Sunday’s clash with the Chicago Red Stars (7:30 p.m. CT; TICKETS) at BBVA Compass Stadium is not only a home match for the Dash—it’s a homecoming for the class of World Cup 2015.
Three Dash players starred as the U.S. lifted the trophy in Vancouver on Sunday with a stunning 5-2 win over Japan, and none shone brighter than Carli Lloyd, whose hat-trick inside the first 16 minutes helped put the Americans 4-0 up and featured an astonishing goal from the halfway line.
The midfielder’s performance made her an instant World Cup legend and she is sure to generate plenty of FIFA World Player of the Year buzz when the award is announced early next year. And on Sunday, Lloyd, Meghan Klingenberg and Morgan Brian are back in Houston as Randy Waldrum’s side return to action after a two-week break.
“I just couldn’t be more proud of those ladies,” the head coach told reporters at Houston Sports Park. Like everyone else, Waldrum watched in awe as Lloyd’s audacious 50-yard lob sailed into the net. “To think about it, to even look at it from that distance, and then do it in a World Cup final, it’s a storybook finish for her,” he said. “You feel like a proud father… you couldn’t help but smile.”
The trio’s Dash teammates were also sporting broad grins as the U.S. claimed the most prestigious prize in soccer for the third occasion and the first time since 1999. “We were so excited, for those three girls to play such a huge part and be on the Dash. Kling, Morgan and Carli were such a huge part of that team,” said forward Kealia Ohai.
“We’re so proud, obviously amazed by Carli Lloyd’s performance. I said it before the World Cup and I’ll say it again, she’s by far and away the best player in the world. We’re just lucky to have her.
“We’ve seen her in training, we’ve had the privilege to play with her for a short time, she’s just amazing. What’s so dangerous about her is she is a center mid and she can hold and sit back but she can score from anywhere. She scored from half-field in a World Cup final. It’s exciting and it’s fun to watch and Morgan and Kling were just as big a part of that team. So we’re really excited to get them back.”
Defender Klingenberg made a vital headed clearance to save a certain goal in the group stage game against Sweden. With mature performances that belied her age—only 22—midfielder Brian grew in stature and influence as the tournament wore on. Then there was Lloyd, captain in the final, runner-up in the scoring stakes with six goals and winner of the Golden Ball as the competition’s best player.
After a stellar career that has encompassed more than 200 caps, the 32-year-old is without doubt a national icon and household name. Dash defender Niki Cross believes the team’s feat will inspire young women across the country, just as the likes of Brandi Chastain, Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy did by beating China on penalties in the final sixteen years ago.
“You look at the ‘99ers, all those people and there’s this new generation of role models for people, kind of like when we were younger,” Cross said. Waldrum agrees, believing that the victory is massive for both the Dash and the nation as a whole.
“Since it’s been 16 years since we’ve won it, a lot of our young youth players right now don’t remember the ’99 championship or maybe weren’t even born at the time. So it kind of revitalizes youth soccer around the country. You’ve seen all through social media the buzz that it’s made, you saw the television coverage and the amount of people that viewed the game so I think it’s a big boost for women’s football for this country,” he said.
“For us, we couldn’t have written a better script. To have three players play a key role for the World Cup and then for Carli to have the kind of performance she did on the final day… it was a storybook ending for not only the U.S. team but for the Dash team as well.
“I’m excited, I know that ticket sales are doing well, there’s a buzz around the office, all over the media now and I hope all the fans, not just soccer fans but the Texans fans and the Rockets and Astros and all sports fans in Houston will come out Sunday to welcome them back home.”
The U.S. players will return to the Bayou City over the weekend and could play a part on Sunday. The Canadian collection of Erin McLeod, Allysha Chapman and Lauren Sesselmann, who were knocked out by England at the quarterfinal stage, are also expected to be back in Texas, though Chapman is likely to miss the match through injury.
Waldrum is looking forward to having a full-strength roster to select from in the second half of the season. “It’s going to be so much fun to have them back,” he said. “I do want to give credit to our players that have been here and not at the World Cup because they’ve played their hearts out to keep us in the mix, keep us close to being at the top of the table and close with points.”
The Dash are sixth in the nine-team NWSL but only a point behind the playoff places. Sunday’s opponents, Chicago, are the league leaders. The teams played to an exciting 2-2 tie at BBVA Compass Stadium in May. “I think we’ll be in a good spot to make a good run,” said Waldrum.
Ohai is looking forward to playing alongside her returning teammates again in front of a big crowd on Sunday as the public turns out to hail their World Cup champions and continue the party. “I think what it can do especially here in Houston is get fans out to the game to see how much fun it is,” she said.
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.