A successful side can’t rely on talent alone — coaches must create a special bond, too. Columbia State Community College coach Colton Bryant is developing a reputation for culture-building, as ANDREW RAEBURN finds out MORE
A Dash of inspiration
James Clarkson is into his stride. As he reflects on unlikely silverware for his Houston Dash side this summer, the 48-year-old Englishman has a smile on his face and a glint in his eye.
“Nobody expected us to do anything,” Cambridgeshire-born Clarkson admits of his Dash side, who went from perennial outsiders to winners of the NWSL Challenge Cup, the mini-tournament held in Utah which replaced the cancelled regular season.
Clinching the trophy after three knockout victories without conceding, they then finished second in the brief Fall Series which followed.
No wonder Clarkson is a happy man. He beams most when discussing two things – his players, and his adopted city and its soccer fans.
Scores of supporters turned out to a trophy parade with a Covid-secure difference – instead of an open-top bus driving through the throngs, the players set up a stage while socially-distanced fans drove past them instead.
“These have been really tough times for everybody, so to give them a little bit of joy was amazing,” Clarkson said.
“It wasn’t really until we came back [from Utah] and did the parade, and you saw how many people came out for that, that we appreciated the excitement. To have the mayor there, talking about the team and how important it’s been to the community, was terrific.
“Hopefully when we start again next year everybody gets an opportunity to come into the stadium and we can repay them with more performances on the field.”
What is clear is that the bond between head coach and his roster is very strong – and that extends to the supporters.
“We’ve got an underdog mentality and everyone loves an underdog,” he said. “You can see that team chemistry and the joy they have when they’re playing and people can relate to that.
“We’ve got an underdog mentality – and everyone loves an underdog”
“Our players are fantastic role models, they do tons of stuff in the community. They care about the city and I think that’s part of their responsibility – to get out there, represent the club, promote the sport and the fact they’re highly successful, highly intelligent, elite-level athletes who are highly motivated.”
That motivation was sorely tested while in the biosecure Utah bubble, where all teams were holed up during the entirety of the Challenge Cup. “I think we all underestimated the mental side of it and how difficult it was going to be,” Clarkson admitted. “We certainly hit a wall in the preliminary rounds – going into the third and fourth games, we really struggled.”
It’s analysis borne out by the results. All teams played four matches to create standings that would determine seedings for the knockout phase.
The Dash made a good start – denied victory over the Utah Royals after conceding two late goals, before beating OL Reign 2-0. But they were beaten in their final two matches as cabin- fever took hold.
Clarkson and his staff knew things needed to change before the knockout phase.
“It did get to the stage where we had a day off and we said to everybody, ‘we all just need to get away and have our own time with ourselves’.
“We had a couple of barbecues, where we were able to deflate the ball, get away from soccer, calm things down and try to have something normal.
“We had table tennis tournaments, just tried to find things that would keep us busy and distract us from the boredom.”
The psychological side of the game – ensuring players are as fit mentally as physically – is important to Clarkson, as is fostering a team spirit that lifts his squad above the sum of its individual parts.
Clarkson took over at the Dash two years ago this month, succeeding current Ireland coach Vera Pauw.
After a seventh-placed finish in his first season – par for the course for a club that had only ever finished between fifth and ninth since joining the NWSL in 2014 – he immediately plotted a path towards improvement.
And here, in his own words, is how he did it.
A TEAM-FIRST DYNAMIC
“We don’t have that one player that, when we’re really up against it, can get us out of a hole by scoring an unbelievable goal. It’s a real collective effort. So we had to look at ways of how we could close that gap and be competitive.
“We made some big trades in the off season that I think shocked a few people [captain and all-time leading scorer Kealia Ohai went to Chicago Red Stars] but in order to get better we had to make some really tough decisions.
“We looked at it and said we’ve got to have the best team chemistry. We made a big push on really trying to have the best attitude and mentality, and a real togetherness.
“We took the smallest squad to the Challenge Cup – part of that was we felt we could manage a smaller squad better, we could keep that camaraderie going and keep the players who aren’t participating as much connected.
If you took another four players that just becomes even harder and we wanted to focus on a smaller group. All of these little things helped, especially when the going got tough – not just from a soccer stand point, but the mental side.”
ENJOY COMING TO WORK
“We wanted to create an environment where players really want to be, a platform where they can be successful individually and collectively.
“We hired a chef last year to prepare the meals for the players. It’s only a small detail but it makes it so much more professional. We want the players to feel special and important, and these small details can bring us simple wins.
“We spent so much time on establishing team values and behaviours – we wanted the players’ input, we wanted them to buy into it and fully commit to it.
“And it made a huge difference. I think we made the most of lockdown – we spent a lot of time with individual players and with small groups, looking tactically at what we want to do, the sort of behaviours we want from the players and talking about what it means to play for the Dash.
“These are big things that really helped cultivate that culture and environment where it became a real pleasure to be at work. I think the players enjoy coming in every day, and that ultimately reflects in performance on the field.”
“We spent a lot of time meditating and that was really useful. That carried on into the fall and I know some of the players continue to do it – I certainly know I do.
“It has become really beneficial for us. Just finding time to relax, concentrate on breathing, visualisation, all of these things really helped.
“It gave us a thing to constantly come back to. In the Challenge Cup knockout rounds, when there was a water break, the first thing [captain and goalkeeper] Jane Campbell would say to everybody is ‘breathe’ and that was a trigger, like a reset button.
“It took a lot of the tension out and we were able to refocus. These things were hugely important.”
STANDARDS ARE IMPORTANT
“Since we’ve been back, we’ve reflected on it as a staff, and I’ve said to the players the biggest takeaway from the whole thing is how difficult it is to win. It’s easy to lose and be a good loser but if you want to win, the amount of effort, detail and preparation that goes into it, it’s incredibly challenging.
“Now we’ve set a standard. We can’t come back in February and have the players feel our standards have dropped, because it’s going to take a huge team effort on and off the field for us to continue to really move this thing forward.
“We’ve done it, basically, for half a season. Now can we do it consistently for eight or nine months with the grind of a full season and continue to see the same amount of effort and detail from the staff and also the players?
It’s exciting and we’re really looking forward to it.”
TRAIN IN THE RIGHT WAY, AT THE RIGHT TIME
“Our home form’s not been particularly good and I knew that for us to get into the play-offs and become real contenders, we’ve got to be better at home.
“The weather in Houston should be an advantage for us – it’s incredibly humid in the summer – but traditionally the Dash have never been good at home.
“So we did a lot of research on it. I’m finishing off my US Soccer Pro Licence at the moment and on a course one of the guest speakers was a high-performance coach.
“I had the opportunity to ask him some questions about how you turn Houston into home-field advantage. He gave me a couple of really good points that we implemented.
“Because we train in the heat, we produce more red blood cells than other teams, so this is of huge benefit for us in terms of fitness. It became a bit of a catchphrase – “we’re just producing red blood cells” – when we were really pushing them before the tournament.
“Because we explained it to them that way, there seemed to be more of a buy-in from them to actually push a bit harder, so when we got to Utah I think we were in a really good situation fitness-wise and it showed in the tournament.
“We changed our training times, too. We usually train in the mornings but now, as we’ve gone into games – so the Thursday and Friday leading into a Saturday game at home – we changed it and trained in the evening.
“We worked in the heat in the mornings for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, then as we got towards the game we trained on Thursday and Friday at the same time as we kicked off.
“It was an experiment to see if it would make any difference – and we won both games we tried it for, so the players think it’s the greatest thing ever.”
When best to train is a conundrum that Clarkson has been juggling with since taking over. The heat and humidity means they have to be off the field by 10.30am, so sessions usually start at 9am. Recovery is particularly a challenge if you’ve flown back from the east or west coast after a game the previous night.
“Finding a balance between rest, sleep, and active recovery, with foam rollers and stretching, is really important,” Clarkson said.
“The timing is key – you don’t want to be outside from 11am to 6pm in Houston. The humidity is an absolute killer. You could be losing between 5lbs and 10lbs every training session just through water loss.
“So maintaining that [hydration level] every day, weighing in, weighing out, recovering when you get home, is really important.
“I’m a huge believer in training at the intensity we want to play at. So even if we have to reduce the time, when we’re actually doing something we want it at full speed and recreating that match intensity.
“The other thing we’re huge on is individual development and making sure we build that into training. I encourage them all to do extra after training – I think we’ve created an environment where the top players are all out there and that becomes contagious with the rest of them. But we keep that at a sensible load as well.”
“The Houston humidity is a killer – you can lose 5-10lbs through water loss…”
The culture Clarkson has fostered – whether it’s the tight-knit family atmosphere, the psychological benefits brought by meditation, socialising and an ‘all for one’ mentality, or the buy-ins from players over training tweaks – were just part of the Dash’s turnaround in fortunes. He also made significant tactical switches and was clever with recruitment (see next page).
The overall package reaped rewards. In 2019, the Dash had the second-worst attack and the second-worst defence. In 2020, they had tightened up at the back and started scoring more goals.
Midfielder Kristie Mewis is the emblem of the Dash’s resurgence. Her form this year earned her a recall to the US Women’s National Team following six years in the international wilderness – and she scored against the Netherlands on the day of my catch-up with Clarkson, her second USA goal coming 2,722 days after her first.
So everything is going right for the Houston head coach at the moment. And English coaches are very much in fashion in the NWSL – six of the nine teams are led by Brits, including two-time league winner Paul Riley at North Carolina Courage, former Birmingham City boss Marc Skinner at Orlando Pride and ex-Reading player Freya Coombe at New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC.
“I think there’s some fantastic English coaches over here in the States,” Clarkson said. “The ones that have been successful have really gone after it.
“They’ve gone through the coach education, got themselves qualified, and really committed to their craft, spending hours and hours on the grass. And you can see that in the way their teams play and how competitive the league is.
“The coach education in the US is excellent. It’s really pushed on over the last 10 years, and become more European in the approach – there’s more emphasis on philosophy, style of play, principles and it’s really progressing the game in a big way here.
“Six years ago I did the Uefa A licence, and I’m just finishing my Pro Licence with US Soccer. Going through those courses is vitally important. The more you do, the better you’re going to get.”
The genial and hard-working Clarkson, and his title-winning squad, are certainly proof of the saying that you get out what you put in. WSC
Talking tactics: How Clarkson steered Houston into top gear
Staying compact: winning the ball in the regain zone
“For us, the key is in transition and staying compact. We’re not necessarily the most athletic team, so by being more compact, vertically and horizontally, it creates a smaller area for us to de-fend and chase.
“Then, when we win it, the big thing is our ability to play the ball forward, connect the first two passes and get runners going off those passes.
“We call it the regain zone – so when you win the ball, in that first moment, the other team potentially has an overload in that area where they can counter-press and win the ball back.
“Last year  we really struggled. We kept playing back into their counter-press – so we’d win it, they would win it back, we’d be stretched and they’d take advantage of the gaps. But by being more compact, winning it, playing forward and then linking up, we escape the regain zone.
“We’ve also worked on our defensive shape when we attack – committing a certain number of players forward and then getting organised defensively – because we’re trying to eliminate as many transitional moments as possible.
If we can get organised defensively, when we lose it we’re then able to win it back and restart in their half rather than doing it deeper in our own half.
“We consider ourselves a counter-attacking team, but it’s not the traditional dropping back to the 18-yard box. We’re more a medium block, win it just inside their half, then exploit the space the other team has created for us and try and go to goal.”
Changing the shape
“We were playing a 4-2-3-1 but we flipped it and now play a 4-3-3, with one holding midfielder and two attackers in Kristie Mewis and Shea Groom.
“Shea’s a really good dribbler and I felt we needed a dribbler to be able to break the line, play in the gaps and then run at the back four.
“I looked at what we struggled with the year before and the teams that gave us a lot of problems had a dribbler.
“We were able to get Shea [from OL Reign] and play her centrally, and that’s made a big difference to our attack.”
“We scored basically as many goals in 11 games this year  as we did the previous season in 24 .
“In my first year, we didn’t score enough goals and we conceded too many. So we looked at how we could become defensively better. We recruited two new centre-backs and a new right-back, and we feel we’ve got the best goalkeeper in the league [Jane Campbell, pictured].
“In the Challenge Cup, we didn’t concede a goal in the knockout stages. The way the team played defensively, front to back, was huge for us.”