On October 23rd, just eight day before Halloween, the San Diego Wave FC played an absolute thriller of a match. It was an epinephrine-inducing match where the brave knights of the coast fought valiantly against the basilisks of the north, and they did so in the behemoth’s cave. The Wave played to the wire but alas, they ultimately fell to the Portland Thorns by a score of 2-1. The loss felt like a lance that pierced through the carefully crafted armor of the San Diego team, and it sent a swell of sadness through the club and their supporters. And while the Wave’s season came to an unceremonious end, there is still much to celebrate for them.
For starters, an injury-ravaged squad managed to play a full strength Thorns down to the wire. They eventually conceded the game winner in extra time after a lapse of concentration. The goal was scored by none other than Crystal Dunn, who managed to make a quick turnaround after giving birth just five months ago. There was an air of inevitability about Dunn’s Golden Goal though, as the Fates’ had woven a story where she would be the hero of that night.
Despite the lingering bitterness of disappointment in their mouths, the Wave can walk away from this season with their heads held high. Prior to their semifinal game against the Thorns, San Diego had to play the Chicago Red Stars. The Wave defeated Chicago by a score of 2-1 in front of a crowd of 26,000. The victory was significant for several reasons, the first of which is that the Wave broke the attendance record for a playoff match with their win in front of that large crowd. The other is that San Diego became the first expansion side in history to both qualify for the playoffs and to win a playoff game in their first season.
What made the occasion even better was the fact that the San Diego Padres were in attendance for that quarter-final encounter. A day before that match, the Friars had won their playoff series against their hated enemies, the LA Dodgers. The Padres slayed the Dragon up North and celebrated it by showing up to the Wave’s game the next day. And for a brief moment in time, it felt like something special was happening in San Diego sports.
In that moment, it felt like, for once, that we were close to breaking our dreaded sports curse. Sadly, that didn’t happen. The Padres would go on to lose in the next round (NLCS) to the Philadelphia Phillies. The Wave lost to Portland 2-1. The San Diego Loyal had a complete meltdown and lost to the Oakland Roots by a score 3-0 in the USL playoffs (and got two red cards in the process). All three defeats happened on the same night. San Diego sports would do the most San Diego thing and implode on a singular Bloody Sunday.
Despite this, there is much reason to be optimistic for the future. For starters, the Wave have broken several records this year. They made history on September 17th when they sold out the Snapdragon. And if that wasn’t enough, they also beat their intra-state rivals, Angel City FC, by a score of 1-0 in the process. The team also carried the momentum with them into the next game, against the North Carolina Courage, where they had an audience of 18,000 cheering them on. That game ended with a nil-nil tie.
Although they didn’t end the season with a win, they didn’t lose and more importantly, they managed to secure their standings in the playoffs.
With this in mind, one can view this as proof that the Wave are in a healthy position for the future, despite the temporal pain of their semi-final loss. As was noted before, they have had at least 18,000 spectators per game since moving into the Snapdragon. This means that they’ve engendered themselves with the locals as they are filling the sports void that has left many San Diegans feeling hollow.
The team has also been confirmed to have spent $1.6 million on the playing fields in their home base in Del Mar. They are building facilities and housing their players in pricey apartments in the same city. The Wave players have repeatedly said that their needs are taken care of by the team, and their actions have confirmed this.
Therefore, the players are given what they need to just focus on football. More importantly the team has all it needs to keep growing and building off last season’s success. They have all they need to become successful in years to come. Add to this the fact that they are coached by Casey Stoney, a great tactician who cares deeply about her players and who has fostered a safe environment for them to thrive in. At the moment, this pretty much makes them an outlier in the NWSL, given how certain teams in the league have been accused of covering up abuse. Stoney herself has said that she has made an effort to create an atmosphere of not only physical safety but psychological safety as well. This climate of safety is a key aspect of the Wave’s success, as the players know that they can make mistakes without fear of being berated for them.
The gaffer was rewarded for her efforts by being named the NWSL’s Coach of The Year. She wasn’t the only member of the Wave to be honored. Naomi Girma was the biggest winner in all this, as she was rightfully named both the Rookie of The Year and the Defender of The Year. Kailen Sheridan was named the Goalkeeper of The Year. Star striker Alex Morgan might have fallen short of the MVP award, but she did win this year’s Golden Boot with 15 goals and three assists. The Wave have had a successful first year and there is reason to believe that they can build upon this foundation.
One of the keys to their future success depends on their relationship with the people of San Diego. So far, they’ve done a lot to build a relationship with them. Whether it’s by working with local girls’ soccer teams, doing community outreach, or hosting town hall events, the team are doing quite well to make inroads with the people of the city.
The team also has the fortune of having their home venue based in Mission Valley, which is easily accessible. This allows people to attend their games with ease and helps them both maintain and draw in new fans. The games at the Snapdragon not only allow the Wave’s faithful to be entertained but to build a sense of commonality both with the team and amongst each other. Those games also allow them to experience something else: the chance to witness history.
For this to make sense, you have to understand that the Wave don’t just play in any ordinary stadium. Rather, they play on what can be considered hallowed ground. They play in a venue that was built on the ruins of the old Jack Murphy stadium. They are playing in the same place where hometown hero Junior Seau once led the defensive line for the Chargers. It is also the same house that Trevor Hoffman once called home and where he saved many games for the Padres. It’s the same place where Mr. Padre himself, Tony Gwynn, made many of his 3,141 career hits.
It is the same place where the Padres won the National League pennant twice. It is where Steve Garvey helped them win it with his walk-off homerun in Game Four of the 1984 NLCS. After he hit the game-winner, commentator Don Drysdale declared that “There will be a tomorrow!” Garvey’s homer was the lifeline that resurrected the Friars from the death of defeat and to play another game in the series (which they eventually won).
Similarly, we can look forward to the promise of a tomorrow with the Wave. One of the many reasons why is that they are building off the momentum of a great first season and they are doing so while standing on the shoulders of giants. They are also the first, major women’s team to play on consecrated ground, thus making them akin to being the first priestesses to enter the temple.
Perhaps this is where the old Gods of San Diego sports are watching over them as tutelaries as they guide them along this new journey. In his book Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano describes the world of football as “a series of tragic and joyful
events dictated by forces of an astrological nature”. Galeano’s visual metaphor reminds the reader that football can have an opioid-like effect on society that is comparable to religion or a collective madness.
In that same vein, Eduardo P. Archetti once stated that football is an emotional contract that we willingly enter into. It is a religion of ‘pure passion and pure heart’ and one that separates believers from unbelievers. And for those whose faith remains unwavering, the payoff can be quite big in the end. The Wave induces this same type of fervor among their fans and perhaps those who invest great faith in them can reap big rewards in the end. Their fans are certainly hoping so.
Though the Wave have yet to bring home a title, they have given something else to the City of San Diego: a sense of hope. They’ve brought a never-say-die mentality and a renewed vigor to a city whose sports teams normally collapse when put under too much pressure. They’ve given life to a beaten down sports town and allowed us to believe again.
But above all else, they play for the city and they play well. They’ve fought to bring honor and dignity to a city that’s normally disrespected when it comes to sports. And for that reason, we have fallen in love with the team. That team also loves us back.
That mutual love allowed us to believe, if only temporarily, that something magical would happen. We believed, if ever so briefly, that San Diego could finally break its curse. Sadly, it didn’t happen. Still, it was still a magical summer with the Wave and Padres making deep runs in the postseason.
Pretty soon, the winter will end and will be followed by the warmth of spring. With the spring comes the return of both baseball and the NWSL. Though next season might be temporarily interrupted by the World Cup, there’s no reason to believe that San Diego won’t experience another magical summer. There’s also no reason to doubt that they won’t have many more of these seasons in the future.
And perhaps during one of these magical summers, the princess will kiss the frog and our curse might finally be broken.