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What we learned from San Diego Wave FC’s inaugural Challenge Cup

Something good, not-as-good and something to work on.

NWSL: OL Reign at San Diego Wave FC Ray Acevedo-USA TODAY Sports

There were good times, there were not so good times in the Challenge Cup group stage for San Diego Wave FC. For a brand new team, a 1W-3L-2D record is decent out of the gate, and with the 2022 NWSL regular season set to begin this weekend, what have we learned about Casey Stoney’s team thus far? Well, a lot but let’s start with these three overarching points from the Challenge Cup.

Slow starts & going narrow

In four of the six games (all against the Portland Thorns or OL Reign) San Diego conceded in the first 15 minutes. In fact, five goals in all were conceded by the team in the opening 15 minutes by Wave FC, and little surprise, the record in those games was 0W-3L-1D.

Needless to say, that’s not a recipe for success game to game, and kicking off and getting scored on in the opening minutes isn’t good. It has to be the biggest overall concern for the team, since getting sharper in defense and staying stout for longer should increase their chances of picking up wins.

Alongside that obvious point is something that’s been a bit more subtle. While the attack has shown some propensity for width and trying to play outside-in at times, Wave FC have struggled to defend out wide in the Challenge Cup, and several of their goals allowed came because the defensive shape was too narrow.

It’s unclear if the reason for this is down to Stoney trying to keep the defense compact and therefore stout in the middle, if the players kind of naturally collapse into the middle of the field, or a combination of the two. It is true that on a tactics level, coaches have to decide what to prioritize. If you play compact, you’re likely going to give a ton of space out wide that can be exploited, albeit much farther from goal. If you do well to defend wide, you’ll give up space in the middle and that can create problems, too.

But while a compact shape that concedes space out wide could become successful over time with more playing time and cohesion as a team, the rough starts seem to indicate the current style of play isn’t yet working, and whether it’s mentality, tactics or something else, San Diego will need to make some tweaks or else they’re going to let a lot of goals in early.

Clear pecking order at GK

This isn’t a surprise, but through six games, it’s pretty clear that there is a difference between the play of Kailen Sheridan and Carly Telford in goal for Wave FC.

While the NWSL has a slew of top goalkeepers, Sheridan has an argument (and the stats) to be in that group, and a good case to even be the best of the lot. San Diego managing to trade for her was a major coup, and her 70 percent save percentage and 0.75 goals per 90 on an expansion team in four games is quite good. Her advanced stats are even better.

Of course, as an international who is likely to become the No. 1 for Canada, San Diego need a capable backup, and the signing of Telford was seen as a smart move. The former England international has high-level experience and also is accustomed to playing as a backup, having done so most of the time for Chelsea the past several years. At 34, the hope is Telford can step in when Sheridan is unavailable and the level won’t drop.

Honestly, we didn’t see that in a limited sample size. Sheridan played in four games, and missed one for international duty and the other for being in COVID protocol. Telford started those two, and Wave FC conceded six goals, all in the earlygoing of those games. Her save percentage was 53.8, which isn’t good.

Listen, I think some of the issues we saw with Telford likely came with some rust and just acclimation to a new league. Playing poorly in two games (and it should be noted, she was not solely responsible for those two losses) does not mean she can’t contribute later. More adjusting, more adjustments from the team, and hopefully she has some opportunities for redemption in the regular season.

But as things stand now, it’s pretty clear that Sheridan is the obvious No. 1 for San Diego, has adjusted to expansion team life well, and Telford has taken some lumps. She’ll get her chances later this summer, hopefully she can come good.

Alex Morgan’s still got it

The marquee star for San Diego has lived up to the billing, with four goals in six group stage matches. That puts her in a tie for second in the league in scoring, behind only Ashley Hatch of the Washington Spirit.

It’s a good sign, as Morgan has been incredibly prolific for the U.S. Women’s National Team but hasn’t been a volume scorer in the NWSL. In NWSL league play in her career she has 38 goals and 20 assists in 102 appearances, so she roughly scores every three games and provides an assist roughly every five games. Over a long sample size, that’s pretty good, but given her talent perhaps she is expected to perform at a higher clip?

In previous stops in her career, Morgan has been a co-star in attack in NWSL, but in San Diego, she’s currently the main scoring option. Stepping up to score a brace in the club’s first win, convert the club’s first-ever penalty for a comeback draw and scoring another goal in the run of play means she’s off to a good start, and if she can stay healthy, could be a good omen for a good season, perhaps her best ever on an individual level? Time will tell.

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