EDINBURG — Edinburg native Ariana Vera has been a Houston Dash season ticket holder since the franchise’s inception in 2014. A longtime supporter of the United States women’s national team, Vera has followed the National Women’s Soccer League since it first started play in 2013 as a way to keep tabs on her favorite players.
“When Houston got a team, I was like, ‘I need to support my home state,’” Vera said. “I’ve just been getting more and more into it. It hurts when they lose.”
Vera’s schedule doesn’t allow her to get to each of the team’s 12 home matches — just the ones that fall on Fridays and Saturdays. She likes to make a weekend of it, visiting her sister who lives in the Houston area.
Next week, the Dash are returning the favor, making the trip down to Edinburg to host the North Carolina Courage at 7 p.m. Wednesday at H-E-B Park. The matchup was originally scheduled for Aug. 27 before being postponed and relocated due to Hurricane Harvey. As a result, the Valley will play host to an NWSL match for the first time, and the Dash will try their hand at recruiting new fans from an untapped market.
“I don’t have to drive the five hours to go over there, so I’m happy,” Vera said. “I’d love for the game to grow. I have nieces and nephews. They’re small. I’d love for them to see the game. I love when they don’t know about it, and then I take them, and they get excited, because they get into it. So I’m thinking, ‘What if they make fans here?’ There will be more people making the drive up, like me.”
For Dynamo president of business operations Chris Canetti, the top priority was simply finding a place for the Dash to play. In addition to the Aug. 27 match against North Carolina, the Dash were forced to relocate their Sept. 3 home game against Seattle Reign FC, instead playing it in Frisco.
In trying to find a new date and location for the match against North Carolina, Canetti said he also looked at Dallas and San Antonio before settling on Edinburg.
“The facility is world class down there, and we think it’s an excellent opportunity for us to build the Dash brand and expand the footprint of the NWSL,” Canetti said. “It’s great that we’re down there. I’m looking forward to it.”
The Dash are run by the Houston Dynamo organization, and the Dynamo have a hybrid affiliation with the RGV FC Toros, making H-E-B Park a natural fit.
RGV FC president Bert Garcia had been talking with Canetti for the past six to eight months about hosting a Dash game in Edinburg.
“Houston is our second home, and for us to be able to lend our house to them is a no-brainer,” Garcia said.
Garcia, also president of the RGV Vipers, said the organization aspires to bring a top-division pro sports team to the Rio Grande Valley.
Garcia believes soccer is the best path to realizing that goal, given the love of the sport in the area and the affordability of tickets. Garcia said he also believes the 10-team NWSL is open to expansion.
“Maybe if the fans come and support it not only for this game, is this something that in the future we may be able to apply for a franchise?” Garcia said.
The more immediate challenge is ensuring turnout at H-E-B Park on Wednesday. According to Soccer Stadium Digest, the Toros have averaged 6,989 announced attendance at H-E-B Park this year, and the Dash have averaged 4,533 per match at BBVA Compass Stadium.
“That is a beautiful challenge, and that is a challenge we’re willing to take on, and that’s something we’re looking forward to,” Garcia said of trying to match the Dash’s average attendance. “I think we need to show our respect for the women who are coming to play, and the way we do that is by supporting them.”
Garcia said part of the organization’s promotion of the match has included reaching out to many of the girls sports teams from area high schools and travel programs.
Canetti said a successful event Wednesday could lead to more Dash games at H-E-B Park in the future.
“I don’t have any expectations in terms of what the crowd will look like. I would hope that locals there from the Valley understand the uniqueness of the opportunity,” Canetti said. “If you’re a dad or a mom with a daughter, you need to bring them to this game, and you need to see what these players represent and what type of role models and inspiration they can be to young women who are looking to go on to do anything special in life.”
Vera is doing her part to help fill the stands, exchanging her unused tickets from previous matches for seats to Wednesday’s game.
North Carolina is the league’s No. 1 team and defending champion, while Houston sits in eighth place, already assured of missing the playoffs. Still, Vera said the NWSL almost always produces competitive matches, with the Courage clipping the Dash 1-0 when the two teams met Sept. 9.
Vera also pointed to the lack of flopping and individual star power as major selling points of the game. The Dash roster includes Carli Lloyd, the 2015 and 2016 FIFA Player of the Year who was a part of the United States winning a pair of Olympic gold medals the most recent World Cup, though an ankle injury may keep her out of action on Wednesday.
“I hope people do go so they can see how it is. We’re going to have the national team, World Cup winners, coming here to the Valley,” Vera said. “I know for a lot of men, it’s not a big thing, but it is a big thing. If you don’t compare with the men, just compare with the women, it’s hard for them to get to that level. And they’re going to be here in our part of the city and our part of the country, and that’s pretty awesome.”