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Tactical Analysis: San Diego Wave’s defeat against Portland Thorns

Picking apart what went wrong and extolling what went right for the team.

NWSL: San Diego Wave FC at Portland Thorns FC Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Though they put up a valiant fight, the San Diego Wave eventually fell to the Portland Thorns by a score of 3-2 on Sunday. The Wave tried to mount a comeback in the second half, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the deficit they accumulated during the first half. Here’s a breakdown of what the team did right, and did wrong, during their Challenge Cup encounter.

The Formations

San Diego lined up in their usual 4-2-3-1 with slight modifications to it. Coach Casey Stoney decided to give Belle Briede and Emily van Egmond their first-ever starts for the team. Tegan McGrady also made a return to the starting XI, after missing the previous match due to yellow card accumulation. McGrady’s return to the lineup was most welcome, as the fullback provided the much-needed width and crossing ability that the team were missing in their last game against the OL Reign.

Portland, on the other hand, lined up in a 4-2-3-1 that morphed into a 3-5-2 while on the attack. In particular, the Thorns tended to attack on the wings, with Sophia Smith being their deadliest threat.

San Diego Wave (4-2-3-1): Telford; McGrady, Westphal, Dahlkemper, Girma; McNabb, Van Egmond; Morgan, Briede, Jakobsson; Taylor

Portland Thorns (4-2-3-1): Bixby; Klingenberg, Hubly, Menges, Nally; Sugita, Coffey; Smith, Rodriguez, Weaver; Sinclair

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The First Half

The first few minutes of the game were characterized by San Diego failing to find their footing. They were easily dispossessed in the middle of the park as Portland effectively pressed them into making mistakes. In contrast, the Wave gave Portland too much time and space on the ball and allowed them to launch a series of attacks.

Wave in the midfield

The Wave’s lack of cohesion in the midfield was most likely due to the inclusion of Briede and Van Egmond, who were playing together for the first time. This led to the team making several mistakes. The failure to properly mark the opposition lead to the Wave conceding the first goal, as Westphal lost track of Sophia Smith and didn’t shut her down. And, just like she did during the first encounter between the two sides, Smith got an early goal, this time in the fourth minute.

Smith nearly had a second in the ninth minute as, once again, San Diego gave her too much time and space on the ball and didn’t shut her down. It didn’t help that the front three for the Wave were pinned back and found themselves engaging in more defensive duties rather than scoring. Meghan Klingenberg effectively neutralized Sofia Jakobsson during that half and forced the winger to take on a more defensive role. The Wave found themselves on the back foot and chased shadows as they lost the battle in the middle of the park.

The Thorns also had joy attacking on the flanks, and attacking down those channels led to them scoring their first two goals of the game. The second goal was a result of Morgan Weaver blasting past Tegan McGrady on the left before laying the ball off to Christine Sinclair. Sinclair’s strike rebounded off the post before landing in front of Hina Sugita, who then headed it home.

The third goal for the Thorns was almost a carbon copy of their second, with the sequence once again, starting on the left as Smith blew past her marker before forcing Carly Telford into making a save. Telford parried the ball away and it landed into the path of Smith, and her subsequent strike bounced off a Wave player. The ball once again found the path of the Canadian international (Sinclair), who then lobbed the ball into the path of Sugita. The Japanese midfielder was left unmarked and would then get her second goal of the game. And just like that, Sugita would score her first two goals in the NWSL.

Sugita unmarked

San Diego would, however, find a lifeline of hope as the half drew to a close. At the 45th minute, Westphal would cross the ball into the box where it found Belle Briede, who nearly chested in a goal. Though Briede didn’t score on that occasion, that sequence would be a portent for San Diego’s second half.

The Second Half

Before the second half started, Casey Stoney shuffled the Wave around by making a few substitutions. Kelsey Turnbow would take the place of Jodie Taylor, while Kaleigh Riehl would come on for Abby Dahlkemper. In particular, Turnbow slotted into the formation as a false No. 9. Turnbow’s substitution into the game turned out to be a masterstroke, as she broke the lines with her passes and added dynamism to the attack.

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Substituting in Kaleigh Riehl also turned out to be a masterful maneuver. The defender helped provide more defensive stability at the back while also neutralizing Sinclair’s threat. As a result, the Wave were gradually able to take control of the game. This allowed them to move the ball upfield and into the attacking half as they did not spend so much time passing the ball backwards.

Portland’s substitutions also helped the Wave regain control of the game, most notably with the removal of Smith and Rocky Rodríguez (62’). The Thorns’ substitutes (Olivia Moultrie and Yazmeen Ryan) proved to be a drop in quality from their starters, and San Diego took full advantage of this.

With Turnbow as the false No. 9, San Diego began to use the width of the pitch more as the forward would drop deep from the midfield and draw defenders towards her. This freed up space for her teammates to launch an attack, and it would eventually lead to Briede scoring the Wave’s first goal.

Here’s a breakdown of the actions leading up to that goal. Most of the credit goes to Turnbow, especially with how she freed up space for her teammates.

Naomi Girma would then prevent Portland from scoring a fourth through a vital interception. Girma was perhaps the unsung hero of this game as her calmness and effectiveness on the ball allowed her to maintain order at the back. This allowed San Diego to prevent Portland from extending their lead, which aided in their attempt to overturn the scoreline.

CBS

One of the ways the Wave was able to turn the tide was by pressing more effectively. An example of this is Morgan dropping deep to press Weaver on the left flank. McGrady then intercepts the ball and initiates another attacking sequence for the Wave.

It would eventually lead to San Diego earning two successive corner kicks. As the second one was being taken, Stoney then decided to send Taylor Kornieck onto the pitch to replace Belle Briede. (65’). A few seconds later, the towering midfielder scored the Wave’s second goal after heading in a corner kick. It was also her first-ever goal for San Diego. Being 6’1 sure does help you score on set pieces.

San Diego would keep this momentum going for most of the second half. And despite having the majority of possession and scoring chances, the Wave would not be able to score a third goal. Portland would win by a score of 3-2 and look set to finish second in the division.

Stats

The game started off with the Thorns seeing more of the ball than their guests did, as they had it 51% of the time. However, San Diego became to gradually take over and had the ball 53% of the time during the second half. The decision to substitute Turnbow, Riehl, and Kornieck into the game helped the Wave gain control of the match and eventually turned the tide in their favor.

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In contrast to some of the Wave’s previous opponents, the Thorns actually took more shots inside their penalty area. Perhaps this was due to both Girma and Dahlkemper not being at 100% after returning from the international break and playing two matches in three days, but the Wave were not as defensively solid. Girma, however, became more stable throughout the game, while Dahlkemper had to be substituted off. Portland took 13 shots inside the box with eight of them on target. They were also willing to be more adventurous than the Wave and took four shots outside the box. Only one of them resulted in a goal, and it was Sophia Smith’s shot in the fourth minute.

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The Wave only had four shots during the first half but made up for it in a big way during the second. After they had gained a foothold in the game, they made an additional thirteen shots during that latter half. In total, the Wave had 17 shots during this match, with two of them resulting in goals.

SD Wave
InStat

Kornieck has officially become the Wave’s second-biggest offensive threat, right after Morgan. The midfielder has now made a total of nine shots across five games, with one of them resulting in a goal. Kornieck adds not only steel and grit in the middle of the park, but has proven to be a potent threat on set pieces. She has proven to be quite the pick-up for the Wave.

Taylor Kornieck
InStat

Portland outshot the Wave by a ratio of 18 to 17 shots. Most of their goals were on the left, which suggests that San Diego needs to tighten up in that area. The Wave can, however, find some encouragement with how they fought back in the second half to make up for their deficits during the first 45 minutes of the match.

Portland Thorns
InStat

Conclusion

During a post-match press conference, coach Casey Stoney expressed her regret over the mistakes her team made during this game. The gaffer stated that the errors were probably due to her not conveying what she wanted from her players properly. Though it is admirable that Stoney is taking personal responsibility for her team’s performance, the coach can also find some encouragement in this defeat. Her substitutions are what allowed the Wave to turn the game around and they nearly completed the comeback. Perhaps her players understood her instructions after all.

San Diego also showed character, as they have shown that they’re not willing to give up, no matter what. The team is still young and the lessons learned from matches like this will help them blossom into a fully competitive squad. And they will only get better from here.

Up Next

The Wave will take on OL Reign in their final match of the Challenge Cup group stages. The game will be played this Saturday at the Torero Stadium in San Diego. Kickoff time will be at 7 PM PST / 10 PM EST. You’ll be able to watch the game on Twitch (international viewers only) and domestically on Paramount +.

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