SANDY, Utah — As the underdog Houston Dash celebrated winning the Challenge Cup title, forward Rachel Daly was asked if she could define the team’s identity after the monthlong tournament.
“Winners,” the Dash co-captain simply said.
Sophie Schmidt scored on an early penalty kick and Shea Groom added a stoppage-time goal to give the Dash the trophy with a 2-0 victory against the Red Stars on Sunday.
The Red Stars were runners-up for the second consecutive season. They were routed 4-0 by the North Carolina Courage last season in the NWSL championship game. Houston, in its seventh year in the league, previously had never made the playoffs.
“Grit and determination and courage, I could use all of those cliche words but they actually mean something within our team,” Daly said. “After every postgame I say ‘Nothing breaks our circle, and if anything breaks our circle, we’ll lose.’ Today nothing broke our circle.”
Houston was aggressive from the start. Kristie Mewis was on the run when she was fouled by Kayla Sharples for a Dash penalty kick. Schmidt nailed the kick in the fifth minute. It was the tournament’s first penalty kick in regulation.
The Red Stars nearly drew even in the 15th minute, but Savannah McCaskill’s header off a rebound hit the post.
McCaskill had another chance from distance in the 67th minute, but Houston goalkeeper Jane Campbell tipped it up and over the crossbar.
The Dash took a hit in the 29th minute when Mewis had to come out of the game with a hamstring injury.
The NWSL was the first professional team sport to return in the United States. Eight of the league’s nine teams have been sequestered in Utah for the duration of the tournament, which started on June 27.
The league’s ninth team, the Orlando Pride, withdrew shortly before the start because of positive COVID-19 tests. But there were no positive tests in the so-called bubble in Utah for the duration of the event.
The Red Stars were the tournament’s sixth seed going into the knockout round. They advanced to the semifinals on penalties after a scoreless draw with OL Reign, then held off Sky Blue 3-2 on Wednesday. The Red Stars had just two total goals in the tournament before the outburst against Sky Blue.
“I think our challenge has been putting away our final crosses and getting some goals this tournament,” said Red Stars defender Julie Ertz, who was named to the 2020 Challenge Cup Best XI along with Casey Short. “So I think in the first half after [the penalty kick], we had a really good reaction to it. And it got harder because once they got up 1-0, they dropped really low in the box, so it’s hard to break down when a lot of numbers are in there. Obviously disappointing, but I’m so proud of the girls.”
The Dash were the upstart underdogs of the Challenge Cup, after finishing seventh in the NWSL last season. Daly, who plays for England’s national team, led the Dash with three goals in the tournament and was the Challenge Cup’s MVP. Daly assisted on Groom’s goal in the 91st minute. It was Groom’s third goal of the tournament and she was named player of the match.
The Red Stars played 27 players throughout the duration of the tournament, the most of any team.