Rivalries make sports intriguing, and derbies usually make for great viewing, whether they are new or old. One of the newest rivalries in the NWSL is the one between the San Diego Wave and Angel City. The rivalry stems mainly from the geographical proximity of the two teams’ cities but also due to cities competing with one another for both financial and regional importance.
Though a few Angel City fans, suffering from the terrible disease known as ‘Dodgers Syndrome’ will claim that it’s not a ‘real rivalry’, it sure does feel like one. The coaches of the two teams certainly feel that way, as does the league, other fans, and even the teams themselves have acknowledged this.
The only difference is while the arrogance from Dodgers’ fans is understandable (even if it’s also lamentable), as the team has won seven World Series titles, the arrogance from some of the Angel City fans is just plain baffling, given they have yet to accomplish anything of merit. It most likely stems from how Angelenos (the city’s residents) tend to look down on their ‘Little Brother’ San Diego as being inferior to them.
This is due to the fact that Los Angeles is a globally recognized city mainly due to it being the epicenter of pop culture, thanks to it being the home of Hollywood. San Diego does not have that same global recognition, despite being one of the most important cities in America. The City of Angels’ teams can also boast of numerous sporting successes while San Diego has yet to win a national title in any major sport.
And yet, during the past year, it was the Angelenos ‘Little Brothers’ who outperformed them in two of the biggest sports. In baseball, the San Diego Padres beat the LA Dodgers in the NLDS to make it to the NLCS (semifinal round) of the 2022 MLB playoffs.
The Wave have also outperformed their L.A. counterparts in the NWSL, most notably after breaking three attendance records, including a record crowd of 32,000 on September 17th, 2022, where they beat Angel City 1-0 in their new home venue. The Wave were also the first expansion team to make the league’s playoffs in their first season and also won a plethora of postseason awards in the process.
Similar successes cannot be claimed by the team up the I-5. The only area where ACFC has outperformed San Diego is in terms of merchandising, publicity, and marketing but that’s not surprising, given the team’s famous owners. Here’s a preview of the upcoming derby on Sunday and how both teams might fare during it.
The Wave’s Form
San Diego currently boast a 2-0-1 record during the regular season, as the team has won two games and lost one. Their last loss came in the last game against the OL Reign, after they fell thanks to Olivia Van der Jagt’s late stunner. Though the Wave had started the season playing in a 4-4-2, the team has shown flexibility when it comes to formations. The team switched to a 4-3-3 against the OL Reign before moving to a 4-2-3-1 in the second half to counter the Reign’s aggressive press. During their last game against the Portland Thorns in the NWSL’s Challenge Cup, the team deployed a 4-4-1-1 to counteract the Thorns’ 4-1-4-1.
Last year, the Wave mainly deployed in a 4-2-3-1 and relied on their wingers to create width and create overloads in the channels. This year, the team has relied less on their wingers and instead, used their fullbacks, Christen Westphal and Kristen McNabb, to stretch the pitch. As we in this example from the game against the North Carolina Courage, the Wave mainly sought to attack the Courage down the channels and in particular, the right flank.
Westphal controlling the point of attack down the right
Having the fullbacks become vital to the attack would lead to a Taylor Kornieck header that sailed over the bar in the 64th minute and to the Wave winning a penalty in the 71st (which Alex Morgan converted). The newfound role for the fullbacks is complimented by the midfield, which is marshalled by Colaprico with Kornieck. Colaprico’s role is one of a mediano di spinta (a defensive midfielder with offensive qualities) while Kornieck plays more of a box-to-box role.
They are complemented by other players such as Meggie Dougherty Howard (when healthy), Makenzy Doniak, and Belle Briede. Though the midfield hasn’t kept the ball as much as coach Casey Stoney hoped they would, they have proven to be a stabilizing force in the middle of the park. The midfield works to get the ball to the forward line consisting of Amirah Ali, Jaedyn Shaw, and of course, Alex Morgan.
Last season, Morgan was the bulk of the Wave’s offense, as the forward scored 16 goals with 64 shots and had two assists. This year, the offensive contributions have been spread more evenly, as Ali and Shaw have gotten on the board for their team with one and two goals respectively. Colaprico also has the most assists (one) and has created five chances for her team.
The one aspect of the Wave that truly shines, however, is their defense. The defense, which is marshalled by Naomi Girma, has only let in six goals, despite the team being outshot by their opponents. Girma, along with Kaleigh Riehl, and the previously mentioned Westphal and McNabb, have been crucial to the Wave’s victories this season.
The biggest star of the defense so far, however, has been goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan. Time and time again, the shotstopper has stepped up for the Wave this season, as she saved a total out of 10 out of the 14 shots she’s faced. Time and time again, she’s shown how invaluable she is for the team. Casey Stoney has repeatedly called Sheridan the ‘Best goalkeeper in the world’ and the shotstopper has repeatedly lived up to the billing. She’ll have to put on another great display against Angel City to solidify her status as one of the world’s best.
Angel City’s Recent Form
Angel City have had mixed results this year. The Angelenos lost their first game of the season after a controversial VAR call, where Jun Endo’s half-field volley was chopped off for a supposed foul during the build-up to it. They then went on the win the next one against Orlando thanks to a late goal, then tied their last game against Racing Louisville. Like their Southern California counterparts, they’ve also fielded a 4-4-2 formation. However, Angel City, who are managed by Freya Coombe, have been less likely to be as tactically flexible.
4-4-2 Angel City vs Gotham – InStat
Although the team has fielded other formations at times – most notably a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-1-4 Coombe seems to have an established system and is reluctant to stray from it. In this system, the defense is marshalled by Sarah Gorden, Paige Nielsen, Megan Reid, and captain Ali Riley. Jasmyne Spencer will occasionally slip into a defensive role when healthy, and the super-talented player has excelled in that position. The defense is fortified at the back by their goalkeeper, Didi Haračić.
The midfield consists of Jun Endo, the dynamic player who lets her feet do the talking for her more than anything else. Savannah McCaskill is the metronome that makes this team tick. The midfielder has so far had a total of eight goals and three assists for her team, which are decent numbers. McCaskill is often a point of contention for the fans due to her bad temper and inconsistency. However, a lot of the midfield play for Angel City goes through her and they’d be lost without her. McCaskill is often flanked by Dani Weatherholt, their defensive midfielder, who offers her protection.
The forward line for Angel City seems like it’s often fluctuated. However, the addition of Alyssa Thompson has not only given it stability but an explosive piece of firepower. The team paid $400,000 in allocation money to prise the number one pick from Gotham FC in the 2022 draft just to take her first. So far, that gamble has paid off and the fact that Alyssa is only eighteen means that the team will have the talented forward for many years to come.
The main reason why Angel City has experienced such turmoil in the past year is due to the many injuries to the team’s players. Among the injured players are forward Simone Charley, who suffered a left Achilles tear in a game against Gotham, and forward Christen Press. Press is the heart and soul of the team and was the fulcrum of the team’s offense before her unfortunate injury.
As a result, the team seems to be quite anemic without their beating heart pumping life throughout their circulatory system. Add to this the fact that their other star forward, Sydney Leroux, is still recovering from an ankle injury and Vanessa Gilles, who was supposed to be one of their stalwart defenders, is still on loan to Olympique Lyon, and you can see why the team has had mixed results.
Last year, the team had the lofty ambition of making the playoffs and possibly winning a trophy during their inaugural season. However, they fell well short of expectations and it was in large part due to the injuries that have plagued the squad. The Angelenos, have, however, brought in one big reinforcement to help shore up the squad in the midst of all these absences.
The Question of Julie Ertz
On March 28th, 2023, Vlatko Andonovski named Julie Ertz to his 26-player roster ahead of the USA’s friendly matches against the Republic of Ireland. The news came as a surprise to many people, given Ertz’s nearly two-year absence after taking some time off to have a child. The inclusion of Ertz in the roster meant that the coach wants to bring the experienced midfielder to the Women’s World Cup this summer.
One stipulation from Vlatko was that Ertz had to find a club team to play for in order to gain match fitness. Ultimately, Ertz decided to join Angel City. The move makes sense for both parties, given AC’s glaring holes in midfield and the midfielder’s need for more playing time. Angel City had previously held Ertz’s rights but the midfielder wanted to explore their options as a free agent before making a final decision. Ultimately, she decided to join Angel City.
San Diego was in the running for the player as well, but given the team’s plethora of midfielders, along with Ertz potentially entering free agency again in 2024, it made sense for her to go to Los Angeles. JJ is a midfielder with a plethora of experience and was a defensive rock that helped the US win two World Cups. She might be able to help them win a third if all goes according to plan. Being out of action for over a year, however, leads to one developing rust. During the USA’s friendly against Ireland, JJ displayed some of it through misplaced passes.
As these graphs from Wyscout show us, she had a 76% pass accuracy rate during that game. While that’s nothing to sneer at, it’s not as good as her previous numbers. It also leads to questions of how she’ll fare against aggressive teams that will put her under pressure.
Ertz is, still, however, a very good midfielder. She has the ability to change the composure of a game and she did so when she was substituted into the match against Ireland. The US become more composed and stable in the midfield with her presence. The chart above shows that Ertz made five interceptions and two clearances which were not only vital to the US maintaining a clean sheet but also launching attacking sequences through build-up play.
These two graphs below show Ertz’s impact on the game after being substituted into the second half. The player was quite literally all over the pitch and helped her team move the ball around effectively.
If Ertz can make this impact for the USWNT, then she can surely make the same impact for her new team. Add to this the fact that JJ also happens to be good at set-pieces, which have been a key weakness for the Wave, and AC have a potent weapon in their arsenal. The only question is whether this arrow is currently sharp enough to pierce through their opposition’s armor, and whether she’ll be on the pitch long enough to wound them.
It’s tough to make a final prediction. However, given that San Diego beat last year’s league champions, the Portland Thorns, while fielding a mainly secondary squad on Wednesday, they should have momentum on their side. They are also a better-coached side who will have a near full-strength squad with most of their best players suiting up for them on Sunday.
The one glaring absence for them, however, will be midfielder Taylor Kornieck, who was ruled out of Sunday’s clash with an illness. San Diego will no doubt miss her balance, ball control, and height in the middle of the park. The team will have to find a way to adjust on the fly to the loss of one of their most important players.
And though Angel City has had a losing record, they can spring surprises. They will also be buoyed on by an enthusiastic and loud crowd at home, eager to get a victory over their ‘not-real-rivals’. The Angelenos also beat San Diego by a score of 2-1 last July, and will look to repeat the feat again.
Going back to the previously mentioned Padres vs Dodgers series, after the Friars vanquished their ‘rivals’, the San Diego Union-Tribune dubbed them as being the ‘Dragon Slayers’. Similarly, the Wave, being a San Diego-based side, will look to slay the beast up North. And though the Wave have been better than their regional counterparts, the feeling of being L.A.’s ‘Little Sister’ is still there and it’s one they’ll want to break free from. And the only way to do so would be through a win.
Angel City vs San Diego will be played this Sunday at the BMO Stadium in Los Angeles. Kickoff time will be at 5 PM PST/ 12 AM GMT. If you live in the US, you’ll be able to watch the game on Paramount+. The rest of the world will be able to watch the game for free on the NWSL’s website.
By: Stephanie Insixiengmay / @statsandedits
Featured Image@GabFoligno / Ira L. Black – Corbis – Getty Images / Jenny Chuang – ISI Photos – Getty Images