Uphill climb for expansion Dash
Every story starts somewhere. Granted, the mountains of West Virginia doesn't seem the likeliest location from which to begin one about the Houston Dash, an expansion franchise that starts its National Women's Soccer League existence this weekend when it hosts defending league champion Portland Thorns FC in the season opener at BBVA Compass Stadium.
But there Ella Masar was amid the Allegheny Mountains in late spring 2008.
It's as good a place as any to find out where a team comes from when it has no history. As good a place as any to understand what this team is.
An Illinois product who had only recently completed her eligibility at the University of Illinois, Masar was passing through the rugged stretch of the Appalachians on her way to Washington, D.C. She hadn't spent all that much time outside her home state until the move east, but with talk of a possible second attempt at a domestic women's professional league, she bought a car and set out for the nation's capital to earn a place with the Washington Freedom, a holdover franchise from the failed first professional league that was then competing in the semi-pro W-League.
A recruited walk-on when she started playing for the Illini who became a Big Ten standout, she felt she still had more soccer in her.
One problem: Although the journey of a thousand miles, give or take a few hundred in this case, may begin with a single step, nobody said anything about how to keep moving forward in a stick shift.
"In Illinois you don't get mountains," Masar said of the drive she made by herself. "I hit the West Virginia line about 11 o'clock at night, and I could just hear my car revving up the mountain."
She and the car's transmission survived the trek, although they would soon part company when the next leg of her soccer career necessitated a stay in Norway. Six years later, after stops in a half-dozen leagues across two continents, including both the now-defunct Women's Professional Soccer and NWSL, she should be among the forwards in Houston's first starting 11 come Saturday evening.
At 28, Masar is the oldest non-allocated player on the roster, what passes for a veteran in a league that skews young. When she set out on that initial drive across the mountains and into the world of professional soccer, her current teammate and the No. 2 overall pick in this year's college draft, Kealia Ohai, was wrapping up her sophomore year of high school.
And there, in a way, rests the basic truth of a season for an entire team. You don't end up on an expansion team if you don't have something to prove. Whether it's for the first time or perhaps the final time.
When head coach Randy Waldrum spoke to the team before it began its first training session in early March, he talked about his philosophy of how the game should be played and how he saw the pieces at his disposal fitting together. A newcomer to the pro game himself after winning two national championships at Notre Dame, he also had one more point to make.
"Most of these players, 10 of them at least, we got through the expansion draft," Waldrum said. "Which meant, for whatever reason, that team left them unprotected. And then the college draft, the players don't have any idea where they're going or how that's going to play out. But I wanted to make it real clear on that first day that the players we had in the room were players I wanted.
"I think it was important that they understood that we wanted them here."
That sounded good to Masar. She had been ready to walk away from the sport after WPS collapsed and she found herself at the center of a storm involving the MagicJack franchise and controversial owner Dan Borislow. When an offer came to play for Paris Saint-Germain, with the encouragement of her dad, she instead headed overseas. Not long after she arrived in Paris, Terry Masar died. She completed the full 2011-12 European season for the well-known French side, but once again, she wasn't sure whether her future held much soccer in it.
"Putting the cleats on wasn't the same," Masar said. "It wasn't the same when he wasn't cheering for me."
An opportunity to play close to home in Chicago, first in the semi-pro Women's Premier Soccer League Elite and then in the inaugural season of NWSL, brought her back. But although she appreciated that time close to home, Masar said that conversations with the Red Stars after last season made it clear to her that if she returned this season it likely would be in a reserve role. So when Waldrum called to gauge her interest in another move, she assured him she was still ready, willing and able to play soccer. (Although officially listed as an expansion-draft selection, both Masar and Waldrum described her acquisition as connected to the pre-expansion draft trade of Canadian internationals that brought goalkeeper Erin McLeod to Houston and sent Melissa Tancredi to Chicago.)
"I knew at least Ella is a player that has been around the leagues for a while," Waldrum said. "I knew we were going to need some leadership. And she's also been able to get six or seven goals a year. ... She's at least a proven commodity that she can score in this league, and I knew we were going to need that."
The Dash will need that in droves. Six of the league's eight teams a season ago scored at least 31 goals. All finished with at least 30 points and had at least some sort of playoff hopes through most of the regular season. The two teams that didn't get close to 30 goals didn't get close to the rest of the league in the standings. Even after injuries took Lauren Sesselmann and Aya Sameshima out of the picture on the back line, the Dash should be solid defensively in front of McLeod once Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenberg return from European commitments this spring.
Scoring goals will be the challenge.
Satisfied with Engen and Klingenberg as his national team allocations, Waldrum nonetheless expressed some frustration that the Dash never got a shot at Christen Press or Yael Averbuch, two American internationals with world-class offensive skills who returned to NWSL from abroad this season and ended up with Chicago and Washington, respectively. Without someone like Press, the face of the front line in Waldrum's favored 4-3-3 becomes Ohai, an All-American at North Carolina and a standout on youth national teams, including the 2012 U-20 world champions. But also a rookie.
"What catches your eye with her right off the bat is, obviously, her pace," Waldrum said of Ohai. "She was one where, when we were trying to organize the team and the draft, we felt like Ella is one who can kind of hold up play. She's a stronger-built body type, and she's good with her back to the goal, and you can play in to her. Kealia we felt like would be a great complement because we felt like she was the one player who could really stretch the defense with her speed. She could get behind defenses. You've got to have players who can do that.
"I just love her work ethic. She's willing to play both sides."
An instantly marketable figure, given her high profile at North Carolina and familial ties that have turned Houston Texans linebacker Brian Cushing, Ohai's brother-in-law, into a vocal Dash supporter, Ohai lived in a sort of limbo between the college draft on Jan. 17 and the start of training in March. She was a professional soccer player and in some ways the face of a franchise, but she was still living and training in Chapel Hill, N.C., still practicing with her former college teammates in the morning and playing in a regular afternoon pickup game with coaches from the men's and women's teams. She was still at college; she just wasn't in college anymore. Even recently, as she played exhibition games with the Dash against mostly college teams, it hadn't felt quite real.
Only now can she begin to prove that she belongs not just in NWSL but also, she hopes, with the full national team in time.
With the exception of the national team, and even then it's not an entirely distant second, North Carolina is the most famous women's soccer team in this country. Ohai spent her college career trying to maintain what Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Heather O'Reilly and all those before her had built. Now she's the one doing the building, free from both the burden and the protection of the jersey.
"I feel like for everyone who goes to UNC, just because of the legacy that the school has, you come in and you try your best, but nothing can ever really top what has already happened," Ohai said. "I think Anson [Dorrance, UNC's coach] has done a great job of saying to his players, 'Listen, you have no pressure on you. No matter what, we're proud of you.' They try not to put that pressure on you, but it definitely is a different feel because everyone has won a national championship, everyone has done pretty much everything.
"So I think it is cool to be somewhere where it's new and we haven't done anything yet because we haven't played."
Nobody expects the Dash to contend for a championship this season. Even Waldrum, while professing confidence in what the current group can accomplish, conceded it might take "a year or two under our belts in the league" to reach full steam and assemble a full cast of healthy parts who fit his style.
But ready or not, the clock will tick toward 90 minutes more than 30 times this season.
"We're building off of players who really have a lot to prove," Waldrum said. "My hope is these players are looking at it in a way of 'Screw the team that let me go; I'll come back and prove to them they should have kept me.' If you can have that attitude and that mentality, then I think we've got a chance to be a pretty good team."
It will be an uphill climb, but sometimes that is where stories begin. "You can't take away what a team is, and I think that's what my belief is," Masar said. "I think that's why Randy took the players he did."