In a league that has been dominated by familiar names the last few years, change is officially coming at the top. Whoever wins the NWSL Challenge Cup on Sunday will hoist a trophy for the first time, something the Houston Dash made sure of by knocking out the Portland Thorns, 1–0, in Wednesday's first semifinal at Rio Tinto Stadium. The Chicago Red Stars and Sky Blue FC will play in the day's second semifinal on Wednesday night.
Fittingly, it was the Dash's longest-tenured player—England striker Rachel Daly, who was drafted sixth overall by the club back in 2016—who delivered the lone goal to punch Houston's ticket to its first NWSL final of any kind.
Here are three thoughts on the match:
The goal—and Orlando Pride—curse is broken
Ever since Morgan Weaver scored to put Portland up 1–0 on the Courage in last Friday's stunning quarterfinal upset, the Challenge Cup had been plagued by one big narrative: a lack of goals. After the Thorns' win in regulation, the three other quarterfinals stalled out in scoreless draws after 90 minutes, instead getting settled by penalties under tournament rules. No matter what you blame for this—player exhaustion due to tired legs, the Utah altitude, the Zions Bank Stadium turf or perhaps the Orlando Pride's Twitter account—soccer fans everywhere could agree that the semifinals desperately needed an injection of offense.
For 69 minutes on Wednesday afternoon, it looked like another match would be headed to penalties. Both Houston and Portland seemed fatigued, with the former struggling to connect in the final third and the latter struggling in the midfield as star Lindsey Horan looked on from the bench, sidelined after an injury vs. the Courage. That's when Daly broke a 361-minute tournament-wide scoring drought by getting her head on the rebound of a Sophie Schmidt header, which originally hit the crossbar and left a leaping Britt Eckerstrom helpless on the ground as Daly's header rolled off her back.
The Thorns' attack seemed to come to life late in the match as they felt the pressure of chasing an equalizer, but it wasn't meant to be. For the first time in the knockout rounds, the team the Pride stanned actually managed to win (maybe the curse-hexing sage did it? Or was it the Dash taking matters into their own hands?) Either way, Houston is on to its first final.
The Dash have earned the respect they wanted
James Clarkson's team came to Utah with a clear vision for what it wanted out of this tournament: respect. In various interviews, from Daly to newcomer Shea Groom, Dash players have reiterated that their goal during the Challenge Cup was to change the organization's reputation and finally start getting the results that have escaped them in years prior.
Since Houston's inception in the NWSL in 2014, the team has never made the traditional playoffs, finishing everywhere from fifth to ninth. The last few seasons, the Dash have gone through four coaches, the Christen Press saga and plenty of on-field mediocrity, with flashes of brilliance being too often overshadowed by a lack of consistency and quality depth.
Despite some underrated shrewd moves by Clarkson over the offseason, Houston was far from likely to reach the final in this tournament—the club had never even played in a knockout game, let alone advanced from one, before Friday's quarterfinals, and most pegged the Dash to finish in seventh or eighth (last) place in the preliminary round. Instead, they scratched out a fourth-place seeding in a crowded field after an explosion of goals in their first two games, eked past the Utah Royals in a penalty shootout in the quarters and now took down a Portland club they hadn't beaten in their last nine tries. While this Thorns team is very far from full strength, it's the same one (minus 50 minutes of Horan) that knocked out North Carolina, and the Dash can feel good about what they've accomplished over the last month no matter what happens on Sunday.
A young Thorns roster grew up this tournament
When you think of the Portland Thorns, you typically think of their stars: Horan, Tobin Heath, Christine Sinclair, Becky Sauerbrunn and Adrianna Franch. Of those five, only Sinclair suited up on Wednesday—Heath opted out of the tournament, and Franch, Sauerbrunn and Horan were all out with injury. So was young attacker Sophia Smith, the NWSL's No. 1 draft pick this past January who had been expected to make her professional debut in Utah but never got on the field. On top of that, the team was down to its third-string keeper in Eckerstrom after preliminary round standout Bella Bixby tore her ACL in training.
That, plus a brutal preliminary draw, made things difficult for coach Mark Parsons, who had to place a large level of trust in multiple young or inexperienced players for a stage as big as a semifinal. Players like Weaver, Kelli Hubly, Simone Charley and Emily Ogle were all called upon both Wednesday and throughout the tournament, while others—like 26-year-old defender Christen Westphal—made the most of an opportunity to step in that they likely wouldn't have seen if the Thorns had been healthy.
While the bitter taste of defeat stings now, this roster getting so much playing time in Utah and getting to experience two knockout games will only benefit Portland in the long run. If the Thorns (thanks partly to some otherworldly goalkeeping by Eckerstrom) were able to shut down a nearly-full strength Courage team while missing all of that talent, then the future is clearly bright for this traditional NWSL powerhouse.