31 July 2020

I’ve never been a captain and I’ve never won a trophy: How Rachel Daly changed all that by leading Houston Dash to NWSL Challenge Cup victory

Considering it was the first time in Rachel Daly’s career she was selected to be team captain - it’s fair to say she did a decent job.

Not only did she lead Houston Dash to their first ever trophy in the National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup, she also won the tournament’s Golden Boot - with three goals and two assists to her name - and was voted the Most Valuable Player.

And now, for the first time, she tells  NewsChain, just what it was like to finally get her hands on a trophy.

“Yeah, it was great, it was a real honour, especially being able to captain the team. I didn't really know what to do, I've never been a captain and I've never won a trophy so it was actually quite surprising.

“But it was really nice to win and I think, given the circumstances of this year, I think it was really important for us to win this tournament.”

She admits she did set out to win the Golden Boot and, while that and the other accolades she won at the tournament are individual, her team-mates deserve credit for helping her to achieve them.

"It's an honour, being MVP and then Golden Boot, which is probably more important to me as I set myself the target of scoring the most goals in the tournament.

"But MVP was special because there are so many talented players in this league and so many unbelievable performances by people. I said that when I got it, it's a great honour, it's a really nice award and I'll take it with me forever. 

“But I couldn't have done it without all the girls behind me. The close knit group and ability level in the group helped me, so I couldn't have done that on my own. I think it's more important that it was more of a team thing than just me.”

Dash are a close team and while they clearly play well together, they also party well. 

The team shared what Daly described as ‘wild antics’ on their social media platforms, with a special mention for Kristie Mewis who partied hard and suffered for it the morning after.

Daly said the thought of being able to celebrate after the final was an added incentive to claim the victory.

"Yeah, it was so good. We've talked about the feeling of what it would be like to win. We were walking out to the pitch before the game and obviously you could see a celebratory locker room… and it was full of Budweiser.

"You're looking and thinking ‘well we want to win to do that and not see pictures of other people doing it’.

“I think we're such a close-knit team and getting to celebrate in that manner was so fun and there was a lot of wild antics over the course of the following two days.”

And with the kick-off time for the final being 10.30am MDT, they had the rest of the day to celebrate.

"Yeah I think I got hungover by about 7pm! It was good as we had the entire day and we could go back to the hotel and enjoy each other's company.

“It was a really good day, really fun day and the flight back the day after was even more fun."

While the hotel in the host city of Utah became the venue for celebration, it had also served as home for Dash and all the other NWSL teams for the entire 30-day tournament due to coronavirus safety protocols.

The NWSL bubble meant if they weren’t training or playing, they would be in the hotel. Daly said she could see why some struggled with the set up.

"Yeah it is bizarre. I think the idea of living in a hotel for a month, most people would probably love that but it's not all glamorous. You only see your four walls of your bedroom for large periods of the day and we were there for 30 days so obviously that takes a toll on you.

"But I think we made the most of it. We had ping pong tournaments, Mario Kart tournaments, I learnt how to juggle, we meditated together, there were a lot of things to maximise the opportunity rather than seeing it as a struggle and I think that was massive for us to do that.

“We changed hotels after the quarter-finals too so I think that was a change of scenery. I think some people really struggled, and you can see why, but for me you had to take it for what it was and use it as an opportunity to get better.”

Daly in action for Dash against Utah Royals in the Challenge Cup (SIPA USA/PA Images)

The hotel bubble was just one of many protocols the league put in place to ensure the safety of players.

Masks were worn when players weren’t playing, seats in the stadium were sanitised, buses were cleaned, temperatures were checked and regular testing was carried out.

Daly said the fact there was not one positive coronavirus test throughout the Challenge Cup is a testament to the NWSL.

"I felt very safe, the league did an absolutely amazing job of keeping us safe, the precautions were there. We didn't have any issues, we didn't have any other people in the hotels from the public. It was just us and the other teams.

“The vans were cleaned every day. Everything they did they took into [consideration] and to not get one positive test throughout the whole tournament is a credit to the league.”

The success of the tournament, particularly due to the safety measures rolled out, has led to much debate over whether the NWSL is being overlooked at the expense of when the men’s game will return.

The NWSL was the first professional league to return in the US but some media outlets were been criticised for crediting Major League Soccer as the first one back - a week after the NWSL.

Daly said while that may be so, the record-breaking crowds and safety protocols at the Challenge Cup means the women’s game must benefit.

"To some extent [the league was overlooked] but I think a lot of the MLS players have supported the NWSL and expressed that on social media and there's been a lot more coverage now they've see how many people watched the games.

"But you know, at the beginning I don't think anyone recognised that this league was playing and going ahead. But I think now it's put the league on the map and I think people are starting to look at us. And the fact that, again, we had no positive cases is something that we can be proud of.

“I think the WNBA is getting a lot more fans watching and they're moving ahead with theirs really well now so I think it helps women's sports in general that we did so well.”

Daly has 35 caps for England (EMPICS Sport)

For now, the Challenge Cup has gone and there is no confirmation on when the league will start again.

Daly is unsure of what’s next but clearly has her eyes on making the Team GB squad for the postponed Tokyo Olympics next summer.

"I think that's why I should play somewhere regularly. Managing my loads will also be challenging. 

“I may try and go on loan somewhere, maybe in England. But I don’t know yet, I think things will become clearer next week when things have settled down. Whether there's going to be games [in the NWSL], whether people go out on loan, but yeah we just don't know the future of this league this year.”

“But I think that's in my mind and I think I need this week to unwind and then see what the plan is moving forward.”

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