NWSL's unlikely Houston Dash give sport its first coronavirus-era champion

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The first professional sports league in the U.S. to resume competition amidst a pandemic, the National Women's Soccer League proved that there was a way for the games to go on.

In winning the monthlong NWSL Challenge Cup after never so much as reaching the playoffs in their first six seasons in the league, the Houston Dash showed those games could still matter.

Why else would Houston midfielder Kristie Mewis struggle to contain the tears after a hamstring injury forced her out of the final in the first half? Why would defender Megan Oyster throw her head at a cross in the closing minutes, knowing she left her injured ribs open to the collision that inevitably knocked her to the ground when a similarly desperate opponent lunged at the ball?

Why would league MVP Rachel Daly, exhaustion showing in second-half stoppage time, find just enough energy to flick a pass to midfielder Shea Groom, who somehow still had the legs to run around Chicago goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and score the goal that sealed a 2-0 win?

Why would forward Nichelle Prince even want to be in Utah, let alone creating chance after chance and chasing back on defense, barely a month after her father passed away -- and mere weeks after she waited out quarantine alone in a Utah hotel room after returning to the bubble from her home in Canada?

Why would anyone do any of that if their paycheck was guaranteed even if they opted out?

In a year in which control over our world has never felt more fleeting, the ability to accomplish something is a powerful motivator. Even if only for 90 minutes on a field marked out in chalk.

"We're just winners today," Daly said afterward. "And I think that's what we want to be known as."

For the briefest of moments Sunday, it looked as if Houston would play the role often ascribed to championship newbies -- the role that Chicago coach Rory Dames admitted his team filled a season ago in its first championship game when it came out flat against North Carolina in the opening minutes. On this occasion, with Houston at first hesitant at kickoff, Chicago's Savannah McCaskill got loose down the flank in the opening minute and crossed the ball into dangerous space. The Dash eventually cleared the ball, but warning lights flashed brightly.

Except Houston, which spent essentially the entire month in Utah ceding possession to its opponents and creating its own chances in short bursts with the ball or on the counter attack, continued to do just that. Mewis raced down the left side in the fourth minute, played in by Daly despite getting knocked to the ground in the process, and dribbled past defender Kayla Sharples, who tugged Mewis from behind for an obvious penalty.

Daly, who said she was still reeling from the collision at midfield, ceded the penalty kick to midfielder Sophie Schmidt. The veteran Canadian international calmly converted the chance.

"I don't think it changes the game plan a bit because you're in the fifth or sixth minute, so there's a lot of game left," Dames said. "But the worst thing to do, even if you're in the regular season in a three-game week, the worst thing to do in that third game is to go down a goal early because now you've got to muster up energy to chase and be able to play higher and press."

The moment encapsulated much about the entire tournament. A promising but inexperienced second-year player, Sharples was in the starting lineup for the final because Casey Short, one of the best defenders in the league and a regular part of Vlatko Andonovski's national team rosters, was out with a head injury. The Red Stars also played most of the tournament without standouts Tierna Davidson, Morgan Gautrat and Yuki Nagasoto because of injuries.

Whether players were injured during the tournament or opted out of participating beforehand, there was a significant list of stars absent for some or all of the tournament. No team was going to win with its first-choice lineup. Everyone had to adjust -- and that after a limited preseason.

The only team without any members of the U.S. team that won the World Cup last summer, Houston wasn't immune to the churn. Not long after she drew the penalty and appeared to grab her left hamstring in some discomfort -- but long enough that she made at least one more all-out sprint down the left side -- Mewis admitted to Dash coach James Clarkson the preexisting hamstring injury wouldn't allow her to continue.

Enter CeCe Kizer, who played just 32 minutes in her first five appearances in the tournament. The Dash barely missed a beat.

"I think it's really important to credit CeCe," Daly said. "She's been an integral part of our team. She stepped up today, she played phenomenal. And to fill somebody like Kristie's boots is very difficult. For me, as a natural center forward with her behind me, I get communication, I get the ball fed to me. It's difficult to lose a player like that, but credit where credit is due."

And in stoppage time, it was up to Daly to offer one last example. So apparently exhausted on another blisteringly hot day at the end of a brutally long month that you could see her hands slip to her knees as the ball bounced around the midfield, Daly gathered herself long to pay Groom in for the final goal. The goal that guaranteed the Dash will never again be afterthoughts in the NWSL story.

"I probably was running on E at that point, my tank is a little bit empty," Daly acknowledged. "I just saw Shea go and I knew she was going to score. In the past, I might have tried to do that myself and try and dribble the whole field. But I think as a leader on this team, I've had to step up and be more for other people this year. Shea's come in and done phenomenal. I mean, I just keep assisting her, but she doesn't assist me."

She was, to be clear, just kidding about the last part -- and according to Clarkson, the assist that earned Daly the Golden Boot via tiebreaker was even worth an extra $10,000.

If the Dash played fewer games to earn their trophy than any other NWSL champion, they and the rest of the tournament field also passed a test unlike any sports has seen in our lifetimes.

"This was a unique tournament for us," Red Stars star Julie Ertz said afterward with a wry and weary chuckle. "But one of a lot of growth -- a lot of growth on the field, a lot of growth off the field. For me, a lot of growth as a leader. This is definitely a tournament I'll never forget, obviously playing soccer games and being able to come back and be with my team and grind every day. I think we've learned a lot about mental health for sure. Which is obviously important going through."

The first league to return, the NWSL now becomes the first to figure out what comes next. NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird this past week indicated, while stopping short of confirming or offering a timetable, that the league will explore ways to play more games this year.

But pulling off the past month, which featured more than 2,000 minutes of soccer and, according to the league, more than 2,000 coronavirus tests without a positive result (excluding the positive tests that forced Orlando to withdraw before it traveled to the Utah bubble), was its own feat for all involved.

"It's interesting because each tournament or any team I've been a part of, it's all about the journey to get somewhere," Ertz said. "For us, this was really special for a lot of reasons that really only us 28 that are here plus the coaches really will ever understand."

The mood was slightly different for the Dash, Daly happily sipping a celebratory beer from a league sponsor as she answered questions. But that particular sentiment was shared.

"We've faced so much adversity," Daly said. "More than anybody in the world could understand -- and they'll probably never know."

The NWSL was the first league to get back on the field. The Dash were the first team to remind us how much that can mean.