BRYAN BYERLY/ISI PHOTOS

Shea Groom is a forward for the Houston Dash of the NWSL. She spoke with Just Women’s Sports about the team’s semifinal victory over the Portland Thorns, and what they’ll need to do against Chicago in order to take home the Challenge Cup trophy this Sunday. 

The team came up huge against Portland. Can you walk me through your thoughts on the game? 

Portland’s an incredible team and they have shown that throughout their history in the league. Anytime you go against them, you’re going to expect good soccer and that you have to bring your best game. Walking into the game, we knew we had to be prepared, and that’s something that we’ve taken pride and responsibility in throughout this tournament. We were not doubting each other in our locker room at all. I felt like we came into that game fully believing that we were going to win it, and I don’t think we ever stopped believing. And then once we were able to get the goal, we just said, anything to win, defend for your life, and let’s get to the finals because that’s why we’re here. It was a fun win. And I’m really glad that I could do it alongside these players and for this club and organization

You won in the quarterfinals on PKs after a scoreless draw. For a while, it looked like the semis might also go to penalties. What did it mean to finally get that goal in regular time? 

I think we’ve had a weird tournament to begin with. I don’t think if you would have told anyone that we were going to come out and score three goals in the first game that they would have believed you. James [Clarkson, head coach] has given some crazy stats to us, like last year the team had zero or maybe a couple two goal games, but never a three-goal game. They didn’t score off the set piece once last year. So we are definitely a different team and a different look, and obviously it came with a little bit of pressure once we got later into the third and fourth game. But going into penalties, I think you never want to really leave it to that and get in that situation. Against Portland, I felt like we were on the front foot and we had enough chances in that game to have earned at least one goal. We were ready to push until the end to get a goal, and we kept our foot on the gas pedal.

We spoke with Rachel Daly earlier in the tournament and she defined the team’s mentality as “do or die.” What are your thoughts about that and your perspective on the team’s mentality up to this point?

For sure. It’s been fun to be a part of a side that has a clear identity and not something that was forced upon us. I think it happened organically. And someone said to me, I think it might’ve been Katie Naughton, she called us “the band of misfits,” just because I feel that a lot of us come from similar journeys or backgrounds, being tossed around teams or been on teams that weren’t necessarily competitive in the past or that found success. And we all came here and it kind of works. I think we have that “taking it personal” mentality. It reminds me a lot of what Michael Jordan said in The Last Dance. He always took things personally, even when people didn’t mean it that way.

And I know a lot of media and articles have come out saying we’ve finally earned our respect, and it’s funny because I think that no one’s thought that for a second. Even making it to the finals and rewriting a lot of the stigma that’s around the Dash, we still feel like there’s so much to do and that there’s always going to be people that think we just got here by happenstance. And it’s definitely been fun to be a part of that identity and to enter into every game like we have something big to prove. And I think for me personally, I relate to that so much, and feeling like I have a big chip on my shoulder, and wanting that respect, but also not needing it in the same breath. And I think James has done an incredible job creating that culture and bringing players in that fit, not just on the soccer field but off the field as well. It’s definitely been fun, and definitely I think something that will continue to be a part of this culture long past the Challenge Cup.

What does your preparation look like ahead of Sunday’s final? 

We’ve played a lot of games, so recovery is absolutely the most important thing. If we can get as many players as possible to go into the final game feeling good and healthy and well-rested, then I think we’ll have the best chance. There’ll be a lot of that, and then a lot of preparation. And while we’ll be preparing for Chicago and the weapons that they have, I think it’s also fine just tuning up what we have going on and making sure that it’s all ready to go and that we’re able to bring our best on Sunday. Hopefully we’re bringing home a championship.

Has there been any talk about a specific focus or game plan for Red Stars? 

Not yet but there will be. I definitely think that we really look into how other teams play and where we can exploit other teams with what we have. Obviously they’re an incredibly talented team and have a lot of players either with the national team or on the cusp of the national team, but I think we’ll match up well. And it’s been interesting being on the other side of it. Just the past couple of days, some of the girls have thought, “Oh, Portland and Chicago, we haven’t done well against these teams in the past.” And I’m over here like, “I’ve only been on teams that beat Portland or Chicago so why are you guys scared?” So it’s been fun to sort of mess with players like that and just saying this is a new team, and there’s nothing to be afraid of, and we have a good side. And I think as long as we believe that and we come out and compete, then we can take any team in this league.

What do you think it would mean for the team to win the Challenge Cup?

It would mean everything. People don’t even know the half of it. This team has been through everything. And I think a lot of people from the outside think, “Oh the bubble’s hard,” and everything. But we’ve had players lose their dad right before the tournament started. We had a player lose their grandfather a couple of days ago. Obviously some internal things going on with the team as well. And it seems like every other day we’re battling something hard off the field, and then we have to go play 90 minutes. And then watching our city suffer and be in the middle of some of the worst parts of this pandemic, it’s been really hard and dark sometimes, and we feel like we’ve been able to bring a little bit of light and a little bit of hope, and a little bit of healing through what we do, and hopefully that includes bringing a championship home. I think it would be incredible for our club and our city, and incredible for the players and all that we’ve dealt with. I want it so bad just for them.