By Danielle Lerner, Houston Chronicle
The sound a soccer ball makes when it hits pavement is markedly different than grass or turf, and yet it is the sound Rachel Daly associates with her earliest memory of the sport that is now her life.
In Harrogate, England, a town of about 70,000, Daly’s family lived on the corner of a cul-de-sac. The rectangular dimensions of the street were perfectly suited for five-a-side soccer. Although they rarely had enough players for five-on-five, Daly and her older brother, Andy, played one-on-one for hours, paying no mind to aggrieved neighbors or damaged doors and gates until their mom dragged them inside.
Broken fences have given way to smashed records for Daly, a star forward for the NWSL’s Houston Dash and English national team who is entering a pivotal year in her career.
In her seventh season with the Dash, Daly is the club’s all-time leading goalscorer in regular-season play (33) and the longest-tenured Dash player on the current roster with 108 career appearances across all competitions.
Daly’s success in Houston has paralleled her ascent into a regular role with the English national team, making her one of the Dash’s most recognizable players and a rare constant in the club’s up-and-down history.
Daly has outlasted most of the Dash coaches, staff and players who were there when the club drafted her out of college in 2016. Houston’s NWSL franchise was still in its infancy then, its third season, and Daly has since played for three head coaches and an interim head coach while experiencing everything from miserable records to a triumphant 2020 Challenge Cup championship.
Even with all Daly has achieved individually, the Dash have never qualified for the NWSL playoffs.
Why, then, is she still here?
Daly doesn’t hesitate.
“I think loyalty is very underrated,” she said. “Loyalty is a big trait of mine, and that’s something that I’ve committed to. I don’t think it has been the right time for me to ever leave yet. … I’ve seen so many people get traded to here and from here and the stories that they’ve said and different experiences from different clubs. And I just think that the grass isn’t always greener and you can often leave, but I’ve set my roots here and I’ve been here for a while. Regardless of whatever it is, I think there has been a deep reason why I’ve been here for so long.”
Daly is dedicated to others and to her own passion, which is why loyalty has been the undercurrent to her entire career. It drove her to leave her small-town U.K. roots for college in New York City, to adapt to the American game and to push herself to become a fierce leader for the Dash.
The Dash are in what many hope will be a transformational year in the club’s first full season under majority owner Ted Segal, who recently hired Jessica O’Neill to be the first-ever Dash team president. Coach James Clarkson brought in a host of new players to replace a number of key departures, mainly affecting the front two lines.
With all the newness, though, is a feeling of unfinished business.
The 2021 NWSL season ended on a crushing note, when Houston’s 1-0 loss to Washington on the final day of the regular season left the Dash one point short of a playoff spot. Daly said the Dash are eager to wash the “sour taste” of last season out of their mouths and end the playoff drought. “I’m a winner. Like, I hate losing more than I enjoy the feeling of winning,” Daly said. “Losing against Washington to get to the playoffs last year still sits heavy in my heart and I still lose sleep over that game, and I think that’s, again, the passion, the intensity that I bring. I think we’ve got a point to prove and I hope and I think that the girls on the team are on the same ride.”
Not only will Daly be tasked with leading the Dash’s revamped roster, but she was also called up to play for England in this month’s 2023 FIFA World Cup qualifiers and hopes to be named to the national team squad for the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022, which is to be held in England this July.
Daly, however, thrives at the intersection of opportunity and pressure. In the back of her mind, she’s still that little girl playing footy in the street, going where her passion leads her. Determined to take up whatever space she can get.