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How Alex Morgan, Wave rose to the occasion against Red Stars

(Orlando Ramirez/USA TODAY Sports)

On Sunday evening, late into the night on all coasts, the San Diego Wave made more history. After becoming the first expansion club in league history to make the NWSL playoffs in their inaugural season, the Wave did one better, defeating the Chicago Red Stars 2-1 in extra time to book their ticket to a semifinal date with the Portland Thorns.

The Wave came into the match with an element of uncertainty, as the injury bug had appeared to strike at the exactly wrong time. Katie Johnson and Abby Dahlkemper were ruled out of the match due to injury, and Taylor Kornieck and Alex Morgan were listed as questionable in the weeks leading up to the match.

This meant that San Diego was likely going to have to rely on its other star asset: Casey Stoney, the team’s manager. The Wave’s tactical flexibility has been an undercurrent of their success in their first year, despite a reputation for “route one” soccer. Stoney and Co. showcased their full-team discipline to defend in their regular season finale, a 0-0 draw against the North Carolina Courage.

That performance hinted at what a game might look like if Morgan and Kornieck were unavailable, after the U.S. women’s national team players suffered injuries late in the regular season. As it turned out, the concerns were unfounded (despite slight gamesmanship from Stoney as to the severity of their injuries.) Morgan and Kornieck both started on Sunday and were critical to the Wave’s execution on offense.

Chicago came out in a high press, generating turnovers and disrupting San Diego’s ability to move the ball forward. One such moment of pressure gave the Red Stars an unexpected early lead. San Diego goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, who has been excellent in long-ball distribution this year, made an uncharacteristic mistake in the 10th minute, spilling the ball at the top of the box to the feet of Yuki Nagasato. Before anyone else could react, Nagasato calmly chipped the keeper to put Chicago ahead 1-0.

Sheridan’s mistake was the kind that can make or break a playoff game as competitive as this one. The Red Stars seized the momentum for the rest of the first half, combining well through their newly healthy midfield box formation and cutting through the center of the pitch with ease. San Diego’s defense, though, held firm, doing just enough to keep Mallory Pugh from getting a lethal shot off or Nagasato from pouncing on another mistake.

The Wave also held their own on the wings despite struggling with the Red Stars’ on-ball dribbling talent. Chicago did well to advance continuously into San Diego’s 18-yard-box without resistance, and yet at the half, the Wave were down only 1-0. As the first half wore on, San Diego also began to get separation on set pieces, with the 6-foot-1 Kornieck proving nearly impossible to mark in the air time and time again.

After halftime, San Diego tapped into depth, tactics and some old-fashioned belief to get back into the game. The downside of an aggressive press, like the one the Red Stars started the game with, is that you pay the price with your legs later in the match, and Chicago began to wear down in the second half. Stoney subbed in Sofia Jakobsson, who started to get acres of space along the left wing. It was Jakobsson’s run down the sideline that led to the game’s equalizer, with midfielder Emily van Egmond scoring her first NWSL goal of the season. The Wave also began pressuring the Red Stars’ center-backs and defensive midfielders, affecting their ability to control the tempo as they had in the first half.

It’s true that San Diego relied on a direct style of play that can be criticized as predictable, but it’s also true that it’s an exhausting style to try to defend. As Naomi Girma continued to send in probing long passes, and Morgan put her body on the line to reach the ends of those passes, the Red Stars began to run out of gas in a footrace they were trying to avoid.

In extra time, the Red Stars left a substitute unused, and a number of starters began to struggle with cramping and lack of pace. San Diego also brought on Amirah Ali for a waning Kornieck, and control of the match began to tip in the Wave’s favor.

Which brought all roads back to Morgan, the 2022 Golden Boot winner who showed some of the qualities that make her such a special player in big games. Fans know Morgan as a player who can streak into space and get in behind a defense. But on Sunday, Morgan played the role she perfected in the 2019 World Cup, which is to sit in the trenches and open up attacking lanes just enough to make a difference.

The goal in the 110th minute came off a corner kick. Morgan’s patience on the ball in the moment allowed her just enough space to slip the shot underneath goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and end Chicago’s season.

Morgan didn’t look 100 percent on Sunday, but she changed her game to bolster her effectiveness; and as she went, so her team followed. The Wave aren’t always ready with an immediate Plan B when they’re put on their heels, but you don’t make it this far in the NWSL season without a little bit of luck and effort, buying yourself enough time to adjust.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.