Expansion Wave top the table with stout defense, Alex Morgan

Aug 31, 2022, 2:34 AM | Updated: 2:47 pm
FILE - San Diego Wave forward Alex Morgan, center, reacts after she scored a goal against OL Reign ...

FILE - San Diego Wave forward Alex Morgan, center, reacts after she scored a goal against OL Reign during the first half of an NWSL soccer match Thursday, April 14, 2022, in Seattle. The Wave is defying expectations atop the National Women's Soccer League standings. Now sitting on nine wins this season, they’ve already done better than any true expansion team in the league’s history. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

San Diego Wave players knew from the beginning that they weren’t going to let their status as an expansion team define them.

The aim was to “set a precedent that we can come in the league in year one and compete,” Wave defender Kristen McNabb said.

“I think everyone just kind of embodied it from day one,” she added. “We know our identity and we just play every game how we want to play, ultimately.”

The Wave are exceeding expectations. Now sitting on nine wins, they’re atop the National Women’s Soccer League standings and have already done better than any true expansion team in league history.

Alex Morgan, the Wave’s marquee player, is the league’s top scorer with 13 goals. And San Diego’s defense has allowed just 15 total goals this season, fewest in the league.

So no, this is no ordinary expansion team.

“We work very hard to make sure that everybody is important, and they are, whether they play one minute or none,” coach Casey Stoney said. “They fight, and what they’ve done is remarkable. It is massive credit to the club for getting the players in, and massive credit to the players where this team is sitting currently.”

The Wave were boosted by a statement-making 2-0 victory over the Portland Thorns last weekend at Providence Park. Morgan and McNabb each had goals, and goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan had her 20th career shutout in NWSL play.

The Wave started the month of August with losses to the Kansas City Current and the Orlando Pride, but rebounded with a 3-1 win over the Houston Dash before the win in Portland.

Sheridan is tied for the league lead with six clean sheets this season. She has allowed just 11 goals, fewest in the league for goalkeepers with as many games.

Morgan’s 13 goals put her in the lead in the Golden Boot race. It’s arguably the best season she’s ever had — the most goals she had in a season previously was nine in 2016 with the Pride. She’s now got 51 for her NWSL career.

“She keeps getting better and better — she’s a bit of a fine wine at the moment isn’t she?” Stoney said.

The Wave and Angel City in Los Angeles joined the NWSL this season, bringing the league to 12 teams.

From the start, both teams made a splash. The Wave are led by team President Jill Ellis, who coached the U.S. women’s team to a pair of Women’s World Cup titles. She hired Stoney, the former defender for England’s national team who coached at Manchester United from 2018-21.

Among the first players signed were Morgan and defender Abby Dahlkemper from the U.S. team. Others who have been brought on board include No. 1 draft pick Naomi Girma out of Stanford, who is also an emerging national team star, and Swedish national team veteran Sofia Jakobsson.

Angel City, with its star-studded ownership group including actress Natalie Portman and tennis star Serena Williams, sits just outside the playoff line with six games to go.

The NWSL is currently on a break for international play. The Wave still have four more games to go as they battle to keep that top spot in the standings and a first-round bye in the postseason.

One of those games will be against Angel City on Sept. 17 at the new Snapdragon Stadium on San Diego State’s campus, which will break the league’s attendance record. The team has already sold over 27,000 tickets to the game.

“Obviously, you’re not going to go through the whole league and get three points every single week and we know that, but it’s how we turn around each week and we fight back,” Sheridan said. “We kind of hold ourselves to the highest standards that we can, not just ‘You’re an expansion team, it’s OK.’ We want those three points every week.”

___

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Expansion Wave top the table with stout defense, Alex Morgan