“A testament of our hard work”: Why San Diego Wave’s tactical changes were key to their NWSL draw at Orlando Pride – tactical analysis
Neither Orlando Pride nor San Diego Wave have been in great form recently in the NWSL, with four straight losses before the weekend seeing the Pride fall out of playoff contention whilst San Diego had won three and lost three of their last six games. However, owing to the ten wins and four draws picked up before this game, the Wave were on the brink of making history, with one more point being all they required to become the first expansion side to finish in the playoffs in their debut season.
With a maximum of six points still to play for, it looked highly likely that Casey Stoney’s side would achieve that aim. However, the weekend’s trip to Florida proved tough, with the Wave needing to dig deep in order to recover from a difficult start and seal a place in the playoffs, and this tactical analysis will break down why Seb Hines’ team kept them out for so long. The analysis will also look at how the Wave got themselves back into the game, specifically their tactical and personnel alterations.
Orlando Pride, playing their final home game of the season, opted to make a number of changes to their starting lineup, with four new names in all as Hines rotated his squad. Full-backs Kylie Strom and Kerry Abello, Canada midfielder Jordyn Listro and former OL Reign forward Ally Watt all dropped to the bench, whilst centre-back Megan Montefusco switched from the back four to a defensive midfield role and fellow defender Haley Hanson was given a place in the midfield line. Into the team came Toni Pressley, who captained the side, and left-back Courtney Petersen, who both slotted into the back line, whilst Meggie Dougherty Howard and Brazilian Thais Reiss were given the wide midfield roles.
San Diego Wave, meanwhile, opted for just two alterations for this game, with star striker and 15-goal league top scorer Alex Morgan being “touch and go”, according to Stoney, and so only named as a substitute. She was joined on the bench by fellow forward Makenzy Doniak, with former England striker Jodie Taylor tasked with leading the line in Morgan’s absence and Mexico forward Katie Johnson starting just behind her, replacing Doniak.
Orlando Pride’s attacking play
Anyone who saw this game will agree that Orlando Pride had the better start, posing a bigger threat when they got into advanced areas of the pitch, and a lot of that was down to the way in which they kept the ball moving and created spaces for each other to exploit.
This was largely down to their starting shape, with the 4-1-4-1 system meaning that they can play with a target player and have four behind offering support.
However, in this game, it was the way that they used the target player, Leah Pruitt, that gave them an abundance of options when attacking and kept San Diego Wave guessing. As can be seen, Pruitt is not in a central position here and is instead off to one side, and that made her harder to mark and prevented San Diego from surrounding and isolating her.
When she did get the ball and the defenders came to close her down, Pruitt’s positioning meant that they were forced to move out of line and leave gaps open, which was where the four players behind came into the equation. Here, two players are already running into those gaps, offering Pruitt passing options for when she looks to transfer the ball into the middle, and that demonstrates how each player knew where to be and how they could help to turn these moments into goalscoring chances.
Getting players forward to support attacks also meant that Orlando always had players in close proximity to each other, meaning that they could play the ball through their opponents with more ease. The main thing that comes from quick passes and triangular structures like these are constant changes in direction, which make it difficult for San Diego to target one particular area of the pitch and look to time an interception.
It also draws opponents towards the ball, with this particular move opening up the far side of the pitch and giving the Pride a way of moving the ball into the goal area, and the fact that Pruitt’s eventual cross here led to Meggie Dougherty Howard getting the first goal of the game showed how important these small details were to Orlando’s overall game plan.
Whilst Orlando do need to take a lot of credit for the way that they manipulated the San Diego players into giving them spaces to attack into, it is also worth looking at why the Wave were their own worst enemies at times.
This situation shows the build-up to the Pride’s second goal, with the Wave focusing on the ball on the far side of the pitch. However, in doing so, they have lost sight of Gunnhildur Jónsdóttir, in the red circle, who has identified a gap in their line and is now making a run into it. The fact that the Iceland midfielder ended up scoring shortly after this shows that Orlando were once again looking at where they could hurt their opponent, again highlighting how their successful attacking play was built on clever movement and players working together to get into the right places at the right times.
However, San Diego will know that they could have prevented this goal from being scored by not losing sight of Jonsdottir, with Australia midfielder Emily van Egmond not getting tight enough to her and the two defenders on either side of her not getting up in time to meet the ball before she did, and that will be what they will be most annoyed about.
Orlando Pride’s defensive structure
In defence, Orlando Pride showed just as much organisation and teamwork, with each player again knowing their roles and working hard to limit what San Diego Wave could do with the ball, and that was another reason that the visitors struggled to impose themselves on the game in the first half.
What was clear when the Pride lost possession was that they wanted to get numbers back and close off as many of San Diego’s avenues as possible. This was a key advantage of their 4-1-4-1 system, as it enabled them to spread out across the pitch and cut off the Wave’s loan striker, Jodie Taylor, from her teammates, preventing them from moving the ball into the spaces behind.
As a result, left-back Kristen McNabb now only has one possible passing option, which is to send the ball down the same channel and hope that one of her teammates could get on the end of it, and this was further enforced by Thais Reiss, in the yellow circle, moving across to close her down. However, when she makes the pass, Orlando were able to see it safely out of play and clear their lines, again showing how they worked as a team and made it difficult for San Diego to get into the game despite having the majority of the ball.
This is a similar situation, with San Diego once again trying to find a way into the spaces behind Orlando’s lines. However, this time, the Pride are more organised, with two clear lines between the ball and the goal. At this point, centre-back Naomi Girma has possession, but San Diego had been moving the ball across the pitch for a number of phases before this, trying to locate a way through and not finding one. As a result, they have got to the stage where they need to try their luck and see what happens.
Focusing on some of the details of this low block for a moment, it is important to note that the two lines are very close together, meaning that, even though midfielder Taylor Kornieck has made a run into the gap between them, there is no way for the Wave to pass the ball into her. As a result, they can’t build an attack by keeping the ball on the ground and making short passes, so a long aerial ball is the only option.
It is also important to mention that Orlando don’t only look to sit back and get behind the ball, with their 4-1-4-1 situation giving them one player who can press from the front and keep the pressure on the opposing side, forcing the ball to keep being moved around at a good tempo. That is generally the job of the striker, in this case Pruitt, and it was common to see her getting close to individual San Diego players and never allowing them to consider their options on the ball.
Therefore, it really was a whole team effort when the Pride didn’t have possession in this game, which was another reason that they were the happier side at the break.
San Diego Wave’s tactical changes
From San Diego Wave’s point of view, they would have been disappointed with the scoreline at half-time, but it had not been a bad performance from them. They were moving the ball around the pitch well in the first half and had a game plan that the players believed in, and they were only really let down by a lack of quality in elements of their play and Orlando Pride outthinking them with their own tactics.
The basic plan that Casey Stoney had given her side was to play long balls into Taylor, looking to exploit the spaces behind Orlando before they had had a chance to set their low block up. To do this, they pushed the full-backs high up the pitch, with Christen Westphal receiving a pass and getting into Orlando’s half here before sending the ball towards the former England striker.
Much like in the previous section, Orlando have come across to try and force a mistake, but this time they have left enough space open at the back for Westphal to target with her passing, and it nearly led to a shot on goal. However, as was the case with most of these opportunities, San Diego couldn’t make it count, with Taylor unable to reach the ball before it was gathered up by Canada goalkeeper Erin McLeod.
The problem was that, whilst that pass was well-aimed and almost found its intended target, there were many others that weren’t so successful. Normally, this was down to the ball being lost too easily, with Abby Dahlkemper’s pass to Kornieck here lacking the necessary speed and being intercepted by Reiss. As a result, Orlando were able to launch an attack from deep inside San Diego’s half, with players pouring forwards to once again offer passing options, and the danger only ended once Reiss had had an effort on goal saved by Kailen Sheridan, who also plays for Canada.
Therefore, on this occasion, former Manchester City Women defender Dahlkemper, who later went off injured, saw her mistake go unpunished, but there were a number of times when San Diego lacked quality with their passing and invited pressure from Orlando, and it was one of the main reasons that the Pride were able to keep them on the back foot in the early stages.
Stoney evidently noticed that there was something not quite right about the way her team were playing because she introduced Belle Briede at the start of the second half and asked her to sit in one of the two holding midfield roles, meaning that Kornieck could play in a more advanced role instead of Katie Johnson, who had been quiet in the first half and had been taken off.
This had an immediate impact because Briede gave the Wave more quality in possession and took control of the central third, helping them to move the ball around the pitch with more precision and to create more chances. This gave Orlando something new to think about, as they had managed to deal with former West Ham United Women player van Egmond and Kornieck well, restricting their impact on the game and preventing them from playing forwards on too many occasions. Therefore, this was a big improvement in the away side’s play and one that helped them to force their way back into the match.
The result of pushing Kornieck further up the field, as well as the later introductions of fellow midfielder Kelsey Turnbow and forward Makenzy Doniak, meant that the Wave now had more players on the field who like to play in and around the final third, solving the problem of having one player in that area that could become isolated. The result of those changes was that the Wave looked to play shorter passes through the Orlando lines, with Turnbow spotting a gap ahead of her here and finding Doniak in space.
Therefore, again, the personnel changes that former Manchester United Women head coach Stoney made had a big impact on her team’s general play, helping them to be more positive with the ball and make life less comfortable for their opponents, and there is no doubt that they were key to the visitors coming back and winning the point that they had been looking for.
Looking specifically at Kornieck for a moment, her favoured role is to play behind the forward line and to get into positions where she can create goalscoring opportunities. As this graphic shows, she has made a good number of shot assists from different positions throughout the 2022 season, but her four goal assists have all come from central areas. However, when in the holding midfield position during the first half, she wasn’t able to make these types of passes, which was one of the main problems for the visitors.
Therefore, the decision to introduce Briede and give Kornieck more licence to run forward and get closer to Taylor, Sweden forward Sofia Jakobsson and then Doniak saw her play with a new lease of life, making more penetrative passes and again giving Orlando something new to deal with, and the fact that she scored the equalising goal highlights how important this change was to San Diego getting the result that they wanted.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at the match between Orlando Pride and San Diego Wave, as part of the penultimate round of fixtures in the 2022 NWSL regular season.
Whilst Orlando had nothing to play for, having already been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, they still wanted to put on a good performance for their fans in their last home game of 2022, and the fact that they forced one of the division’s better teams to really fight for a point will give them a lot to be proud about.
San Diego, meanwhile, will be disappointed with strands of their play but will also be pleased with their reaction to being down, with Casey Stoney saying as much afterwards whilst Makenzy Doniak commented that the performance was “a testament of our hard work”, and a playoff campaign now awaits them as their reward.
Orlando’s final game of the season takes them to Lumen Field on Saturday, where they will face an OL Reign team also already guaranteed a top six place. Meanwhile, San Diego welcome in-form North Carolina Courage to the Snapdragon Stadium on Friday, knowing that their aim of reaching the latter stages has now been accomplished.