The NWSL makes great strides as San Diego Wave delivers historic, record-breaking home opener
SAN DIEGO — The gates of Snapdragon Stadium opened at 5:00 p.m. PT Saturday to welcome San Diego Wave FC to its first-ever home game. No less than five minutes later, team president and former USWNT head coach Jill Ellis arrived, dancing and taking selfies with the eager fans who were already pouring in.
She’d been there since 3:30pm, four and a half hours before kick-off, in case you wanted to know how excited she was for the moment. After all, she was a big part of why the home opener was such an anticipated game.
Earlier this summer, Ellis reached out to NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman with a bold statement, “We’re going to sell this out.”
Not only was Ellis saying that internally, she ignited the fire publicly, sparking a wave (pun intended) of fans rallying behind this team striving for greatness. On Saturday, they did just that when 32,000 fans attended, the largest crowd in NWSL history and breaking the previous mark of 25,218 set by the Portland Thorns in 2019.
“Incredible pride. I’m very proud of where we are,” Ellis told Emox News. “As a coach I used to go through things pretty quickly, I really wanted to stop and take that in today. A lot of hard work has been done up to this point, both on and off the pitch of course. It is that moment of climax that is very special.”
The course of the game could not have been more opportune as 17-year-old Jaedyn Shaw scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over Angel City FC.
For a rookie teenager to score such a historic goal on that stage was iconic, especially considering it was Shaw’s third goal in just three games.
Despite the result, Wave FC was not particularly happy with the performance. Angel City arguably played one of their best games of the year and had a perfect shot from the penalty spot to equalize in the 74th minute. San Diego goaltender Kailen Sheridan made a tremendous save and was quickly greeted with the loudest roar as the realization of ending the perfect night grew ever closer and “Beat LA” chants filled the air.
But here’s the thing, when you remove all the soccer Xs and Os the message is to create something that goes beyond a goal line.
“As a kid I didn’t even dare to dream because I was told I shouldn’t and couldn’t play, especially in England because it was a man’s game and there were no careers,” said Wave head coach Casey Stoney. “Now I see and I think 32,000 people here for the San Diego Wave – you look at the Women’s Euros this year and their crowds. We’re really after something special and I think it goes beyond society.”
The Wave played their first nine home games at the 6,000-seat Torero Stadium at the University of San Diego. Everyone who was at Snapdragon Stadium, even fans who traveled from Los Angeles, had to be happy to have contributed to this moment. With women’s leagues and sports being overlooked far too often, featuring world-class athletes on a show of this magnitude is a testament to what can happen with support and conviction.
San Diego and LA are two inaugural teams that have set records and exceeded expectations. While that’s fantastic for Southern California as a market, it’s invaluable for the NWSL in such a young league.
Berman has only been at the top of the league for a few months, but as she soaked up the atmosphere, she couldn’t help but look to the future with optimism.
“This combination of athletic and business accomplishment really sets the foundation that will allow not just San Diego, but the entire league, to embrace our future with a level of enthusiasm that I feel is unparalleled,” she told Emox News.
The NWSL continues to make strides and hopes for another sell-out crowd for the championship game in Washington DC on October 29th. This will mark the first time in league history that the title game will be televised nationally in prime time.
San Diego, currently at the top of the league table, has a good chance of being part of this moment as well. Wave star Alex Morgan leads the Golden Boot race by 15 goals and wants to add to a CVS-receipt-like list of accolades including Olympic medals, world championships and more. As she said with a grin on Saturday, “I just love breaking records. It feels good.”
No matter how the year ends, it’s a win. In so many ways. The opener will always remind you of that.
“As someone who has been involved in this game for 30 years, I’ve been waiting for this moment,” Stoney said. “To be able to do that without another crest, like in England, how we rely on Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool to win big crowds, but this is San Diego Wave, which has been around for eight months and by a lot wearing these, it just shows what San Diego is as a community.”
Turns out, Ellis knew exactly what she was doing when she made that ambitious promise.