Maria Sánchez: Analyzing the San Diego Wave’s Newest Recruit

The San Diego Wave had a relatively quiet offseason but made up for it in a big way before the trade deadline ended.On April 19th, it was revealed that the Houston Dash had traded winger María Sánchez to the San Diego Wave. The deal was made as the player agitated for a move from the Dash.


The deal was a blockbuster one with the Wave sending around $500,000 in cash the Dash’s way while also giving up an international slot for two years for the player. The Wave paid a steep price for the forward but it might be a much needed investment.


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The 2023 NWSL Shield Champions have gotten off to a slow start, as the team’s attack has flagellated thus far this season. So far, they’ve only scored three goals for the first five games of the season, which is a stark contrast to the ten they scored by this point last year. And with the news that their talismanic striker, Alex Morgan, will be out of action for the near future, Sánchez’s signing becomes even more imperative for the team.


Here’s a look at how the Mexican international can benefit her new team and potentially bolster their stagnant attack.


Sánchez’s Playing Style


Sánchez is a creative player who mainly plays in channels and as a left-winger. This heatmap from Wyscout confirms that most of her play is in that channel. 


Photo: Wyscout


The player herself has stated that she’s a ‘left-footed forward’ and has also spoken of her own versatility: “I think on the left or right wing I’m pretty happy playing and just being offensively on the field and getting closer to goal and creating opportunities up top is where I prefer to be.”


And she has the tools in her arsenal to accomplish this. For starters, Sánchez is a creative passer and excellent crosser.  Here’s an example of this against Bay FC, where she uses her dribbling skills to find space then lobs in an accurate cross that finds the head of one of her then-Dash teammates.



Another example comes while La Bombi was playing against her current team, the San Diego Wave. Here she lobs in another pass that nearly ends in a goal, had it not been for the grace of the goalposts.



The data also corroborates the eye test, as this chart confirms that crossing is Sánchez’s strongest suit.



The forward also occupies the eleventh and twelfth spot for the most crosses in a single season.


Photo: FBRef


She’s also good at making runs into or creating space both for herself and her teammates. An example of this is against Racing Louisville, where she initially drops deep to receive the ball before making a diagonal run that drags a few defenders out of position.



Another example of this comes against the North Carolina Courage, where Sánchez runs into space and drags two defenders with her along the way, thus freeing up her teammates to receive her passes.



When the ball is inside the box, Sánchez doesn’t always make an instinctive run towards it. Instead, she maintains her distance and waits for it  to come to her. This makes it harder for the oppositions’ defenders to snuff out the attack, because they now need to run to cover more ground after being pulled out of space by her.


The forward excels at pulling players out of position, taking up positions that allow her to receive the ball in attack, creating space, running into them, and taking up positions that help her team exploit their newly created spaces. She also has good field vision that allows her to see her open teammates and pass the ball to them accordingly.



By playing wide, the winger stretches the opposition and helps her team make the ‘pitch big’, so that the team can utilize the whole width of the pitch to stretch the opponent’s defensive block and create gaps in central areas.


Sánchez also possesses an innate, attacking awareness and is capable of scoring goals from a range of distances. However, despite this, critics will point out that the forward has not, in fact, scored many goals for her previous team. This is due to a variety of different circumstances, mainly due to Houston’s stagnant attack.


During the 2023 season, the Dash only scored 16 goals (0.73 per game). They also conceded more than they scored (18 goals, 0.82 per game). The team had an xG of 23.8 and xGA 32.0 per game, which was the lowest in the league. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that Sánchez only scored six goals during her time in Houston.


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However, it should be noted that Sánchez managed to record a total of nine assists while with the Dash, meaning that she helped the team score despite not always scoring herself. And playing for her previous team, Tigres Femenil, la Bombi scored a total of thirteen goals across two seasons for the Nuevo León club.


What this shows is that the forward is capable of scoring goals if surrounded by the right personnel. The San Diego Wave are a much different team than the Dash, as they have some pretty potent firepower among their ranks, chief among them being Jaedyn Shaw, Sofia Jakobsson, and a healthy Alex Morgan.


And yet, despite this, the Wave’s attack has also been stagnant this season. Perhaps la Bombi can be the explosive catalyst that helps get the team’s offense going.


Fitting into San Diego’s System


In a break from previous seasons, the San Diego Wave have tried to play a more possession-oriented game this year. An example of this is from their game against Racing Louisville, which is one of many games where they had more possession than their opponents. 



Photo: Wyscout


However, this new system hasn’t always gone according to plan. Though the Wave have more possession than their opponents, they often have their passes disrupted and lose the ball in the middle.


As a result, this has also forced the team to play out wide and use the wide channels as a key creation outlet for them. We see this in action against Louisville, where San Diego would not only build up play in the channels, but also implement wide, pressing traps and lure their opponents’ into them in order to win back the ball.



The Wave also played in the channels to avoid losing midfield battles to the opposing midfielders. But as the game wore on, the Wave would eventually have to play in the middle due to an onset of fatigue and when they did so, they would lose key battles in that area, as their opponents avoided their attempts to cut off passing lanes and just ran right through the Wave’s tired midfield. 


It is also important to note that San Diego were missing their star defender, Naomi Girma, who missed that game due to injury. Girma provides not only defensive stability but is a crucial component to the team’s build up play. Girma’s replacement for that game was Kennedy Wesley and though Wesley did well during her debut, she was not a like-for-like replacement for Girma.


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One of the key aspects of San Diego’s game is their ability to build out the back. This is the main way they build play during games as they are adept at creating artificial transitions as they attack through the spaces the defenders leave behind. A key component of this play has been through long balls to bypass the middle, mainly through goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, who has an excellent passing range.


The long balls are needed at times, as opponent’s have figured out that pressing San Diego high will lead the team to make mistakes and disrupt their build up play. A clear example of this is when San Diego played the Orlando Pride, whose high press did not allow the Wave to get anything going offensively for most of the game. As a result, the Wave did a lot of backpassing, mostly between themselves and the goalkeeper.



San Diego appears to be losing midfield battles quite often. And though Sánchez is a winger, she might be able to help in this regard. If the forward is played in her preferred position on the wings, then it might cause some reshuffling in the lineup, most notably, it might inspire coach Casey Stoney to consider playing Jaedyn Shaw in the middle again.


Stoney has gone on record stating that the reason why she plays Shaw out wide is because she had played her in the midfield before and decided to move the player based on positional needs. In Stoney’s words, it’s all about playing the players “where they’re needed” and Shaw was moved out wide for the current set up.


With the introduction of Sánchez, however, this has the potential to change. Sánchez prefers to play on the left-wing, which is where Shaw currently plays. This could possibly lead to Stoney either shuffling the players around to different positions and we could possibly see Shaw in the middle again. Either that, or Stoney could rotate between Shaw, Sánchez, and Jakobsson in the channels as they also implement different formations for the team for the rest of the season.


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The Wave’s tendency to play out wide will also suit Sánchez. As was noted before, the player can help stretch the opposition through her wide play and help create gaps for her teammates to run into. This might be one of the solutions for the Wave’s current scoring dearth as this will help them create more scoring opportunities.


The Wave will also need help finishing the chances they generate. Even if Sánchez were to continue this unfortunate trend, the chances she’ll create through her runs, passing, and crosses should help create opportunities for her teammates’ to finish those chances, thus bolstering the team’s attack. And she’ll have the chance to put this theory to the test this weekend, as she is expected to make her debut against Bay FC this Saturday. 


The ‘Bombi Effect’


María Sánchez’s effect will be felt not only on the pitch but off it as well. San Diego traded for her not not only because she’s a talented player but because she’ll bring them a lot of positive attention too. 


Sánchez’s story is a compelling one as she is the daughter of migrants from Mexico who worked long hours in farm fields to provide their family with a better life. Unlike most of the other soccer players in America’s pay-to-play system, Sánchez did not grow up wealthy. Instead, she had to work hard to get where she is now. She is thus symbolic of both the American Dream and of her Mexican-American heritage.


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Sánchez will thus represent an important demographic in a city with Spanish heritage and a close proximity to Mexico. 30.1% of San Diego’s population is of Hispanic or Latino American origin and they will feel represented by the player. They will also most likely show their support for the player by buying her merch and showing up to games. 


The Wave’s social media has also felt this effect,’ as they’ve seen a rise in followers on social media. This chart from Social Blade shows that they gained 1,137 followers on Instagram in one day after the player’s signing was announced. 



The impact of Sánchez’s signing brings to mind comparisons to other signings made for other San Diego sports teams. Most notably, the trade for her bears some similarities to when the San Diego Padres traded for three-time-All-Star and World Series winner, Juan Soto. Both moves were blockbuster ones that saw big packages going the other way in exchange for the players. Both players came to the city with big expectations on their shoulders too.


After Sánchez’s teammate, Alex Morgan, first signed for the Wave, many people compared her signing to the Padres signing Manny Machado just two years prior. The comparison was made in terms of their talent and star power and the fact that both players wear the number 13 on their jerseys.


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So, if Morgan was comparable to Machado, then Sánchez is comparable to Soto. However, it should be noted that Juan Soto’s time in San Diego wasn’t exactly a happy one. There were rumors of discontent in the Padres locker room and it led to Soto being traded to the Yankees for a return of five players.


The Wave fans will definitely be hoping for a different ending with María. As was noted before, the player will most likely make her debut this Saturday. The only downside to this is that she won’t be playing alongside Alex Morgan. Instead, she’ll most likely bridge the temporary gap left by the striker’s absence.


It’s a big ask to ask of someone making their debut for a team, for sure. María Sánchez has already faced so much adversity in her life and if anyone’s up for overcoming yet another seemingly insurmountable challenge, then it is most definitely her.


By: Stephanie Insixiengmay / @statsandedits

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Omar Vega – Getty Images