NWSL’s unlikely Houston Dash give sport its first coronavirus-era champion

5:28 PM ET


CloseGraham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

The first professional sports league in the U.S. to resume competition amidst a pandemic, the National Women’s Soccer League proved that there was a way for the games to go on.

In winning the monthlong NWSL Challenge Cup after never so much as reaching the playoffs in their first six seasons in the league, the Houston Dash showed those games could still matter.

Why else would Houston midfielder Kristie Mewis struggle to contain the tears after a hamstring injury forced her out of the final in the first half? Why would defender Megan Oyster throw her head at a cross in the closing minutes, knowing she left her injured ribs open to the collision that inevitably knocked her to the ground when a similarly desperate opponent lunged at the ball?

Why would league MVP Rachel Daly, exhaustion showing in second-half stoppage time, find just enough energy to flick a pass to midfielder Shea Groom, who somehow still had the legs to run around Chicago goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and score the goal that sealed a 2-0 win?

Why would forward Nichelle Prince even want to be in Utah, let alone creating chance after chance and chasing back on defense, barely a month after her father passed away — and mere weeks after she waited out quarantine alone in a Utah hotel room after returning to the bubble from her home in Canada?

Why would anyone do any of that if their paycheck was guaranteed even if they opted out?

In a year in which control over our world has never felt more fleeting, the ability to accomplish something is a powerful motivator. Even if only for 90 minutes on a field marked out in chalk.

“We’re just winners today,” Daly said afterward. “And I think that’s what we want to be known as.”

For the briefest of moments Sunday, it looked as if Houston would play the role often ascribed to championship newbies — the role that Chicago coach Rory Dames…