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San Diego Wave FC 2022 Player Postmortem: Katie Johnson

Veteran quietly provided a boost to expansion side.

NWSL: San Diego Wave FC at Angel City FC Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

When you think of Katie Johnson, I think the initial thoughts are of an NWSL forward, and a Mexican international, full of promise and fans hopeful that this is the year where she truly has a breakout season.

She didn’t fully have a breakout season in 2022 with San Diego Wave FC, but she arguably made the full transition to a new role and certainly helped carry the team in a difficult point in the season, with hardly anybody noticing her exploits, I might add.

Johnson was a welcomed arrival to San Diego, not only because she’s a Southern California native and El Tri Feminil international, but also because of the tantalizing prospect of her potential. She’s well-traveled around the league — starting her career with Seattle Reign in 2017, she was traded to Sky Blue in 2018 and the Chicago Red Stars in 2019. Frankly, the latter two clubs were basket cases of differing degrees throughout Johnson’s time there, so if she wasn’t lighting the world on fire amidst abusive environments and subpar professional standards at both clubs, that certainly shouldn’t be held against her.

In Chicago, Johnson split her time between being a forward/winger and a midfielder. She still did that with San Diego, but in Casey Stoney’s system, the numbers game favored her in midfield. With Alex Morgan getting the lion’s share of the No. 9 minutes, and the likes of Makenzy Doniak, Jodie Taylor and Amirah Ali getting the remaining minutes between them, Johnson did see some time in an attacking line role, mostly in the Challenge Cup, when she was clearly used as a big body to wear down defenders and maybe pounce on a loose ball in the box.

But as the regular season started, Stoney mostly used Johnson as a midfielder. Sometimes she was a pure attacking mid, sometimes she was a wide mid, but moving back seemed to benefit Johnson’s game and this team quite a lot. She offered an ability to dribble at defenses that few on the roster otherwise possessed, and her vision for a good pass is underrated.

Here are Johnson’s stats with San Diego in 2022:

Katie Johnson San Diego Wave FC 2022 Statistics

2022 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
2022 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
Challenge Cup 4 3 179 0 0 4 2 0 0
Regular Season 15 6 522 0 3 12 4 0 0
Playoffs 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Total 19 9 701 0 3 16 6 0 0

So if Johnson were a pure forward, seeing no goals for the season would be a red flag, but again, she played the bulk of her minutes in midfield, and offered skills that the team actually needed there.

Consider her assists. While three assists on the year don’t jump off the page, they showed that she can cook in setting up goals, and besides, the NWSL is not a league where any player really racks up assists.

This was her “keep the play alive” assist to Taylor in the opening regular season game, a smash-and-grab win at the Houston Dash.

In the rivalry loss against Angel City, Johnson helped create a goal out of nothing, running at Angel City’s defense before nutmegging a couple defenders with the pass around the corner to Kristen McNabb. It showed a vision of a play developing instead of just playing to feet.

If there was an “unselfish assist of the season,” meanwhile, it would be this one in the gutsy 1-0 win over the Red Stars in Chicago, in which Johnson had a good look at goal on a breakaway and set up Jaedyn Shaw, on her professional debut, to hit a banger to win the game.

Johnson’s best month of the season was July, when she quietly was excellent. With half of San Diego’s team out on international duty for most or all of the month, Johnson was second in the NWSL for July in ASA’s Goals Added metric, with 1.13, only behind Jess Fishlock. For the combined Challenge Cup and regular season, believe it or not, she was third in that stat among San Diego’s outfield players, behind only Taylor Kornieck and Alex Morgan. In the league, she was 21st on the year in G+.

Which, I think, shows that Johnson is a player who absolutely brings something to a team, even if she’s not a prolific scorer. Along with Carly Telford and Doniak, Johnson really carried Wave FC when the internationals were gone in July, but she also was solid the rest of the time, and playing in a role most didn’t expect to really see her in.

Another way you can see how effective Johnson was as a midfielder is in her scouting report graph. Aside from goals, she was exceptional at most other categories. Plus, she can win headers, which helps on the defensive end.

She was hurt down the stretch and didn’t feature in the playoffs at all, and Johnson was announced not to be continuing with Wave FC next year. That makes her a free agent, and I think her career is at a crossroads: Johnson’s 28 now, I think she can do spot duty as a forward but I really think she can slot in as an attacking midfielder, off the bench or in rotation minutes, and really do some damage to opponents. Should she go to Liga MX Feminil and see if that league can showcase her better? Should she move to a league like the USL Super League, which is supposed to launch in the near future, and become an early marquee star for the new circuit?

I imagine there will be NWSL interest regardless, and clearly I think there truly is more to Johnson’s game yet to be fully unveiled, even though that’s been a perennial refrain. But Katie Johnson did in fact have a quietly good season, and hopefully she’ll continue to grow her game from here.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.