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Tactical Analysis: San Diego Wave FC’s emphatic win over Portland Thorns

Analyzing the win that allowed the Wave to leapfrog at the top of the standings.

NWSL: San Diego Wave FC at Portland Thorns FC Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Two Saturdays ago, San Diego Wave FC made a huge statement. The Wave did so by beating the Portland Thorns by a score of 2-0. And if that wasn’t enough, they beat their top-of-the-table rivals in their own home and in front of their own fans. Here’s a look at how the Wave managed to pull off this monumental victory.

The Formations

San Diego Wave (4-2-3-1): Sheridan; McNabb, Girma, Riehl, Pogarch; Briede, Van Egmond; Jakobsson, Kornieck, Ali; Morgan

Portland Thorns (4-2-3-1): Geist; Klingenberg, Sauerbrunn, Hubly, Kuikka, Rodríguez, Coffey; Weaver, Sinclair, Sugita; Smith


The Wave maintained the same shape throughout the entire match with the only changes coming through substitutions or players switching positions. One example of this was Sofia Jakobsson and Amirah Ali swapping flanks after the second half started.

Later, after the two forwards were subbed off in the 55th minute, Makenzy Doniak took up space on the right while Alex Morgan shifted to the left. Taylor Kornieck moved behind Kelsey Turnbow, who then slotted into the centre-forward position. Belle Briede also shifted from the left to the right while Emily van Egmond took her place on the opposite flank.


San Diego would then see the match out this way and keep a clean sheet in the process.

The High Octane Start

The first twenty or so minutes of the match belonged to Wave FC. The team had the advantage of having had a week’s rest, unlike their hosts, who were on a short turnaround after playing the North Carolina Courage on the road just three days before this encounter. San Diego initially took advantage of this as they relentlessly pressed Portland high up the pitch. The Wave worked in tandem to cut off the Thorns’ passing lanes and made it difficult for them to progress to the final third.

And when the Thorns did get into the 18-yard-box, the Wave made crucial, well-timed interventions to prevent them from scoring. One of the keys to San Diego winning this game was their ability to pounce on second balls. This was vital to them not only creating scoring opportunities but also helped them shut out their opponents.

It was also the Wave who drew first blood in the 17th minute. After a sequence that started with Ali dispossessing Rocky Rodríguez, she would bring the ball upfield and try to fire off a shot just outside the box. The ball bounded around between her teammates before it eventually found Morgan, who used her upper body strength to hold off a defender before laying the ball at the feet of Kristen McNabb.

McNabb then fired a shot off from distance and put the Wave ahead with a spectacular goal. It was her second goal for the team and probably the best she’s ever scored.

After this goal, the Wave gradually ceded possession to Portland. In a reversal of the previous proceedings, the Thorns began pressing their opponents higher up the pitch. At one point, they even hemmed San Diego into their own box, which led to the defense back-passing the ball to one another as they tried to figure out how to escape Portland’s trap.

The Wave’s back-passes to one another

Eventually, it was Kailen Sheridan who found the key that unlocked this door by sending in a long ball over the top of the midfield, where it eventually found Kornieck’s head. Kornieck then flicked it into the direction of Morgan, who then left the opposition in a trail of dust. Morgan would go on to score her 51st goal in the NWSL and her 13th goal of this regular season.

From there, San Diego saw this game out by engaging in clever game management.

Winning at Chess

Part of the Wave’s strategy to see out this game was to allow Portland to have more possession. As the Thorns had more time and space on the ball, San Diego would reorganize themselves and become more compact. Though Portland moved the ball quickly and found the occasional pocket of space, they could not find a way through the Wave’s low block.

The Wave were very well organized as they knew when to step back and when to drop deep and engage the opposition. San Diego has developed a true team ethos, where the players’ are willing to sacrifice individualism to work together as a collective. The fact that they defended so well as a unit is a testament to this.

If there was one player that embodied this defensive spirit, it was Madison Pogarch. Casey Stoney inserted her into the starting XI based on both her familiarity with her former team but also for her defensive nous and athleticism. The gesture paid off, as Pogarch did what was expected of her, and more.

San Diego also let the Thorns have the ball knowing that they would be passing and taking shots with tired legs. The Wave allowed Portland to weave their own crown of thorns and place it on top of their own heads. As the game wore on, the Thorns’ attempts at goal largely consisted of long crosses into the box that sought vacant heads.

In the end, they did not find the breakthrough as San Diego emerged victorious with both a shutout and all three points. The game was a masterclass by Stoney as she completely outcoached her counterpart in Portland. The victory also allowed the Wave to climb to the top of the summit, as they now sit on top of the league table with 31 points.

The Stats

In keeping with the theme of their previous games, the Wave conceded possession during this match, as they only had the ball 46% of the time. The team has done so with complete confidence in their defense as they knew that they would cover for them. The Thorns also had more shots than their guests did (12 to 8) but San Diego were more clinical and converted two of their chances. The stats also show that the Wave were not just sitting back and defending during the second half, as they tried to hit their opponents on the counterattack too.


Taylor Kornieck created two chances, completed the most passes to the final third (13), and fired off two shots. Alex Morgan also had two shots and both were on target. The forward also converted the insurance goal. Kornieck leads the Wave with assists (three) while Morgan is the team’s leading goal-scorer (13). Morgan has also created the most chances for the team this season, which also happens to be lucky number thirteen. Overall, the two players spearhead the Wave’s attack and are a large part of the team’s success.


Out of all the Wave players, McNabb had the most touches during this match. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that she not only scored the opening goal but also put on an MVP-caliber performance for her team.


Up Next

San Diego will, once again, return to action this Saturday. They’ll take on the Washington Spirit at Audi Field in D.C. Kickoff time will be at 10 am PDT. The match will be shown on CBS and streamed on Paramount+.

If the Wave are to remain in the race for both the Shield and the postseason, then they must win this game. The team has managed to pull off big results when it has mattered the most and one shouldn’t be surprised if they do so again this weekend.

So what do you think? Leave a comment below.