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The Houston Dash took the field of BBVA Compass Stadium on Tuesday morning for training in advance of Sunday’s season opener against the Chicago Red Stars (4 p.m., TICKETS) only to find a special guest from the Houston Zoo, Kito, getting his own workout in on the field.


Kito is a 10-year-old male cheetah, invited by head coach Vera Pauw to exercise at BBVA Compass Stadium prior to training as an example for her squad for how she wants to set up her tactics and gameplan going into her first season in charge.


“The cheetah stands for a set of characteristics that we are looking to have,” Pauw told reporters during the team’s media day. “They only run when they have to run; they’re not just running around or fooling around. It is a very disciplined animal because they can only run [full speed] for maybe 30 seconds, and then they have to sleep for 18 hours.”


The approach – minus the 18 hours of sleep – is one that Pauw hopes will distinguish the Dash within the NWSL and take advantage of the heat during the Houston summer. Let the other team run and wear themselves out, then strike with devastating quickness.


“We should not just run for the sake of running – which was happening a lot and it is happening a lot in the league. We have to be very efficient,” Pauw explained. “Soccer is an explosive sport, and it’s related to sprint and explosive actions. We brought [Kito] in as a symbol for our style of play.”


Disciplined runs aren’t the only similarities between the cheetahs and the Dash. Kito and his brother, Kiburi, utilize the practice fields at Houston Sports Park to open their legs and run sprints, and one of the younger cheetahs at the Houston Zoo is even named Dash.


Pauw uses the example of the cheetahs beyond her in-game approach and into the team’s practices as well. “Short sessions with a lot of intensity” is how she described their training methods, demanding 100% from everybody in everything they do on the pitch but not over-exerting players before actual games.


With nearly half of the roster turned over for 2018 as well as a new coach, the Dash have had to be quick learners to grasp the new philosophy while also learning the tendencies and qualities of new teammates. Pauw has been encouraged by their flexibility and even says the team is even ahead of schedule of where she originally mapped out going into the first match.


“The way each of them has been on the pitch has been above any of the expectations so far. I’m pleased, and the team is enjoying it. From here we build a fantastic season.”