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3 observations on San Diego Wave FC’s 2-1 win over Chicago Red Stars

Star turns and trends for the table toppers.

Chicago Red Stars v San Diego Wave FC Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

San Diego Wave FC are atop the NWSL standings! Sure, only six of the 12 teams have played three games, San Diego included, and one team has only played one regular season game so far. So what? Do you hate fun?

Sunday’s 2-1 win over the Chicago Red Stars came somewhere in between the grinding smash-and-grab of their season opener in Houston and the late goal explosion over Gotham FC in the second game. For more specific observations from the latest victory, check this out:

The Riehl deal

Kaleigh Riehl was not exactly a forgotten figure around Wave FC, but she’s never been the first player to come to mind on Casey Stoney’s squad. Pretty solid on a poor Racing Louisville backline last year, that club essentially had a fire sale in the offseason and Riehl could be had for free in the expansion draft.

What a move that’s turned out to be. With Abby Dahlkemper in and out of the lineup to begin San Diego’s tenure, Riehl, a central defender with no USWNT caps, has more than held her own in Dahlkemper’s absence. Starting on Sunday to keep Dahlkemper fresh for the upcoming double game week, Riehl not only came this close to a shutout with the defense and goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, her audacious goal turned out to be the game-winner.

The goal is Riehl’s second for San Diego across all competitions, and honestly, it’s a credit to the front office’s scouting and roster-building that they’ve found a backup center back who stays ready and is impactful on both ends of the field. So far so good for Riehl and she looks set to see more playing time this season.

Slow start, strong finish

If there’s a constant in the first three games of the regular season for Wave FC, it’s that the attack has largely been anemic in the 1st half. I think the team has emphasized starting well defensively and making sure they don’t ship goals in the opening minutes like they had a tendency to do in the Challenge Cup, and so keeping the game scoreless into the 30th minute and beyond makes a fair amount of sense. I also think the team seems to be consciously playing their way into games, with an understanding they need to keep something left in the tank for the 2nd half to raise the intensity.

But there is a concern the team “turns it on” a bit too much. Two of the three wins, including this one, has featured a penalty by San Diego to break the deadlock in the 2nd half, before more goals come later. Obviously penalty goals count the same and consistently drawing them is a good sign for a lively attack, but at some point the ref is going to swallow their whistle, and it will be up to San Diego to get that opening goal another way. Hopefully they’ll be ready for that moment.

At the same time, given a choice it’s better a team finishes strong than starts strong and fades out late. The game flow may not have been all-out domination for Wave FC in any of these games, but credit to them for raising the intensity as the game wears on and more often than not proving they’re good value for the win.

New lease for Morgan

Alex Morgan not only leads San Diego and the league in regular season scoring, with five goals in three games, but she’s already quickly approaching her best-ever mark in an NWSL season, which was nine regular-season goals in 2017 with the Orlando Pride.

Morgan may have 115 goals in 190 USWNT caps to date, but she’s never been as prolific in the NWSL. Some of that’s been due to injury or maternity leave, loan stints with international clubs, or international duty eating substantially into her playing time over the years. Add to that, with the Portland Thorns or the Pride, Morgan usually had another top-tier scorer on her team and wasn’t expected to be the constant focal point.

That’s changed this year. Morgan is clearly the No. 1 scoring option for San Diego, with the many, many supporting pieces expected to help Morgan with the scoring load, not the other way around. There’s no international tournament this year for the Americans aside from World Cup qualifying in July, and at this point, it’s unclear if Morgan will have a ticket to that. Some have pointed out that Morgan is playing like she’s got something to prove, and whether or not that’s the case, she’s playing arguably her best-ever ball in the NWSL, with nine goals in nine games across all competitions for Wave FC. Long may it continue.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.