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NWSL preview: San Diego Wave built for the long haul in 2023

Alex Morgan led the NWSL in goals in 2022, helping San Diego to the best inaugural season for an expansion team. (Ira L. Black – Corbis/Getty Images)

When two California expansion sides joined the NWSL in the same year, the competition naturally escalated on the West Coast. Angel City showcased the off-field value of Los Angeles’ deep-running soccer culture combined with a bit of Hollywood glamor. But the team that ran away with the on-field results in 2022 was the San Diego Wave.

After surprising everybody but possibly themselves, Casey Stoney’s side comes into 2023 as an established contender in just their second year. Taking advantage of the NWSL’s first free-agency period, the Wave retooled their roster with strategic, positional signings.

We already know that San Diego is the real deal, but just how far can they go this year? Stoney gives us a peek behind the curtain.

2022 Year in Review: Raising expectations

The Wave had the most successful inaugural season for an expansion team in NWSL history in 2022. They became the first expansion team to make the playoffs in their first year and the first to host and win a playoff game in their first year. Their third-place finish in the league standings was by far the best result for a team in its first season of existence.

Bolstered by a career-best scoring output from Golden Boot winner Alex Morgan and an award-winning season from Rookie and Defender of the Year Naomi Girma, the Wave made it difficult for teams to break them down defensively and tricky to contain them in front of goal. The Wave proved versatile in their positioning in 2022, with a well-drilled, off-the-ball ethos that turned into quick-fire chances at the other end of the field.

When inviting a high press, the Wave compensated with one of the best goalkeepers in the league in Kailen Sheridan to go over the top, and one of the best direct strikers in Morgan.

“Sometimes you want to bring that pressure on,” Stoney says. “So you bring them closer to you, and you leave more space in behind their backline. And I thought we exploited that well at times last year.”

When pressing themselves, the Wave have a midfield Stoney says was already in the top 50 percent of contested possession, a stat they want to improve upon in 2023. Stoney, a former center-back herself, says they intend to keep the play central and in front of them with their pressing philosophy.

“I always think you kind of want the center-backs on the ball so you can go and press,” she says. “Because they’re normally the players the least comfortable with it.”

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Casey Stoney won NWSL Coach of the Year for San Diego's historic season in 2022. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Offseason moves: Slowing things down

Where San Diego wants to take a step forward in their second year is the ability to control tempo with the ball at their feet. After relying on a number of young players to carry the load in year one, the Wave turned to free agency for experienced players, who for the first time could make club decisions without forcing trades.

San Diego landed Danny Colaprico, one of the best holding midfielders in the league, and forward Rachel Hill. Stoney also has high expectations for teen phenom Jaedyn Shaw in her second professional year.

Many soccer teams say they want to play a possession-style game, without delving into the particulars of why that approach works. In a highly transitional league like the NWSL (in other words, teams move the ball quickly to punish defenses), sometimes the best-laid plans in the midfield can lead to turnovers and attempts to control through possession are disrupted at every turn.

Not surprisingly, Stoney’s philosophy behind slowing the game down isn’t just a lofty ideal, but also a practical response to the grind of an NWSL season.

“I think it’s important when you go to Houston in the middle of the season and it’s 80 percent humidity, you can’t go and go,” she says, noting that the Wave dropped points at times last season by pushing too hard to win games rather than controlling play in a draw.

“I believe that you have to have adaptability and fluidity within the game,” Stoney says. “There’ll be spells where you need to sit with two, there’ll be spells where you need to attack with two depending on who you’re playing against, where the spaces are.”

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Star defender Abby Dahlkemper missed time last season due to various health reasons. (Russell Lansford/USA TODAY Sports)

2023 Outlook: Riding the wave

The Wave have retained their dynamism from 2022, and now they are better equipped to save their legs during the dog days of the NWSL season. Their elevated depth will be tested when they experience another first in 2023: a major tournament year.

Sheridan, Girma, Morgan, midfielders Emily van Egmond and Taylor Kornieck, and forward Sofia Jakobsson could all miss matches in the middle of the season while playing in the 2023 World Cup. Additionally, defender Abby Dahlkemper is still working her way back from offseason back surgery. The young players the Wave developed in year one will once again have to step up, this time aided by new veterans.

“You have to make sure that you recruit a squad deep enough that it’s competitive every day in training,” Stoney says. “And it’s about making sure those players have played and they’ve gotten minutes, and also making them feel valued throughout the season so that they’re not just chucked in on a whim because someone else is away.”

The plan is to lean into positional flexibility if necessary, and maintain as much continuity as possible so that the team is firing on all cylinders when they push for a playoff spot and beyond. A feature that separates the NWSL from other domestic soccer leagues is the tournament-style playoff bracket, and getting a team to the finish line intact is an underrated art.

“The biggest thing I’ve tried to do — and I will always learn from — is listening to my players, because it’s their bodies,” says Stoney. “They’re the ones having to do the work.”

The Wave have the personnel to contend for the top of the table and make a run at the NWSL Championship, but managing those pockets of the season when their top performers aren’t available will likely come with a learning curve. In a competitive season, depth tends to win out, and San Diego has developed a squad that can hang with the best.

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

Midge Purce-Backed Docuseries ‘The Offseason’ to Drop This Summer

cast of the offseason nwsl reality series
'The Offseason' follows a group of NWSL stars as they prepare for preseason play. (The Offseason)

The Offseason, a reality series created by Gotham and USWNT star Midge Purce, has officially confirmed its streaming debut, Purce announced in Cannes on Tuesday.

The six-episode, half-hour docuseries will stream this summer on X, though a specific premiere date hasn't yet been set.

The Offseason was filmed in Miami, two weeks before the NWSL preseason. It's a crucial time for athletes, a period where they prepare to join their respective teams and compete for both starting and roster spots. Production designed all the facilities, bringing in top-tier trainers, masseuses, chefs, and gym equipment to create a high-level training environment, ensuring the players were in peak condition, per the show's release. Throughout filming, athletes lived together in one house — a reality TV conceit rife for entertainment.

The series follows a number of NWSL stars, including Purce (NJ/NY Gotham FC), Maria Sanchez (Houston Dash), Lo’eau LaBonta (Kansas City Current), Michelle Alozie (Houston Dash), Taylor Smith (NJ/NY Gotham FC), Nikki Stanton (OL Reign), Ally Watt (Orlando Pride), Taryn Torres (NJ/NY Gotham FC), Paige Nielsen (Angel City FC), and Ify Onumonu (Utah Royals).

"We wanted to create a series that truly captures the essence of what it means to be a professional athlete," said Purce. "This series has always been about more than just sports — it's about the human experience behind the athlete, as well."

The show promises a behind-the-scenes look at professional women's sports, teasing major life decisions, on-field tensions, and players taking stock of the environments they'll be entering once their preseason trip is over. The series delves into the real-life challenges faced by the athletes, including club trades, contract negotiations, burnout, and the relentless pressure from outsiders commenting on the players' personal lives.

The Offseason's official trailer, released on Tuesday, shows snippets of Hubly contemplating retirement, Sanchez joining the group after signing a high-profile contract, and a healthy amount of banter about on-field achievements.

The spirit of the series is reflected in its producers: Box To Box Films is known for their sports content (Drive to Survive, Break Point, Full Swing), whereas 32 Flavors is the creative force behind Vanderpump Rules and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. The series was funded by Seven Seven Six, and executive produced by Purce.

Lilia Vu Wins Meijer LPGA Classic After Injury Return

lpga golfer Lilia Vu
Lilia Vu won in her first tournament in two months. (Jorge Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Lilia Vu won her fifth LPGA Tour event on Sunday, taking home the Meijer LPGA Classic title in her first tournament appearance since March. 

The World No. 2 had been sidelined with a back injury, but returned with a vengeance last weekend. She began the final day eight shots back of leader Grace Kim, before surviving a three-hole playoff against Kim and former champion Lexi Thompson to take the title. 

"I think this is the most meaningful win," Vu told reporters. "Because there was a time two months ago where I was just crying on the range not being sure if I would ever play a tournament again without pain."

This was Vu's first Meijer LPGA Classic win, and a birdie on the third playoff hole helped secure it. A two-time major champion, she's now two for three in LPGA Tour playoffs. 

She said on Sunday that being unable to defend her title at the Chevron Championship was the "breaking point" in her season.

"Not being able to compete there really killed me," she said. "I feel like I thought I was taking the steps in the right direction, but I’m glad that I was able to take a couple months off and reevaluate my body, let it recover, do what I needed to do to get back out here again.

"And we did the right thing and took two months off. I think it hurt me not to play competitive golf because I literally live for competitive golf, but we did the right thing and that’s why I’m here today."

Vu walked away with $450,000 in prize money from the $3 million overall purse.

Jabeur, Sabalenka Pull Out of Olympics Citing Health Concerns

tennis player Aryna Sabalenka
Aryna Sabalenka will not play in this year's Summer Olympics. (ALAIN JOCARD/AFP via Getty Images)

Ons Jabeur and Aryna Sabalenka joined a growing list of tennis stars opting out of the Olympics on Monday.

Sabalenka, the reigning Australian Open champion and World No. 3, told reporters in Berlin that she was looking after her health while citing WTA tournament participation requirements. The Belarusian had struggled with a stomach bug during the French Open, where she lost in the semifinals of a major for the first time since 2022. 

Similarly, Jabeur referenced the health risks that come with a change in playing surfaces. The World No. 10 has been battling knee injuries this season, and lost in the French Open quarterfinals to Coco Gauff

"Especially with all the struggles I was having last month, I feel like I need to take care of my health… It’s too much with the scheduling," Sabalenka told reporters. "It’s just too much. I made the decision to take care of my health."

Players will spend the next few weeks playing on grass in the lead-up to Wimbledon, while the Olympics will be played on clay at Roland-Garros. 

"After consulting with my medical team regarding attending the Olympics in Paris, we have decided that the quick change of surface and the body’s adaptation required would put my knee at risk and jeopardize the rest of my season," Jabeur tweeted on Monday. "Unfortunately, I will not be able to participate in the 2024 Paris Olympics. I have always loved representing my country in any competition, However, I must listen to my body and follow my medical team’s advice."

The two join Emma Raducanu in opting out of the Olympics. Raducanu — who has dealt with a number of injuries since her US Open win in 2021 — said the change in surface was "not worth the risk."

Jaedyn Shaw Breaks NWSL Record for Most Goals Scored as a Teenager

Jaedyn Shaw of the san diego wave
Jaedyn Shaw is now holds the record for most NWSL goals as a teenager. (Julia Kapros-USA TODAY Sports)

Jaedyn Shaw continues to make NWSL history, surpassing Trinity Rodman for the most NWSL goals by a teenager on Saturday. 

She did it in a game against Rodman's Washington Spirit in the 20th minute of the 1-1 draw. It brings her total to 13 league goals, after making her NWSL debut at 17 years old in July 2022. 

The goal is her third this season. Shaw currently leads Wave alongside Makenzy Doniak. 

Shaw has also been a member of the USWNT, alongside Rodman, netting seven goals over 14 national team appearances. If she gets called up to this summer’s Olympics under Emma Hayes, it will mark her first official tournament with the USWNT.

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