The Houston Dash have a date in the NWSL Challenge Cup final on Sunday against the Chicago Red Stars at Rio Tinto Stadium (watch on CBS or CBS All Access at 12:30 p.m. ET). Led by second-year coach James Clarkson, who has refreshed the roster and given the team a new outlook, the Dash seek their first NWSL trophy in franchise history.
That's not the only hardware they can leave Utah with on Sunday. Team co-captain Rachel Daly, who has been with the club since 2016, could come away with the Golden Boot award, presented to the top goalscorer of the tournament. She's currently tied with Lynn Williams of the already-eliminated North Carolina Courage for the lead with three goals and one assist.
The Dash are ready to make history after having a difficult time finding any sort of success since they became the league's first expansion team back in 2015. In the seasons before the Challenge Cup, the club had two head coaches, numerous different assistants, and several roster changes. None of the changes resulted in a playoff appearance.
For Daly, the longest tenured player on the team, she quickly turned heads in her rookie season with her confident play on the ball and aggressive approach and knack for finding the back of the net. This season, she was tasked with the responsibility of being a co-captain with Jane Campbell in an uncertain year, where players didn't know if there would be a season or had time to get to know each other yet.
After rejoining the team off international duty with England in the SheBelieves Cup, Daly was ready to get to work, but preseason came to a screeching halt due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. She hadn't gotten the opportunity to meet her new teammates, of which there were plenty, and additional questions of whether or not soccer would be played this year.
"The day I got back was the day we had to stop training," Daly explained, "I [didn't] know half the new girls on the team, I didn't get to meet anyone.
"It was tough because everyday we'd have Zoom calls, we'd have meetings, discussions online about the plans we wanted to do should there be a season, and obviously that's difficult because you're preparing for something you don't even know is going to happen."
The team made the best out of a difficult situation during the quarantine period and utilized their days individually as best they could in hopes of a return-to-play plan. When the league announced that it would be moving forward with the Challenge Cup in Utah, several teams got back into training to try and follow state guidelines and prepare for a tournament that still could still shift at any moment.
"When we found out this could be a possibility, we started small group training, and then large group training and eventually team training. Our mindset just shifted [to] how do we win this tournament, if there is going to be this tournament? If there's going to be anything, if there's going to be any games, how do we win, whatever it is ... I know my mindset just shifted into -- how can we be the best?"
The quarantine was a challenge, but Clarkson, along with the captains, shifted the culture of this team, which is now playing for something bigger than themselves. The team bunkered in and continued to grow together, even if it was virtually or socially distant. From constant team meetings to team-building exercises, or what Clarkson labeled as "forced family fun," everyone involved eventually looked forward to the day where they could all get back together and play competitive matches.
"I think that's what brought us together," Daly said. "Staying in Houston. Staying in the market was important for us. Nobody went on their own journey, everyone stayed together and we were there immediately as soon as you could do training and group training. And I think that's important for culture and team chemistry, and the culture that everyone's there and bought into [what] James wants."
As the Challenge Cup kicked off, Houston immediately made a statement by scoring five goals in its first two group stage games, notching a win and a draw along the way. The team faltered a bit over their final two matches, but found adjustments and a drive to push forward as it picked up experience within the preliminary round.
"I just think the group of girls we've got now [are] so different from any other year. We've brought in people with different experiences, we've got a very diverse team, people are training in here who have come off of winning championship teams and who know what it's like to win," Daly said.
"I think that helps in order to gain an actual culture then just having the same group. James harps a lot on having good people and not just good footballers and I think this group just validates that. I think we've just got absolutely exceptional people and they're just a pleasure to be around."
Over the years, Daly has established herself as one the integral leaders and faces of the franchise. She has stepped up on several occasions with impressive performances, including her clutch semifinal winner that pushed the team through to the final.
It's her shift in perspective on being a leader for the team that has stood out the most. Whether it's a gameday pep talk to the team or a postgame appearance after a tough outing, she believes nothing can get in the way of their "circle."
"I've always talked about it our postgames, our circle, and I think I genuinely believed that is our circle and it never does break, and it hasn't broke, and I think that's why we've got to the point where we're at now," Daly said. "Even though everyone doubted us on the outside, I think that because we believed it on the inside, with this group, that's what made us successful so far."
For the North Yorkshire native, Daly believes the team is playing for each other and for something bigger, the city it is representing in the final. In early February, the Dash partnered up with MD Anderson Cancer Center for their jersey sponsor. Daly feels a sense of pride and responsibility when she puts on her uniform these days because she lost her grandfather to cancer.
"My grandfather passed away of cancer, and it's just such a special cause for me," Daly explained. "It's something that I've always wanted to raise awareness to. It's one of the most awful things in the world. To put on that jersey every time I step on the field -- it's not even about the badge, it's not about the name on the back, it's about that on the front to me."
Daly recalled driving past the MD Anderson building often in Houston and seeing patients and their families going through the struggle of battling against cancer. It reminded her of spending time with her grandfather in his fight against the illness, where they both connected through sport as a way to find joy during a difficult time.
"He will get joy out of watching Wimbledon. I used to sit and watch tennis with him for hours on end, and it was like watching paint dry for me," Daly quipped. "But the joy in his face and just seeing the sport and watching football all the time was something that I'll never forget and something that I'll take to my grave with me."
Daly became an ambassador for the Cancer Center to help their mission to find a cure and end cancer.
"MD Anderson is just so big for me, it's just such a big part of my life and my family, and to be an ambassador of the cancer center is something that's so close to my heart. Their mission to end cancer and fight against cancer is just something that I would love to be part of for the rest of my life. So putting on the jersey is more about putting it on in playing for the club it's about playing for something a lot bigger than football."
One thing is for certain on Sunday: Houston and Chicago have never reached the mountaintop of the league, which means a new NWSL champion will be crowned. Daly recognizes cultural significance of these two teams representing two larger cities in the U.S. and is eager to compete.
"I have so much respect for Chicago, they're an absolutely fantastic club, unbelievable players on the field, and I think it's going to be a great game," Daly said. "We're just going to have to bring that passion and that grit that we brought last Wednesday and bring that same energy on Sunday, and hopefully bring that silverware home to Houston."