Rachel Daly has always been a pioneer. As a child, Houston Dash’s captain stood out as the only girl playing for Killinghall Nomads, a junior boys’ side in a village just outside Harrogate, and now she is at the vanguard of a groundbreaking American sporting experiment.
On Sunday, at a virtually empty Rio Tinto Stadium in the shadow of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, Daly will lead Houston Dash out against Chicago Red Stars in the final of the National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup.
When it kicked off a month ago, the eight-team, 23-match tournament made women’s football the first team sport in the United States to return to competitive action during the coronavirus pandemic.
In many other countries, the United Kingdom included, women’s sport has been suspended, proving a prime casualty of the global crisis, but the NWSL’s determination to build on the USA’s triumph at last year’s World Cup in France turned it into an outlier.
By nudging in front of not merely men’s soccer but baseball, basketball, ice hockey and American football, the eight-year-old professional league commanded the national spotlight. With games screened on CBS a wider national television audience has been introduced to female club football.
British viewers coming fresh to the women’s game during the coverage of France 2019 initially recognised Daly as “the new Phil Neville” after England’s coach repeatedly praised the 28-year-old’s ability to play in several positions for her country. “Rachel reminds me of me,” said the former Manchester United, Everton and England utility player.
Everyone laughed but Neville meant it as a compliment. Indeed, Daly’s ability to shine at right-back, centre-forward and in midfield not only helped set her apart in a squad packed with specialists but glamorised versatility. For the moment at least, the Leeds United fan is captaining Dash from attack with the sort of incision mirrored by her candid post-match assessments, customarily delivered to TV interviewers in a broad Yorkshire accent.
Daly is invariably matter of fact, but the tournament’s three-goal joint leading scorer became a little emotional after heading the winner in Wednesday’s 1-0 semi-final victory against Portland Thorns. “For the players this is special, for the club it’s special but, most importantly, it’s for the people of Houston,” she said. “The city of Houston’s going through a really tough time with the pandemic – this is for them.”
A little over a year ago, Daly and her fellow Lionesses relieved their World Cup stress by mingling with France’s summer crowds on the seafronts in Nice and Deauville, with a terrorist attack regarded as the biggest threat to their safety. Back then, face masks and football played behind closed doors would have seemed dystopian. Small wonder the players cocooned in the NWSL biosecure bubble have not always found the adjustment easy.
The edgy atmosphere surrounding a tournament designed to salvage a season originally scheduled to start in March heightened when Orlando Pride were forced to withdraw after 10 of their players and staff tested positive for coronavirus. The remaining teams have been isolated in hotels lacking other guests and undertaken sometimes daily virus testing, underscored by frequent temperature checks.
With the protocols so inhibiting it is perhaps not entirely surprising that several stars including Megan Rapinoe and Christen Press declined to be involved in what would have been their first competitive clubs matches for eight months.
“Nobody’s comfortable in the bubble,” says Chicago Red Stars coach Rory Dames. “You can’t understand it if you’re not actually here living in it. Hanging out in a hotel for three to four weeks doesn’t sound like a bad thing unless you actually can’t leave the hotel.”
The combination of searing heat, altitude, congested schedule and, up until the semi-finals, the need to play on artificial turf have created physical problems to mirror the mental health concerns. Yet although the temperature is expected to reach 35C at Sunday’s final in suburban Sandy, 13 miles from Salt Lake City, James Clarkson, Houston’s English-born coach, is most worried about the psychological toll.
“I underestimated how much the mental load would really take on us, the staff, the players, everybody,” says the 46-year-old originally from Wisbech in Cambridgeshire. “It’s tough; incredibly hard. Unfortunately we can’t go anywhere to break the monotony.”
Despite the cafes normally haunted by women footballers during tournament downtime being off-limits, the finalists can at least sip their beloved lattes after NSWL officials turned a hired lorry into a mobile coffee dispenser. Should Daly score another winner, in the final, her old friends from Killinghall will doubtless celebrate with something a little stronger.
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