How long will Fran Alonso be given in Houston?

Less than 100 days into his NWSL career, it's beginning to feel like the Spanish coach is already under severe pressure.

How long will Fran Alonso be given in Houston?
Fran Alonso walks around Eado Soccer Stadium in February 2024 | Courtesy Houston Dash

Houston Dash fans are tired.

They are fatigued from the constant state of rebirth and rebuild that the Texas NWSL club has found itself stuck in for 10 years.

Alas, Houston finds itself in the same state yet again. Wondering whether to stick or twist in the dugout.

So, are we about to see another swing of the axe? Another reboot? An abrupt end of the brief Fran Alonso era in Houston?

Fran Alonso, wearing all black, plots with his staff | Photo Taylor Vincent

How did we get here?

It has been 88 days since Alonso arrived in the United States and assumed his role as head coach of the Houston Dash. And, the perpetual NWSL strugglers are....well...still struggling.

From the off, the Spaniard was handed the incredibly ambitious mission of establishing a new identity for the club. Its colours, its crest. Its ethos.

The concept was that the Dash would sort of become Texas' answer to FC Barcelona. A cavalier swashbuckling all-out passing cohort of footballers. Just in orange.

The overhauled vision for the club came from general manager Alex Singer, who joined the club in August 2022.

After she led a lengthy data-driven search process, in the winter of 2023, Alonso was deemed to be the person who could, for the first time, lay the seeds for "The Dash Way." A new culture of excellence.

General Manager Alex Singer, head coach Fran Alonso and club president Jess O'Neill | Courtesy Houston Dash

"There has been a lack of identity and a strong, strong foundation in not only how we play, but how we behave and everything that we do when we wear the Houston Dash crest," Singer remarked in February 2024.

"We really wanted to find somebody who'd absolutely commit and have a track record in checking every single one of those boxes. We found that in Fran [Alonso]."

MORE: Steph Yang spoke to Alex Singer for The Athletic

Naivety and mess

Ahead of the start of the season, Alonso said that along with developing a new style of play, qualifying for the playoffs was a target set out by the club.

Six matches (W1 - D2 - L3) into his tenure, and there's no overhaul in the Dash's identity. At least not in the way the club desired.

Houston is in a familiar place: 13th (second bottom) of the NWSL table. It's still very early, but for now, the results and underlying numbers are even worse than in 2023.

In the NWSL, the Dash currently ranks 13th for xGoal Difference per 90 minutes (-1.24), 13th for expected goals against (12.4), and dead last for xGoals (5.0). It's no fluke they're in this position.

Outside of a truly stunning (and impressive) 30-minute spell in the second half of a 3-2 win over Bay FC in March, the start to the season has been a disaster.

But more than just the data, it's the vibes. When describing Houston's performances, the words I keep coming back to are: Messy and naive.

Alonso's remit was to get the team to play high-intensity, brave possession-based football. Understandably, the players looked uncomfortable and ill-equipped trying to do this. The scouting of opponents has been dismal. Too often playing into their strengths.

MORE: My sit down with Fran Alonso in February for The Equalizer

Back to basics

Houston's space between the lines and shape was troubling

And so we have begun to see a change. With each defeat, and each error, Alonso and his staff have become more pragmatic. Quickly, the Dash are less wedded to the original philosophy promoted in the offseason. As the going gets tough, he has had to revert to simple defensive structures and build-up scenarios that are more familiar to the squad.

The Dash have tried to possess the ball in front of their own goal, to set traps, while pushing numbers forward in desperation

Over the past two weeks, spaces have got smaller between the lines. Since the Portland Thorns away match, the Dash are now reverting to defending in a back four. Even more crucially, a new centreback addition on deadline day, Paige Neilsen, has allowed Sophie Schmidt (No.13) to move back into the midfield as a shield.

"So for me, formations, the system, has to suit the players and not the other way around," Alonso said this week.

"We have to study the players. We have got a clear idea of how we want to play, but also you need the players to buy into it, you know. It wouldn't make sense to play the way you want if you concede the amount of chances that we conceded in the previous games. 

"So I think it's important that especially when we don't have the ball that it is difficult to create chances against our block, that it is difficult to go through them. And that's why we have slightly changed our defensive shape." 

This might well be the right decision to get more points from football matches, but this is a big shift from the cultural overhaul that was spoken about a few months ago.

The Houston Dash restructure after going down 2-0 in Portland || Photo by Taylor Vincent

The last days of Alonso?

This is just my opinion, but sometimes you get a feeling.

The Houston club president, Jess O'Neill, highlighted another aspect of Alonso that ultimately won him the job: His passion. She said how within a few minutes of meeting him on Zoom she wanted to give him the job based on his zeal and enthusiasm.

I met Alonso in pre-season and I could feel his energy. Now – and I could be wrong – but it feels like over the past few weeks we have seen that same energy wane from where it was at the start of the season.

I'm sure Alonso disagrees with me.

"I think I can see the team, especially when you see a train and you can see the team, you know, one step at a time and getting stronger and stronger. Nobody has lost faith. Nobody has lost belief," he said on Friday.

The NWSL is wonderful. But it is cruel. It was brave of Alonso to come to such an unforgiving league from a less established league, the Scottish Women's Premier League.

Already it feels like Alonso is fighting for his job, as Singer and the front office figure out whether to make the Spaniard one of the shortest-tenured coaches in NWSL history.

How important is the style of play? How important are the results? How important is energy and charisma for the fans? Is Alonso capable of installing a "winning culture" in Houston like he had at Celtic?

Dismissing Alonso so early is complicated. Singer's job will be on the line if she sacks her second head coach in less than one year. What confidence does anyone have in trusting her a third time?

Similarly, O'Neill will have big questions to answer from a fanbase that knows the issues go far beyond the head coaching job.

And there is one more plot twist. New technical director Pablo Piñones Arce, who is fresh from lifting the Swedish title as the head coach of Hammarby, could be a suitable in-house interim for the Dash.

His presence so close to the first team might make it easier for Singer to make the call earlier than expected.

On Sunday, at home in Houston, in front of a national television audience on CBS, Alonso and the Dash will face their stiffest test yet.

The NWSL-leading Kansas City Current, complete with MVP frontrunners Bia Zaneratto, Temwa Chanwinga, and Vanessa DiBernado, will be not only expected to win in Houston but will likely score multiple goals.

Vlatko Andonovski's team have netted 20 times so far in six matches, and press the opposition fiercely. It could be a brutal affair, but you never know. That's the beauty of football.

Would a more high-profile defeat with another lopsided scoreline prompt a coaching change as soon as Monday?

Time will tell. My gut says Alonso will be given until the Angel City match, on Sunday the 12th May. With three matches in the next eight days, it feels as if the fixture list is too crowded to make a move until then.

The Spaniard might just have one more week to show he is a part of the future of the Houston Dash. Buena suerte.