(CBS Local/CBSDFW.com)- Four weeks, 22 games, and now just two teams left vying for the title in the NWSL Challenge Cup. On Sunday, July 26, the Houston Dash will take on the Chicago Red Stars to determine who takes home the championship.
For the Red Stars, it's a familiar position. The team was runner-up to the North Carolina Courage just last year, falling in the final 4-0. For the Dash however, this is brand new. Since entering the league in 2014, the Dash hadn't made the postseason. Now, led by head coach James Clarkson, they have made the final. It's an opportunity to showcase the progress the franchise and team has made which has Clarkson excited.
"We now have an opportunity to play in a final which is the first one for the franchise and for many of the players it's the first final they've been in since youth soccer," said Clarkson in an interview with CBS Local's Ryan Mayer. "So, it is very exciting and hopefully we can play at a really high level and perform and show people what we're capable of."
The Dash got off to a fast start in the tournament with a 3-3 draw against Utah Royals FC and then a 2-0 victory over OL Reign, before the finishing touch deserted the team a bit. As much as they were creating chances, they were unable to finish leaving them without a goal through the quarterfinals. But, in the semis, Rachel Daly broke through in the 69th minute in helping push the Dash past Portland Thorns FC.
During that stretch without a goal, the defense began to stiffen and goalkeeper Jane Campbell stepped in to keep the team's hopes alive. Her penalty kick save in the quarterfinal matchup against the Utah Royals FC sent the team through to the semis. For Clarkson, seeing the team effort that has been put in on the defensive side has been promising.
"I said to the players before the tournament, if we can have a positive goal difference, we'll win the tournament. And we're at zero at the moment. So, if we can win on Sunday, I'll be proven right and we'll get there," said Clarkson smiling. "For us, where we are and how we're trying to develop and get better, I think the foundation has to start defensively. It's not just Jane, it's all 11 players on the field from the front all the way to the back. I think if you look at Rachel plays up front on her own and the effort she puts in off the ball, to disrupt the other team's buildup and how we are able to win it in certain areas and counter attack, that has been important for us. Collectively, we've changed some personnel in the lineup and we've finally gotten to a stage where, what we're trying to do, the players fit in to what we're trying to do."
That defensive effort will be all the more important Sunday against Chicago which found its scoring touch with a pair of goals in the first 11 minutes of play in their semifinal against Sky Blue FC. With World Cup winning experience on the field in Julie Ertz, Alyssa Naeher, Morgan Brian and Tierna Davidson, Clarkson knows that his team is in for a tough matchup. But, he says, the biggest key will be how his players handle the emotion and excitement of the moment.
"For us, I think we really have to focus on ourselves. We have to look at how we want to play, focus on what we want to do. Emotional control is going to be the biggest thing because we have two or three players on the roster that have been to a final before," said Clarkson. "There isn't a great deal of experience to lean on, this is all something new for us but we've got some top players with a lot of experience that hopefully can keep everybody calm. How we deal with the emotions of all of it. But, I was very pleased today, we did a recovery session and our feet are definitely on the ground and there is a real focus in the group."
Clarkson is excited for the opportunity to play in the final not only for his players, but for the fans of the Dash franchise as well.
"I really feel for the fans. Players, coaches come and go but fans are always there regardless. They look at the team and, we haven't always necessarily given them much to cheer about over the history of the franchise. I think it's really important that they have stuck with the team," said Clarkson. "Hopefully we've engaged them and gotten new fans as well. The excitement in the city, hopefully we can really build on our fan base."
The Dash take on the Red Stars on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. EST/PST in the NWSL Challenge Cup final live on CBS.
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