Rachel Daly: “Grit and determination and courage, I could use all of those cliche words, but they actually mean something within our team.” (Photo courtesy of the Houston Dash)

The 2020 soccer season will be remembered for many reasons, most likely for how the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted leagues and everyone’s lives.

The Houston Dash will remember it for something special in its seven-year history: the team won its first trophy, the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup.

What made the accomplishment even sweeter was that the Dash had never qualified for the National Women’s Soccer League playoffs in the six previous seasons and at time, had no current members from the U.S. women’s national team.

The Dash players surprised everyone but themselves by securing the title with a 2-0 win over the Chicago Red Stars at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah July 25.

Canadian international Sophie Schmidt converted an early penalty kick and Shea Groom, who was named game MVP, scored in an empty net in stoppage time for the scoring.

“Grit and determination and courage, I could use all of those cliche words, but they actually mean something within our team,” said former St. John’s University standout Rachel Daly, who captained the Dash side. “After every postgame I say ‘Nothing breaks our circle, and if anything breaks our circle, we’ll lose.’ Today nothing broke our circle.”

A skillful, physical and intense forward, Daly had been a crucial piece to the Dash’s success. Of Houston’s six goals, Daly played a role in four.

“It’s a massive honor to be named the MVP of this tournament, but I wouldn’t be able to do it without my amazing teammates, staff, fans and the city of Houston,” Daly said. “Although it is a massive honor for me and my family, I came into this tournament with higher expectations and higher hopes – that is to bring the championship back to Houston.”

Daly opened her tournament run, scoring a brace in the first game played against Utah Royals FC. The England international leads the team with three goals and is tied with North Carolina Courage forward Lynn Williams in the Golden Boot race with three goals and assist apiece. Daly can claim the Golden Boot with a goal or an assist in the final.

“This is thoroughly deserved for her play and leadership, and it wouldn’t be possible without the team,” Dash head coach James Clarkson said. “This is great recognition for her, the team and the club.”

Since the NWSL became the first professional league to return to action with its 2020 Challenge Cup opener June 27, the league wound up in the spotlight for many reasons.

The competition was held in a bubble in two Utah cities – Herriman and Sandy.

On June 27, the NWSL became the first professional league to return to play after the pandemic shutdown leagues. It received plenty of publicity in the soccer community, but many news outlets gave credit and headlines to the NBA.

While three goals in the final 15 minutes and stoppage time were undoubtedly the highlights of the match – a 2-1 win by the North Carolina Courage over the Portland Thorns – a moment of unity between the team was certainly one to remember as they knelt during the national anthem in support of Black Lives Matter.

A joint statement released by the two teams following the anthem read, “We took a knee today to protest injustice, police brutality, and systemic racism against black people and people of color in America.”

Tomorrow: National story No. 4

Front Row Soccer editor Michael Lewis has covered 13 World Cups (eight men, five women), seven Olympics and 25 MLS Cups. He has written about New York City FC, New York Cosmos, the New York Red Bulls and both U.S. national teams for Newsday and has penned a soccer history column for the Guardian.com. Lewis, who has been honored by the Press Club of Long Island and National Soccer Coaches Association of America, is the former editor of BigAppleSoccer.com. He has written seven books about the beautiful game and has published ALIVE AND KICKING The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers. It is available at Amazon.com.