María Sánchez (Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

Houston Dash head coach James Clarkson was surprised when midfielder Gabby Kessler (formerly Seiler) announced her retirement on Monday.

In a media call Tuesday, as teams opened preseason across the NWSL, Clarkson described the situation as “out of the blue.”

“My head is still spinning to be honest,” he said. “Shocked but can only wish her the best. I hope she’s happy and has a really successful life past soccer.”

The loss of Kessler, who joined the Dash in a trade from the Portland Thorns before the 2021 season, adds to the stinging absence of U.S. women’s national team center midfielder Kristie Mewis. The 30-year-old was selected by San Diego Wave FC in the 2022 expansion draft in December and then immediately traded to NJ/NY Gotham FC.

Evidently, the Dash need to rebuild their midfield, and Clarkson has his hopes set on recent signings María Sánchez and Marisa Viggiano filling that role.

“Bringing in some of the players that we have brought in ideally gives us a different feel, a different look,” he said.

Having previously spent a month with Houston on loan in June 2021, Sánchez signed a two-year deal with the Dash earlier in January. She arrived from UANL Tigres in Liga MX Femenil, where she scored five goals in three games as Tigres reached the Liga MX final in late December.

Sánchez, who’s also scored five goals in 29 appearances with the Mexican national team, will be an important piece on the left side for Houston.

“That is a major signing for us,” said Clarkson. “I think that is going to continue to help us create goals, score goals and give us a real opportunity of winning.”

“I mean, hopefully I can just do my part,” Sánchez said. “Obviously, I was brought in, looked at for a reason. So hopefully I can just do my part offensively. I know defensively as well, but hopefully be able to get some assists and goals in and participate offensively in what the team needs me to do.” 

On Friday, the Dash announced they had acquired Viggiano from the Orlando Pride in exchange for defender Megan Montefusco (formerly Oyster), $30,000 in allocation money and their natural third-round pick in the 2023 NWSL Draft.

Entering her fourth season in the NWSL, Viggiano is coming off 21 appearances and 14 starts with the Pride in 2021.

“We would have been really light at midfield, so getting Viggiano has been massive for us,” said Clarkson.

Finishing in seventh place with a record of 9-10-5, Houston missed out on the playoffs in 2021, a year after they won the 2020 Challenge Cup and placed second in the Fall Series.  The Dash will need to figure out a plan for their defense if they want to return to the playoffs. Last year, the team let in as many goals as they scored — which is a lot considering Houston was among the top-three scoring teams with 31 goals.

Clarkson said the key to reaching success this season is for players to develop individually, and then collectively, to put “a winning, exciting team on the field.”

It also helps to have a core of three 2020 Olympic gold medalists in Canadians Allysha Chapman (defense), Sophie Schmidt (midfield) and Nichelle Prince (forward). England national team star Rachel Daly was third in the league in scoring last year with nine goals, but did not report to the first day of preseason on Tuesday.

Joining Prince and Daly in the attacking third will be Paulina Gramaglia, on loan from UAI Urquiza for the 2022 season.

“She’s got huge potential,” Clarkson said of the 18-year-old. “We saw some moments of some real quality today. She had a fantastic assist and had a great little run where there was a nutmeg and smashed one off the crossbar. So there’s some good stuff there, and hopefully we can continue to evolve it, push it. Hopefully we can see some big things from this year.”

The Dash are relying heavily on transfers this season. The team is in the process of bringing in two more — one who won’t arrive until the summer and another who will ideally be ready to play before that.

Houston aims to have 22 players on the main roster and four development players. 

“We’ve got the vast majority of the roster sorted,” Clarkson said. “We’ve still got some spaces that we plan to fill over the next couple of weeks.”

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.