By Amy Tennery
(Reuters) – The Houston Dash upset the odds to win their first National Women’s Soccer League title on Sunday by beating the Chicago Red Stars 2-0 to capture the Challenge Cup.
The NWSL, the first major pro league in North America to return to action amid the COVID-19 outbreak, held the month-long standalone tournament in a “bubble” in Salt Lake City, Utah.
There were no positive COVID-19 tests out of more than 2,000 conducted over four weeks.
Houston took an early lead after Sophie Schmidt converted a penalty five minutes into the game after Kristie Mewis was fouled in the area.
“I just stuck with the plan and knew that I was going to deliver for my team,” Canadian international Schmidt told a sideline reporter at halftime.
Midfielder Shea Groom sealed the win in the first minute of stoppage time by rounding goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher to score, giving Chicago, runners-up in the 2019 league campaign, no hope of coming back.
Tournament MVP and England international Rachel Daly said the victory was vindication of the hard work of her team mates.
“Grit and determination and courage – and I think I could use all those cliche words but they actually mean something,” said Daly. “Nothing breaks our circle.”
Soaked in his team’s celebratory beer, Dash head coach James Clarkson told reporters that his players “deserve all the credit.”
“(I) couldn’t be any prouder of them,” said Clarkson. “The commitment and effort and desire from players is ultimately what makes the difference.”
It was heartbreak yet again for the Red Stars, who lost 4-0 in last year’s NWSL championship decider against the North Carolina Courage and had hoped for redemption at the one-off Challenge Cup tournament.
“I think we overachieved from what we came here to do,” Red Stars head coach Rory Dames told reporters. “Doesn’t mean we’re not disappointed about losing the game.”
The team had numerous injuries throughout the tournament and were without several key players including defender Casey Short in the final.
Sunday’s action started with a salute to the Challenge Cup’s “real heroes” – medical experts, support staff and other personnel who helped operate the tournament – followed by the playing of the national anthem, during which many players knelt in support of racial justice.
There was no confirmation on when the new NWSL season would begin, although Chicago coach Dames told reporters at the end of his news conference, “See you in eight months.”
League commissioner Lisa Baird said she’s eager to get players back on the pitch soon after the tournament, but that they have yet to settle on “any competition format.”
(Reporting By Amy Tennery; Editing by Chritian Radnedge)