On a breezy spring night in April 1974, San Diego Padres owner Ray Kroc took to the PA system at the Jack Murphy stadium to declare he had just watched the most “stupid game of baseball” he had seen in his life. The Padres were in the midst of losing to the Houston Astros and had played so badly that it tipped Mr. Kroc into a breaking point. The Friars would eventually lose the game by a score of 9–5. The only good thing about that night was that the Padres had outdrawn the Dodgers for their home opener, attracting 39,000 fans to the Blue Crew’s measly 31,000. Kroc, who owned a little known fast food franchise called “McDonald’s” (you may have heard of it) knows a thing or two about being successful and manufacturing results.
Sadly, San Diego has been subjected to many summers of stupid baseball. When Kroc’s wife, Joan, first heard that he was buying the Padres, she asked him why he wanted to buy a monastery. One can hardly hold the train of thought against her. After all, the Swinging Friars have lived a life of asceticism—the one thing they’ve abstained from is winning.
San Diego is a city filled with the cenotaphs of past sports failures. It is a metropolis that doubles as an elephant graveyard, littered with the corpses of the teams that left us on our Plutonian shores. The Rockets were San Diego’s first professional basketball team; four years after making their debut in 1967, they launched themselves towards Houston. Before setting sail for Los Angeles, the Clippers were based farther south. The Chargers originally sped in from Los Angeles, only to then bolt themselves back to the city. There is a lingering, bitter and bilious taste in San Diegans’ mouths, and it’s one that may never be wiped away.
We’ve wasted so many summers praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets. And every single summer, our messiah never comes.
Residents have been the victims of mockery and derision. The teams who have fled settle into their new homes and giggle. Their new fans laugh outright. “You’ll always be a loser,” they whisper into the briny sea winds.
This is the environment that the San Diego Wave will come into. The team brings a glimmer of hope to a town shrouded by darkness.
The NWSL side’s establishment will be the first time in a long while that a team in a major sports league will take root in the city. And San Diego needs heroes. Sheroes. The current athletic heroes are all men. Those who grew up in the city followed the exploits of Padres’ players Tony Gwynn and Trevor Hoffman, Ken Caminiti, Jake Peavy and Greg Vaughn with attentiveness.
Now, the Wave has welcomed Abby Dahlkemper, Kailen Sheridan, Tegan McGrady, and of course, Alex Morgan. Soccer players have inspiration. Young girls will see women they can emulate. Whether they realize they can grow up to become professional athletes, or simply change the world by subverting expectations, the Wave will provide role models to San Diego.
But NWSL players should not be pigeonholed as mere role models. This overlooks the fact that they are athletes, professionals who have come to a team to win. Yes, there is hope that they will be active in the community, pursuing the same path as USL side San Diego Loyal, engaging with fans, seeking advice on how to improve, giving back to the community that has welcomed them with open arms.
At the same time, though, there has been little joy in Mudville. The city is pinning its hopes on the mighty Casey Stoney, hoping she will not strike out. They want a club to be passionate about, one they can stand up and claim as their own. To those outside the US, or even California, it may seem ridiculous to add an NWSL team in San Diego, when Angel City is just up the road in Los Angeles.
Such a question reveals a staggering ignorance of civic pride. San Diego and Los Angeles aren’t the same. They are anathematic to one another. The two teams represent the dichotomy of the two cities as LA is glitz and glamor and San Diego is more direct. The city happens to be more laid back while also having the directness of being a military town. Both Angel City and San Diego will reflect their respective cities and be emblematic of their two differing ideologies. This will also make their rivalry even more intriguing.
Adding another dimension to this rivalry is the history of the two cities, in terms of sporting success. Los Angeles is a city with a winning history, as their sports teams have won major titles as recently as 2020. San Diego, on the other hand, has never won a major sports title. This has caused the people of San Diego to develop a complex, to become obsessed with shedding the “loser sports town” label, to be passionate about changing the narrative of the city.
Sure, things won’t be perfect. There will most likely be hitches along the way. Ron Burkle was recently named as a defendent in a civil lawsuit by Erin Skalde. He’s also been sued for backing out of Sacramento’s MLS deal.
Then there’s Jill Ellis’ acrimonious history with the US Women’s national team. Ellis is the current president of the Wave FC. The former coach has a winning history but not everyone is okay with the way she ran her winning teams. The concerns regarding both her and Burkle are legitimate and people have the right to have reservations about this team because of them. However, in the world of sports, nobody’s perfect. Nearly everyone has sanguinated stains on their hands and sometimes, if you’re willing to look for it, there’s some redemption to be found underneath that dirty hood.
Many of the Wave players will have come to the team having endured abuse at their previous teams. However, it is also worth noting that manager Casey Stoney has taken this into account and is doing her best to make the team feel like a welcome environment. In particular, the coach has made it a habit not to “berate or belittle” the players and instead, offer them positive, constructive criticism. Wave defender Tegan McGrady says that she feels like a “whole new person” under Stoney’s tutelage. Alex Morgan even alluded to this in a pre-season press conference, where she stated that players would feel “welcomed and protected” at the team.
San Diego native Kaiya McCullough has even given an endorsement of her hometown’s team. Kaiya was the first to come forward with allegations of abuse against her former coach, Richie Burke. Her actions got the ball rolling and eventually encouraged others to speak out about the abuse they’ve endured. With this in mind, there’s reason to believe that the Wave can create an environment where players will feel safe and welcome and begin to heal from their past traumas. After everything that these players have gone through, it would be something that is sorely needed.
The pressures of being a strong, successful player can be tremendous, even without the specter of abuse hanging over their heads. The Wave’s first game will be accompanied by an air of sadness, given the recent death of former Stanford goalkeeper, Katie Meyer, who completed suicide. Several Wave players were close to Meyer, including their number one draft pick, Naomi Girma. Girma was good friends with Meyer and will now play her first-ever game as a professional with this weighing heavy on her heart. One can only hope that she’ll find inspiration from her friend’s death and will use it to spurn her onto greater things. One also hopes that she’ll find peace and healing within the days to come.
Many fans, too, are conscious of the tragedy, with it further confirming the need for the team to provide a positive environment to protect their players. But they are choosing to look toward the light, to seek the famous “green flash” of San Diego. As they gear up for the Wave’s first game, there’s a mixture of fear, hope, excitement, and trepidation building inside these supporters. It’s a combustible cocktail fueled by the hope of San Diego finally having a winning sports team, only for those dreams to come back down to earth once you remember that we are San Diego, and we are cursed. The Wave will have an uphill battle to climb if they want to break this curse.
The people of San Diego believe that while there may always be a tomorrow, sometimes that tomorrow won’t arrive until next year. The belief is based on hope, and it will always spring eternal. They have endured that hope being crushed repeatedly, yet still find the will to believe again. Perhaps with the Wave, there will finally be a chance to rewrite the script and to produce a different story. And what a great story it will be if the team finally brings San Diego a major title. It will be even more magnificent knowing that it was a group of women who brought home the glory.
It’s a town full of losers, but maybe, just maybe, this time, we’ll get to win.