2023 S-2 Briefing: San Diego

In the second of our looks at the opponents of 2023 we’ll turn to the Thorns’ semifinal opponent, San Diego.

San Diego Wave

Year formed: 2021
(The club that became the Wave has something of a tortured history in California soccer. The club emerged as an idea that the thriving USL men’s club, the Sacramento Republic, would found a women’s side whilst moving the men up to MLS. This project looked promising from the initial proposal in 2017 to some time in early 2021, when the presumptive owner bailed from the Sacramento bid and in June 2021 was part of the scheme to stand up the club in San Diego. Many Sacramento fans would still gleefully chip into an “assassinate Ron Burkle” fund because of the betrayal.)

Owner: Ron Burkle.
(Another “private equity” vulture capitalist, whose outfit – something called “Yucaipa Companies” – is a particular specialist in grocery chain takeovers. So while the fans in Sacramento have a personal grudge against ol’ Ron, the next time you find that your local Freddie’s has replaced some beloved local product with generic Kroger crap? You can hate him, too!)

Head Coach: Casey Stoney
(Another Brit, Stoney jobbed around English football for almost 20 years between 1999 and 2018, playing for Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, as well as Lincoln and Charlton Athletic. She was capped 130 times, primarily a left back, for England. She began her transition to management with England, moving to full-time in 2018. She managed the Manchester United side to the FAWSL in 2018, but then finished fourth in what amounts to a four-team league the following two seasons.

Stoney was the subject of great expectation after the announcement of the San Diego club, based both on her work an ManU and her connection with Wave president Jill Ellis and, sure enough, was named in July 2021 to the head coaching position.)

Record:
The Wave have only a single season in their history:
2022 – 10-6-6 (36 points; 3rd of 12) 32GF 21GA +11GD
Season summary: The Wave rocketed to the top of the table and stayed there damn near the full season, from Matchday 2 to Matchday 14. The last eight games were a struggle; tough back-to-back home losses to Kansas City and Orlando dropped the Wave to third and though the club fought back briefly to the top a pair of draws to close the season saw them go into the playoffs in third.

There they met Chicago and won the quarterfinal at home on a Morgan goal in overtime to advance to the semifinal here, and we all know how that went.
Meetings with Portland: 6/8/22 (2-2 home draw), 8/27/22 (0-2 win), 10/23/22 (2-1 semifinal loss)

Outstanding players: Obviously Alex Morgan, whose move from the dire swamp of shame in Orlando sparked the sort of season we all have been expecting from the former Baby Horse since 2013; 16 goals and the golden boot, along with three assists. Worth noting that five of those goals were from the penalty spot

Morgan really was the goalscoring story of the Wave attack; the nearest teammate was Taylor Korneick with four (and three assists) and Makenzy Doniak with three and two. But the whole Wave frontline – that included Sofia Jakobsson at left wing and Jaedyn Shaw on the right – was fast and dangerous, and that overlooks Korneick coming up from midfield. Any club whose starters are good enough to keep Amirah Ali on the bench much of the time has a hell of a good attack.

In back the Wave had one terrific player – Naomi Girma – another solid veteran – Abby Dahlkemper (but I should note that I’m not nearly as high on Dahlkemper as a lot of other observers…) – and a slew of decent squad players (including, as I’m sure you know, our former Thorns Kristen Westphal and the human wrecking ball Madison Pogarch…). As a unit the Wave backline did a great job keeping dangerous chances down; less than about 1.1 xG against per game (compare to Portland with Bixby – nearly 1.4 xGa/match). The Wave defense is rock-solid.

Unfortunately for San Diego behind them Kailen Sheridan – usually the top technical keeper in the league – had a rocky 2022; she conceded fewer goals than her xGa suggested – 17 on an xGa of 22.59 – but was nowhere near the top keepers. Sheridan’s defensive differential (goals conceded to xGa) was only -0.28/game. That’s still good! But meanwhile Didi Haracic was posting a -0.54/game and our Bella Bixby a -0.44. Sheridan was a solid keeper…but not the most solid keeper in the league, and that/s very unusual.

How did they score?

Here’s Arielle Dror’s xcoring chart, with the Wave broken down:

Obviously Morgan is a huge piece of the scoring; all the penalty kicks (and she converted all five she took) as well as half – 11 of 22 – of the open play goals.

Surprising – at least, to me – is that even with the Golden Boot playing for them San Diege didn’t really score a crap-ton of open play goals. Their 68.7% is solidly middle of the pack, behind five clubs (Portland, Carolina, Seattle, Louisville, and Orlando) with percentages in the 70s.

The other surprising thing is that with that beanpole Korneick on the pitch the number of corner kick conversions is shockingly low. Even adding in the “other set piece” goals (indirect free kicks? I have no idea…) you get barely 15% from set pieces. If you recall, both Kansas City and Chicago scored over 20% off corner kicks alone, and Carolina knocked in over 17%.

The combination of Morgan & Co. going forward and Girma & Co. holding the back provided a damn deadly dangerous defend-and-counter Wave squad in 2022.

Changes for 2023

The Wave had only two natural draft picks in 2023, and traded Bermanbux for only one more. Instead, San Diego was proactive in signing free agents, including:
Rachel Hill (forward) – from Chicago as a free agent
Danielle Colaprico (midfielder) – from Chicago as a free agent, and
Meggie Dougherty Howard – from Orlando as a free agent.

So far was I can tell from the Wave site, all last season’s players (and the three free agents, obviously) are signed.

The three players drafted were:
Sierra Enge (midfielder) – second round, #13 overall,
Lauren Brzykcy (goalkeeper) – third round, #33, and
Giovanna De Marco (midfielder) – fourth round, #45

Of the three the only one I looked at was Brzykcy, who seems like a solid young keeper. Henderson haaaated the Enge pick:

He wasn’t impressed with DeMarco, either, but 45th pick? You’re lucky to get a couple of minutes in garbage time, so, whatever…

As we’ll discuss, the Wave is spoilt for choice all over the field, but particularly in midfield. I’m not sure what they were looking for in Enge or DeMarco, but Stoney has done well with her roster building last season, so maybe she’s got a plan we just don’t see.

How Did They Look?

Here’s the Wave in their quarterfinal against Chicago (attacking towards the bottom of the image):

And here’s the Portland semifinal (a bit confusing because the Wave is attacking towards the top in this image):

What I find intriguing about this is how Stoney adjusted against each opponent.

Against Chicago she ran what looks like a 3-4-3 (or 5-2-3, if you will…) with three centerbacks, Turnbow and Westphal as wingbacks, and the “usual” front three.

Against the Thorns it looks more like a 4-2-3-1, with Jakobsson wide left swapping with Korneick, who moves to the top of midfield), keeping Riehl and Girma in the center and swapping McNabb with Turnbow as LW.

I checked back to see how she’d run the Wave out in the last five regular season matches before these games, and the pattern seemed pretty clear. Against Carolina on the last regular season game Stoney repeated the wingback 3-4-3/5-3-2 set (and got only a scoreless draw out of it).

Before that? All four matches going back to the 0-2 win here in Portland we saw a 4-3-3 from her but with lots of tweaking.

Morgan is usually up top (Jodie Taylor spelled her in Cary) with some variation of Jakobsson and Shaw on the wings, but Korneick slots in for Jakobsson here and there as well as playing a lot of left midfield. Shaw and Jakobsson switch sides, too; against Angel City on 9/17/22 Shaw is LW, Jakobbson RW.

The take-home lesson seems to be that Stoney is as clever as she was reputed to be, and was always looking for the better matchups. That’s kind of scary when you consider that the only win we took off the Wave required two insane golazos as well as thumping Alex Morgan and getting monster games out of our outside backs to neutralize Shaw and Jakobsson.

How they’ll look next year?

Here’s what Chris Henderson thinks we’ll see:

I find this interesting on a couple of levels.

First, it looks like a 4-2-3-1, and the only time we saw that from Stoney between August and October last season was against us here, and that didn’t go so well.

Rachel Hill for Sofia Jakobsson at RW? Wellll...okay. They’re kind of a wash, frankly. Hill is a better passer (68% to 58% complete, 33% vs 12% long, 22 to 15 “key”) and is slightly better in front of goal (1 goal each, but Hill’s conversion rate is about 9% to Jakobsson’s 7%). I’m usually not a hug fan of “if it’s not broke don’t fix it”, but I can see the two of them swapping in and out depending on who they’re facing at LB…

Other that that?

I think the real questions here are:

  1. Can Morgan repeat 2022? Or was this the last burst of brilliance?
  2. Can Stoney get more production out of the rest of her squad? Korneick seems like a player who could ring up 8 or 9 goals a season, given her height, strength, and positioning. Can San Diego provide her with the service to do that? Why didn’t she do better with corners last season?
  3. Is Sheridan finally augering in? The defense in front of her looks to continue to be solid, but sometimes when players implode it’s a massive crash, and Sheridan has been the sort of keeper defenses look to be their foundation stone. A shaky keeper can mean big problems for the defense.

The overall impression I get is that what we’ll see next season will look a lot like what we saw in the last. Given her record in 2022, Stoney mostly standing pat seems pretty much like a no-brainer.

Summing Up

The Wave were the most successful expansion club in league history if you ignore the 2013 season when everyone was an expansion team. I don;t see any reason why the sophomore season should present San Diego with insoluble problems.

And – tho I’ve said this before – I have to eat my words regarding Casey Stoney. I was skeptical of her hype. She’d brought ManU up to the top flight but then finished fourth two seasons in a row, which in the FAWSL might just as well be right above the relegation zone. I thought she might struggle with a thrown-together squad.

Instead she took her team to the playoffs – damn near the Shield – and except for moments of brilliance from Raquel Rodriguez and Crystal Dunn might now be champion.

The Wave do have one issue, in my opinion; their venue.

The “Snapdragon Stadium” they play in is the arena for San Diego State University and is also the venue for the SDSU football games as well as assorted other outdoor amusements such as rugby and lacrosse. Here’s what the Wikipedia entry shows:

As far as I can tell that surface is the sort of rock-hard football carpet that we used to have here at Civic Stadium back in the USL Timbers era.

That shit is brutal; hot in summer, frigid in winter, savage on knee and ankle joints…it’s an injury generator in a sport that’s already notorious for ACL injuries.

I’m not sure if there’s a plan, but if not, there should be, to find a better pitch. Much as I kind of hate to admit it, the Wave are a damn good club and deserve better than this miserable football turf.

Predictions?

Like Kansas City, San Diego look like a playoff certainty. This is soccer, which means that the club could utterly implode (cruel game, right?), but I wouldn’t put any money on that. Stoney is a good manager and the club as it was in 2022 is a playoff-quality club. The free agents they added won’t make a huge difference, but certainly won’t hurt them.

Can they win it all? I think they came within two bolts of lightning from that last season, and I see no reason why they couldn’t make a legitimate run at the star in 2023.

Will they be dangerous? Yes. They should be just as difficult to play as they were, if not a bit tougher. They’re going to be damn deadly dangerous.

Can the Thorns beat them? I’m honestly not confident of doing any better than we did last season; splitting the points (and, remember, they licked us 4-1 on points during the season…) and needing a perfect – and possibly perfectly lucky – outing to knock them out of the playoffs.

If the Current is the “most improved” club from 2022, the Wave is still “the opponent I still fear the most”. Portland will need to cut like a razor the next times they meet these people.

Next up: Les Plutocrattes B

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3 thoughts on “2023 S-2 Briefing: San Diego

  1. Yes I would definitely agree with your assessment. They didn’t improve themselves much in the draft but they are still really good. That team was built with a solid spine: Sheridan, Girma, Van Egmond, Kornieck, and Morgan. They are really good and on sides they are good too. The subs that played in the semi finals are all solid. Well Pogarch is sometimes good, but always dangerous for good and bad reasons.

    Yup and one of the top four teams. Last year I had the Washington Spirit and North Carolina in the top six and I didn’t imagine KC and SD to be in the top four. I still like the Thorns and Seattle to be in the top four, but there are questions about both. For the Thorns I worry about the locker room and how the WC break will go for them. With Seattle it will be age and WC break as big question marks. I still think KC will rule the WC break.

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    1. They didn’t have to improve; if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

      I’ve got Seattle cued up; I’ll drop them here tomorrow or Thursday and we can discuss then.

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  2. You don’t think they’ll start Gautrat? Rough pitch, maybe, but Snapdragon is an awesome venue to see a game. Hope the new Thorns owners check it out and step things up.

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