Incredibly, San Diego Wave FC can still win the NWSL Shield

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Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Lots to watch for as the regular season closes.

Considering the rocky history of expansion teams in NWSL, I can’t say expectations were especially high on the field for San Diego Wave FC in 2022, at least outside the locker room.

But we’re not talking enough about how close they are to winning actual silverware in their debut season.

Wave FC currently lead the NWSL Shield race, awarded to the regular season champions, with 2-3 games left to play, depending on the team. Let me repeat: San Diego Wave FC lead the league in points with the regular season nearly over.

How did we end up here? Well, you can look at the standings for yourself, but there’s several contextual reasons for this stunning turn of events:

General parity in NWSL taking on a new dimension this year. Related, no superteam or two running out ahead of everyone else. That’s in part because every team has changed their coach in the last 13 months. The longest-tenured manager in the league right now is Laura Harvey, who joined OL Reign for this stint in Aug. 2021. The Challenge Cup probably helped the expansion teams this year more than any other — after poor Challenge Cup group stages, both San Diego and Angel City FC have been good to great in the regular season. That’s thanks in part to a six-game runway that didn’t count in the standings. The improved terms in allocated money has given expansion teams more capability of building good rosters in the first year. As a result, San Diego built a substantially better and more balanced roster than pretty much any previous expansion team. Wave FC manager Casey Stoney is a legit top coach.

So to recap, with San Diego getting better tools to make a new squad, their ability to actually come through with a competitive squad with no huge holes from the jump that can rack up results, and the rest of NWSL performing roughly as well or worse than them, Wave FC have a real shot of winning the Shield.

To say this is a surprise is an understatement. The best-ever season finish for a true expansion team (from 2014-onwards in NWSL, with a brand-new squad and not one moved from another market) in league history before this year is second-worst. I was pegging the expansion teams’ ambitions this year to be in the playoff race as long as possible. Angel City have firmly followed that path, and honestly, credit to them, but Wave FC are blowing that away.

Now, keep a few caveats to crowning San Diego Shield winners in mind: They may lead the standings, but they haven’t even officially clinched a playoff spot yet, remarkably. If they win at least one of their last two games or if results elsewhere break for them, they’re in, but the table in the NWSL is incredibly tight. Like absurdly tight, four points separating 1st place from 6th, with a couple teams in that group holding games in hand.

And the games in hand situation means San Diego don’t truly control their credentials for the Shield at present. The Portland Thorns and OL Reign are in the Top 6 and have a game in hand, playing Wednesday, and Portland can overtake Wave FC with a win in their midweek game. For now, they are probably the favorites, even if five or six teams have a real chance of actually winning the Shield, San Diego included.

The good news for Wave FC is they are fully playing with house money this year. They are new! If they win the Shield or the NWSL title, that’s fantastic! But no one is expecting it to happen, and there’s no pressure on them to do it right now. Obviously form is an unstable alchemy, and there’s no guarantee San Diego can fall short this year and just come back next year better. We hope so, but the parity in this league means a rough patch can come for any team and sink a season.

But with two more games on their slate in the regular season, and a probable playoff berth on the way, San Diego Wave FC are on the cusp of NWSL history in many ways. There’s work to do, but they legitimately have a shot of winning the NWSL Shield this year, and could make this expansion team a legendary side in league history. What a sight that would be, stay tuned.

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