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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.”

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.”

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.