SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Wave began their inaugural NWSL season in 2022 and made it to the semifinals before losing to the Portland Thorns. But in 2023, they returned with a vengeance, winning the NWSL Shield and returning to the semifinals. They were 5-1-1 in their final seven matches as they carried momentum. It looked like no team could slow them down.
Also giving the Wave a boost were their fans. They led the league in attendance during the regular season, and Sunday’s semifinal environment against the OL Reign was even more lively. Snapdragon Stadium was packed with supporters as San Diego rallied behind their NWSL team. Fans stood on their toes in standing-room sections, trying to catch a glimpse of the match, as most seats were filled. They waved their pink rally towels as they gave their favorite team a boost.
Despite a club and playoff record crowd of 32,262, the Wave were eliminated in the semifinals, just like they were in their first year. They fell to Reign, 1-0, as the Reign were tough to break down defensively.
The Wave, who scored the (tied) second-most goals in the NWSL in 2023, were shut out. They had no shots on goal in the first half, while the Reign created a few solid chances. Then, 57 minutes into the match, Reign forward Veronica Latsko scored from a tight angle outside of the box. It appeared Latsko was crossing the ball towards the far post, but she found the back of the net instead, giving the Reign a 1-0 lead.
Latsko’s goal ended up being the match-winner. She scored the match-winner for the Reign in the first round of the playoffs against Angel City and did it again in the semifinal against the Wave.
“Those are a nightmare for a keeper because she is set for a cross, and it comes off the outside of her foot and loops in,” said head coach Casey Stoney. “They are horrible ones. We gotta get closer to the ball to stop the cross coming in.”
“If we execute and move the ball in better spaces and switch the play, we have better attacks, we have more chances to score,” Stoney said. “I just feel really flat right now… Their [Reign] chances came more from our doing than their making.”
The end of the match marked the finish of Naomi Girma’s second season. She was a reliable defender and finalist for Most Valuable Player (MVP) and Defender of the Year.
Girma was tough to get past against the Reign and helped them push the ball forward. She completed 76-of-68 passes, making nine passes into the final third and completing seven of nine long balls, according to FotMob. Girma also had eight recoveries, four clearances, and two interceptions.
The match also was the last of forward Jaedyn Shaw’s second NWSL season. The 18-year-old scored six goals and assisted three while playing in 22 matches. She became a contributor for the Wave and made her United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) debut.
Shaw was impactful for the Wave against the Reign. She made four passes into the final third, created two chances for her teammates, and won nine-of-13 duels.
Shaw and the Wave’s efforts fell short, though, because the Wave fell flat in the final third; none of their shots appeared to challenge Reign goalkeeper Claudia Dickey much.
“None of them [our shots] were convincing,” Stoney said. “None of them gave the goalkeeper a problem. We got into good areas, but we didn’t execute in the final third. They got good players. Claudia Dickey is in there now, giving them a bit of stability in terms of goalkeeping. They got good defenders… We could have switched it at times. We forced it when we didn’t need to.”
The Reign will face Gotham FC in the NWSL Championship, which will take place at Snapdragon Stadium. The match will be the last for former USWNT stars Megan Rapinoe and Ali Kreiger, who will retire after the 2023 season. On the contrary, the Wave entered the offseason, which includes an expansion draft, before regrouping, likely around Jan., to pursue their first NWSL Championship in 2024.
“We need to evolve,” Stoney said. “We can’t stand still. We need to recruit players. We need to evolve the squad. We need to keep developing the players we have got, develop the squad, learn from tonight. Me, personally, learn from tonight.”