On a late spring afternoon, while watching professional soccer players hustle across artificial turf, it suddenly occurs to us that we couldn’t be any further from BBVA Compass Stadium. For one thing, the pristine field we’re watching is at Houston Sports Park, on the south side of town. For another, Dwight Howard and Andre Johnson are nowhere to be found, nor is the media throng that usually swirls around their teams. There is no swirl, no throng. Just us and the Houston Dash.
“If you polled 100 Houstonians [and asked] if they’d heard of the National Women’s Soccer League prior to the [Dash], you might go zero for a hundred,” said Chris Canetti, who is president of business operations for both the Dash and Dynamo. “You have no brand recognition, no history. We’re working against that.” Oh, and two previous women’s professional leagues have folded.
But already there are signs that things might be different this time. Early Dash attendance figures—nearly 8,100 fans showed up to their first game against the Portland Thorns—were encouraging. Furthermore, an instant bond seems to have formed among the players, and the city’s embrace of them has been rather immediate, too.
“The coolest thing about this team is the connection we had with each other and this city right from the start,” goalie Erin McLeod told us, during a pause in practice. “One of our team goals was community. This is the first team I’ve been on where that’s been our goal.”
What no one disputes is that Houston has become a real soccer town. In less than a decade, the Dynamo have become entrenched in the city, and one of Canetti’s challenges in running both organizations is how to grow the fan base for women’s soccer. Dash matches may not draw 20,000-plus attendees like the Dynamo’s, but they could still be a healthy, profitable team as long as they play good soccer. “It can’t be a cause forever,” said Canetti. “If it doesn’t go from that to being loved and cherished simply because people like them, then there’ll be a tough time surviving long-term.”
The team lost its first game to Portland, 1-0, at BBVA Compass, but the final score did little to put a damper on the evening’s excitement. Houston luminaries, from Dynamo star Brad Davis to Mayor (and season-ticket holder) Annise Parker, participated in the pre-game ceremonies. Area youth soccer coaches lined the field to welcome the Dash, and several local girls booted the equivalent of a first pitch. After the game, players took selfies with fans, paraded around the stadium, and signed autographs. There was real camaraderie there, on a level you could never see after a Rockets or Texans game.
Then again, two starters were injured during that first match, including star midfielder Brittany Bock, who will miss the rest of the season. Yet the team still managed to rack up a win against the Boston Breakers a week later, and as they enter the grueling summer portion of their season, the Dash seem to be playing better and better.
Is it strange, though, that a women’s soccer team should be coached by three men and run by a male-dominated organization? Not really, said Canetti: “We were just looking for the best people, men or women, for these players.” The results speak for themselves so far. “This is good sports entertainment. These women can play.”
From there, the rest will follow, Canetti believes, a happy side effect of talented athletes playing for a purpose at the highest level. He recalled seeing a spark in his two daughters’ eyes at the Dash’s inaugural game in April. “They love the Dynamo, but when they watch the Dash play, it’s a different relationship,” he said. “It’s so much more powerful.”