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Outlook for San Diego Wave FC in 2022? Gotta be playoffs

This team is off to a good enough start to think about making history.

NWSL: San Diego Wave FC at Racing Louisville FC EM Dash-USA TODAY Sports

We’re not quite at the halfway mark of the 2022 NWSL regular season, but San Diego Wave FC have racked up a stunning start to the campaign.

Through 10 games of a 22-game slate, San Diego sit in first place at the current league break in play, with a 5W-2L-3D record. They’re unbeaten at home and have a winning record on the road.

That Casey Stoney’s side is an expansion club is what makes all of this remarkable. Yes, there are a few caveats: San Diego are one of a few sides to play the most games to this point, with two teams having a whopping three games in hand each right now. And the scheduling for the early part of the season has been somewhat nonsensical, with fixture congestion from the Challenge Cup knockout rounds for a few teams leading into a slew of double-game weeks for some, while other teams have had a fairly relaxed entry into the regular season. And then there’s COVID — while San Diego had an outbreak that straddled the end of the Challenge Cup and earlygoing of the regular season, every team has had some sort of outbreak and that can impact a team’s performance, obviously.

But still. When San Diego went to the top of the standings in the first few weeks, it was nice, a “remember this moment” kind of thing, with the expectation that they would fall from the perch. But they haven’t yet, and again, we’re nearly halfway through the season already.

So what’s the outlook for the rest of the season for Wave FC? What should they realistically target to see out the rest of the campaign? I think a real and attainable goal is simple: Make the playoffs.

A true expansion team (as in, a team that had never played anywhere previously, in its first season from the league’s second season on) in NWSL has never made the playoffs. In 2014, the Houston Dash finished last in the table. In 2016, the Orlando Pride were second-last, and last year Racing Louisville were also second-last. The league is not big, but the prior history is not promising for expansion teams.

So in that way, merely making the playoffs is a pretty ambitious goal for an expansion team. And even if San Diego is off to a great start, there’s still a little over half the season to go. Nothing can be taken for granted at this phase. Add to the fact that the entire spine of San Diego will be missing for a month or so while on international duty at the Concacaf W Championship — GK Kailen Sheridan assumed to be on Canada’s squad, defender Naomi Girma, midfielder Taylor Kornieck and forward Alex Morgan all confirmed on the United States roster — and they may be in for a bumpy July.

But unlike some other teams in the league, Stoney has actually rotated her squad a lot so far this season, and while losing a full third of her standard starting XI is likely to result in a drop-off, particularly with Sheridan missing in the back and Morgan missing up top, it’s also a chance for the ‘tweener starters and squad depth to get some playing time and see if they can earn more. Stoney has already rewarded players with playing time when they perform, such as rookie Belle Briede, and I have hope they won’t simply collapse when the big stars are all out. It’s no assurance they’ll be fine, but this blistering start to their debut regular season is coming both because of the stars performing and the support pieces carrying their weight, too.

So if I’m high on San Diego doing the unprecedented and expecting them to make the playoffs as a realistic goal this year, why not go whole hog and expect them to stay atop the standings too, or to win the title? Listen, this is the first rodeo for this team. In addition to the July baptism by fire for the remaining players while the internationals are out an extended period and the games in hand most of the league hold on them, it’s way too early to get overly confident in San Diego’s prospects. If they’re still on top 20 games into the season, sure, maybe they can get the Shield. If they go on a run in the playoffs, the absolute hardest point of the season, then of course I’ll start to believe.

But first things first: Keep a level head, keep picking up results, and stay above the playoff line. It’s certainly a realistic aim, but it’s unlikely to be handed to Wave FC. They’ll have to stay in good form, stay lucky on the injury front, and stay together as a team. If they can, they could make history in making the playoffs in their debut campaign and from there, we’ll see what happens.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.