The latest season of the NWSL starts on March 25. It will be a chance for the old, established teams to start new beginnings and for the recent upstarts to further cement their place in the league. One such team is the San Diego Wave. The Southern California-based side was established in 2021, thus making it the youngest team in the league.
Despite this, the team has managed to break several records during their short tenure, including breaking the league’s attendance records three times, and being the first expansion team to make the playoffs in their first year. They’ve also won a plethora of post-season awards, including Naomi Girma receiving both the Rookie of The Year and Defender of The Year honors; Kailen Sheridan being named the Goalkeeper of The Year; Casey Stoney receiving the Coach of The Year award and Alex Morgan winning the Golden Boot while also being an MVP finalist.
With this in mind, the Wave will have a lot of momentum on their side going into the upcoming season. Here’s a preview of the team’s league campaign and how they might fare during this year.
It remains to be seen how San Diego will line up this season. However, if we’re going by precedent, then the team will most likely field a 4-2-3-1 formation throughout the season. This midfield ‘diamond’ shape allows the team to dominate central areas and suffocate opposing midfielders by getting tight while their fullbacks and wingers provided width.
During a league game against the Portland Thorns last season, San Diego deployed this formation. They were able to win this game by giving the Thorns very little space to operate and employing the trickery of their wingers, as Sofia Jakobsson (7) and Amirah Ali (10) would often switch positions on the flanks.
This allowed the team to control the tempo of the game and to see out a 2-0 victory on the Thorns’ home turf. The team had, at times, also fielded a 3-4-3 formation. The formation uses three central defenders, a double pivot in the center of midfield, two wide players, and a front three of attacking players. This shape offers balance across the pitch and the flexibility to employ different strategies.
The width provided by the wingers and front three means it can also be effective for the team to absorb possession and hit teams on the break. This was demonstrated in the Wave’s playoff match against the Chicago Red Stars, with the versatile Taylor Kornieck and youngster Jaedyn Shaw supporting forward Alex Morgan.
This would allow the Wave to utilize the height of Kornieck for headers and to make runs into the box while Morgan would occasionally drop deep to press the opposition. Shaw would work alongside them by exploiting the wide spaces and making runs down the channels. The three forwards would be supported by four midfielders and three defenders at the back, with star defender Naomi Girma being the bedrock of the defense.
Though the Wave did eventually win the game, this particular formation left them exposed at times. Yuki Nagasoto exploited their frailties by scoring for their opponents in the 10th minute. However, San Diego equalized through Van Egmond’s goal in the 67th minute and eventually scored the winner through Morgan in the 110th minute. The early defensive mistakes were most likely a result of the Wave players dealing with playoff jitters while some of them were also exhausted from a long season.
One thing to note, however, is how the Wave would often bypass the middle to get into the final third. During the previously mentioned game against the Thorns, for example, the first goal was scored by a long pass from Kailen Sheridan, whose ball found the top of Taylor Kornieck’s head. The ball was then headed toward the direction of Alex Morgan, who then slotted it home.
Though this style of play can be effective, it also does have an Achilles Heel. By not playing through the middle, the Wave would cede possession to their opponents which would hamper their ability to build up play and to control the tempo of a game.
There were several reasons for this, but they were mainly due to the team’s lack of midfield depth. Midfielder Emily van Egmond played the most minutes last season because of this (2237 minutes). As a result, she and a few other players were exhausted at times, which led to them ceding possession and being on the backfoot during certain games.
This is something the Wave will seek to remedy this season. Coach Casey Stoney has spoken of this, and placed an emphasis on wanting to see her team have more possession this season. The team has also brought in a slew of new players who will help them accomplish this objective.
The Team’s New Look
This season, San Diego will likely utilize the same formations but they’ll do so with an extra layer of security. During the offseason, the team has brought in several reinforcements, most notably former Chicago Red Stars midfielder Danny Colaprico. Colaprico is a defensive midfielder who is good at reading plays and making interceptions. She also makes it difficult for players to dribble past her. The player has a wealth of experience and will bring defensive stability to the Wave’s midfield.
Another former Red Stars player, Rachel Hill, was also brought in to give the team depth in two, key departments. Hill can play as either a forward or a fullback and is good at making interceptions. Though she doesn’t score much, she excels at pressing opponents and winning the ball in key areas. Therefore, she will be tasked with winning the ball off opponents and helping her teammates get into scoring positions.
Then there’s also Meggie Dougherty Howard. The midfielder comes to the Wave from Orlando Pride and is currently one of four former Pride players on the Wave. Last year, she led the Pride in scoring contributions with three goals and two assists.
Though the number of goals seems rather paltry, the Pride experienced some upheaval last season, with most of their key players either being injured or traded to other teams. Therefore, Howard had to play several roles at once for the team, including goalscorer. With this in mind, the number of goals she scored shouldn’t be surprising, though it is also a testament to her hard work and how much she’s willing to give her team.
All three of these players were signed as free agents. The Wave also reinforced their team through the league’s draft One of the drafted players was Giovanna DeMarco. DeMarco spent her collegiate years playing at Wake Forest, where she became well-versed in different formations. Though the player normally plays as an attacking midfielder, she’s also capable of fulfilling different roles in the middle of the park.
Then there’s goalkeeper Lauren Brzykcy who was drafted from UCLA. She will become the Wave’s #2 after Carly Telford recently retired from the team. She’s tall, reacts well, has good reflexes, and is good at long passes. Brzykcy is, however, vulnerable to low crosses, low shots, and shots aimed at the far post. Lauren is, however, a hard worker and will seek to remedy these flaws as she continues to play.
Another draftee is midfielder Sierra Enge. The Wave traded for the 13th pick in the 2022 NWSL Draft to pick Enge specifically. Not only is the former Stanford player talented, but she also hails from San Diego. Enge mainly plays as an attacking midfielder but can play in other midfield positions. The Cardiff native excels as a playmaker, while also being good at pressing and long passes. The player is more of a provider than a goalscorer and given the dearth of creativity in the Wave’s attack last season, she’d be a much-needed reinforcement.
Finally, there’s Melanie Barcenas. The 15-year-old is the youngest player signed to an NWSL contract in the league’s history. The forward was signed under the league’s new Under-18 policy, which is a new entry mechanism for players under the age of 18 wishing to enter the league. She also happens to be from San Diego, and thus adds a more homegrown flair to the team. It remains to be seen just how the Wave utilize the young player, though she did `show flashes of brilliance in a recent scrimmage game against Angel City.
All of these players should give the Wave much-needed depth and make them quite a competitive team. As Casey Stoney herself said, these new players “give her options” which is something she didn’t have before. She’ll need to utilize those options wisely to mount a successful campaign this season.
The Returning Stalwarts
These new players will add to the foundation previously established by last year’s team. The previously mentioned Alex Morgan was the fulcrum of the Wave’s offense, as she led the team in scoring with 16 goals and three assists. She also had the most shots on target (64).
While this might appear to be an act of selfishness, it was done more out of necessity, as the Wave didn’t have much of an offensive threat besides her. Morgan was, however, also fourth in the team in terms of key passes, which means that she passed the ball to her teammates in an attempt to get them into scoring positions. Therefore, the player was vital to build up play through her darting runs, hold up play, and passing.
Morgan has recently been trialed in the role of playmaker for the USWNT. This was evident during the recent She Believes Cup in February, where she provided an assist to Mallory Swanson in a game against Japan. The forward has spoken of taking on this new role for the Wave as well as she continues to grow her game.
Casey Stoney has also spoken about Alex becoming more of a facilitator, though she also emphasized that she didn’t want to take away from the player’s strengths as a goalscorer. Instead, the coach wants others to score goals as well.
One of the other potential creative forces can be fellow forward Amirah Ali. Ali is versatile and can play a variety of positions in attack. She is quite creative and capable of creating scoring opportunities. One of the ways she’s able to accomplish this is through her dribbling. As per Statsbomb, she managed to complete 20 dribbles last season, and this was despite being injured most of the time. Her stats confirmed this as she averaged 2.62 dribbles per game and only the league’s MVP, Sophia Smith, was better than her (2.68).
Ali has all the makings of a fantasista, e.g. the creative midfielder who can make you dream through their beautiful play. Last season, the player scored two goals and had two assists. If she can stay healthy this year, then the Wave will certainly be dreaming of big things with her on the front line.
Another player who can contribute to both the midfield and attack is Taylor Kornieck. Last season, Kornieck had three goals and three assists for the Wave. She also won the most aerial duels, which is not surprising given how tall she is (6”/1.8 meters).
Though Kornieck was recently trialed as a defensive midfielder for the US national team, the player will likely not be playing a similar role for the Wave. Stoney has said that she thinks Kornieck functions better when partnered with someone in the middle (double pivot) to give her freedom to run up and down the pitch. Perhaps Taylor can form a new partnership with Colaprico, as the two have the skill sets to complement each other.
The technically gifted Swedish international, Sofia Jakobsson, showed signs of progress after an initially rocky start to the season. Last season, the winger had one goal and provided her team with the most assists (4). The player gradually grew into the transitional game of the NWSL and will prove to be a vital asset to her team.
As was mentioned before, Naomi Girma was awarded the defender of the year title from the NWSL. Though she was a rookie, she played like a vet and saved the Wave during many games. The defender is a deadly combination of strength and intelligence, as she’s able to read plays and snuff out fires before they get started.
Girma had a set of remarkable stats last season, including 112 clearances and 264 ball recoveries (Statsbomb). Remarkably, she only committed seven fouls and was dribbled past three times. It’s a testament to her discipline and Naomi more than merits the honors foisted upon her.
Her partner in defense was the unsung hero, Kaleigh Riehl. Kaleigh stepped up big time when the Wave needed her the most to fill the void left by decorated centre-back Abby Dahlkemper, who spent most of last season sidelined through injuries. Riehl is also a smart, studious player, who has proven to be the ideal partner for fellow defender Girma.
The two of them will also be protected at the back by Kailen Sheridan. Last season, Sheridan faced 190 shots and only conceded 12 goals (79% save rate). She also faced six penalties and saved three of them, thus setting a new league record. The shot-stopper was not only named the NWSL’s best goalkeeper, but was also listed as one of the top five goalkeepers by the IFFHS. With this in mind, there is reason to be confident about the Wave going into next season.
A Wave of Optimism
To paraphrase The Who, ‘Got a feeling that 2023 might be a good year’. After their record-breaking first year, there is reason to believe that San Diego can build on the momentum of last season. The team has built a sturdy foundation and will build upon it with solid reinforcements. As was previously stated, Stoney has ‘options’ with her players now and will work on fostering chemistry among the group while also implementing a new system. The coach wants to play a possession-orientated game and now has the personnel to do it.
The city of San Diego has also embraced the team and given them the support they need. The Wave will break yet another attendance record this weekend as they have been confirmed to have sold 23,500 tickets for their home opener. In a city starved of sports heroes, the team has stepped up to become the heroes that they need.
Things won’t always go smoothly for the team though, as there is the looming threat of injuries along with the fact that most of their best players will leave midseason to play the Women’s World Cup. However, the team has most likely planned for this scenario and it remains to be seen just how well they’ll execute it.
The team will get the ball rolling this Saturday. The Wave play their first game of the season against the Chicago Red Stars at the Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego. Kickoff time will be 7 PM PST (21:00 CET, 20:00 GMT).
And if all goes well, then yes, 2023 will be a good year for the Wave FC, especially if you and I see it together.
By: Stephanie Insixiengmay / @statsandedits
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Ira L. Black – Corbis – Getty Images / Jenny Chuang – ISI Photos – Getty Images