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San Diego building through veteran leaders: New from NWSL Camp

Abby Dahlkemper (Courtesy of San Diego Wave FC)

While NWSL fans continue to plot a nation-wide search for the regular season schedule that has yet to be released, they have one schedule to fall back on. With the Challenge Cup set to kick off this Friday, the countdown to NWSL 2022 is on.

Teams are in crunch mode as they put the final touches on their tactics and get their lineups ready for the annual preseason tournament. The league also enters the first games of the year with a new commissioner in waiting. Jessica Berman, the former deputy commissioner of the National Lacrosse League and executive with the NHL, was announced as interim commissioner Marla Messing’s replacement last week and will assume her role officially on April 20.

This week in training camps across the NWSL, San Diego Wave FC, OL Reign and Houston Dash discussed the leaders and team strengths forming behind the scenes as they get ready to take the field.

San Diego’s power duo

Once again, Alex Morgan is helping to build a club from the ground up. The two-time World Cup champion with the U.S. women’s national team debuted with the Orlando Pride during their expansion season in 2016 and played with the club until San Diego acquired her in a trade in December.

When asked about the differences between the two clubs’ early stages, Morgan singled out the Wave’s attention to detail.

“I love the ambition and the fact that they’re looking at it from all angles, not only from trying to build a team but trying to build an organization we’re all proud to play in,” the forward said. “A brand that people are proud to wear and represent, a place of inclusivity for this community.”

Abby Dahlkemper, Wave defender and Morgan’s teammate with the USWNT, said she’s excited for Morgan to make runs into the box and bury goals this season, starting with the Wave’s Challenge Cup opener against Angel City FC on Saturday. Morgan is currently ranked eighth in the world with 115 international goals.

“Obviously a huge win for us to get Alex and for her to be a part of this team,” Dahlkemper said. “She is the face of women’s soccer. She is a trailblazer. Everyone looks up to her — males and females — and she’s huge for the culture of this club.”

“That’s so nice,” Morgan uttered, leaning on Dahlkemper’s shoulder during the press conference.

In her return to the field after an injury kept her out of the SheBelieves Cup, Dahlkemper is prepared to step up as the leader of San Diego’s backline. While she was sidelined, Dahlkemper made an effort to learn all of the details of head coach Casey Stoney’s training plans and impart those on her teammates.

“[Her presence] does make a vast difference because she’s a communicator, she’s a leader, she’s good on the ball. The fact that she can switch the point with ability and range makes a huge difference to the way we can play,” Stoney said.

“She’s a real leader and I can see that already in her nature in her character and I’m really pleased she’s in our dressing room.”

Bethany Balcer graduates to veteran status

Bethany Balcer, entering her fourth year in the NWSL, has seen her role with OL Reign evolve during this training camp.

The 2021 semifinalists have a new look this year after signing nine new players and drafting three rookies — Ryanne Brown (21st overall), Olivia van der Jagt (33rd) and Marley Canales (47th). The changes have given Balcer, 25, an opportunity to step into a position of leadership.

“There’s been areas where I’ve seen some of the players help me along in that, and also [Laura Harvey] and Sam [Laity] have been giving me those spaces and opportunities to step into and so I’m trying my best,” she said.

Balcer, the 2019 NWSL Rookie of the Year, also has three of the most respected teammates to emulate in Lauren Barnes, Jess Fishlock and Megan Rapinoe, who have helped establish OL Reign’s culture since the club came into existence.

“I feel like that’s been a bigger part of what I’ve been trying to do this preseason,” Balcer said. “That’s been fun, and just trying to learn as I go.”

Houston Dash are clicking

Everything seems to be going smoothly for the Houston Dash. As they enter the Challenge Cup with three preseason wins and no injuries to report, head coach James Clarkson believes the team’s tactics have been progressing exactly as planned.

What’s impressed him most so far is the players’ ability to exchange positions. They are looking to create situations where they can exploit opponents with a numbers advantage, and the concept is further along at this point in the preseason than in others Clarkson can remember.

“There have been some really good rotations, really good movement on the ball and off the ball,” he said. “If we continue to keep that same rotation of players that are changing positions and it can be smooth, I think that will be a huge benefit for us.”

Off the field, the coach is looking forward to Berman’s leadership in the NWSL front office.

“It’s very good for the league,” Clarkson said. “I think it’s a big step forward. Obviously we need one. Hopefully she continues with some great work with the players and pushes the league further forward.”

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.