired through trades, offseason signings, non-roster invitees, trialists, and the NWSL draft. Midfielders lead the way with 12 players listed at the position.

2021 Houston Dash Preseason Roster    

Goalkeepers (3): Jane Campbell (ALL-USA), Amanda Dennis, Lindsey Harris  

Defenders (6): Deneisha Blackwood (INTL-JAM), Allysha Chapman (ALL-CAN), Katie Naughton, Megan Oyster, Ally Prisock, Annika Schmidt 

Midfielders (12): Shea Groom, Haley Hanson, Maegan Rosa, Amber Marshall (NRI), Kristie Mewis (ALL-USA), Christine Nairn, Emily Ogle, Cami Privett, Gabby Seiler, Sophie Schmidt (ALL-CAN), Zandy Sorre (NRI), Bri Visalli 

Forwards (7): Michelle Alozi (NRI), Bridgette Andrzejewski, Rachel Daly (INTL-ENG), Jamia Fields, Veronica Latsko, Nichelle Prince (ALL-CAN), Katie Stengel 

KEY - ALL (allocated player), NRI (Non-roster invitee), INTL (international)