NWSL takes big strides as San Diego Wave deliver historic, record-shattering home opener

SAN DIEGO — The gates at Snapdragon Stadium opened Saturday at 5 p.m. PT to welcome San Diego Wave FC for its first-ever home game. No less than five minutes later, team president and former USWNT head coach Jill Ellis appeared dancing and taking selfies with the eager fans already trickling in.

She had been there since 3:30 p.m., three and a half hours prior to kickoff, in case you wanted to know how anxious she was for this moment. After all, she was a big part of the reason the home opener was such an anticipated fixture.

Earlier this summer Ellis reached out to NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman with a bold statement: “We’re going to sell this out.”

Not only did Ellis say that internally, she lit the fire publicly and started a wave (pun-intended) of fans rallying behind this team aspiring to greatness. On Saturday, they did just that as 32,000 fans were in attendance, marking the largest crowd in NWSL history and crushing the previous mark of 25,218 set by the Portland Thorns in 2019.

“Immense pride. I’m very proud of where we are,” Ellis told Yahoo Sports. “As a coach I used to move through things fairly quickly, I really wanted to pause and take this in today. A lot of hard work has come to this point, obviously on and off the pitch. It’s this culmination moment that’s very special.”

How the match played out couldn’t have been more fitting as 17-year-old Jaedyn Shaw scored the lone goal in a 1-0 victory over Angel City FC.

To have a rookie teenager score such a historic goal on that stage was iconic, especially considering that was Shaw's third goal in just three appearances.

Despite the result, Wave FC weren’t overly pleased with the performance. Angel City played arguably one of its best games of the year and had a perfect shot at the equalizer from the penalty spot in the 74th minute. San Diego goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan came up with a tremendous save and was quickly greeted with the loudest roar as the realization of capping off the perfect night inched closer and “Beat LA” chants filled the air.

But here’s the thing, when you strip all the soccer X’s and O’s away, the message is one of creating something beyond a scoreline.

“I didn’t even dare to dream when I was a kid 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 in it,” said Wave head coach Casey Stoney. “Now I look 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 onto something special and I think it transcends to society.”

Sep 17, 2022; San Diego, California, USA; San Diego Wave FC player Jaedyn Shaw (11) celebrates her goal against Angel City FC in the first half at Snapdragon Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
San Diego Wave's Jaedyn Shaw celebrates her goal against Angel City FC in the first half Saturday at Snapdragon Stadium. (Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)

The Wave played their first nine home games at the 6,000-seat Torero Stadium at the University of San Diego. So anyone that was at Snapdragon Stadium, even visiting fans that made the trip from Los Angeles, had to feel satisfaction of contributing to the moment. With women’s leagues and sports overlooked far too often, to showcase world-class athletes in a display of that magnitude is a testament of what can transpire with support and belief.

San Diego and L.A. are two inaugural teams that have set records and shattered expectations. While that’s fantastic for Southern California as a market, for NWSL as such a young league it’s invaluable.

Berman has only been at the helm of the league for a few months, but as she soaked in the atmosphere she couldn’t help but be optimistic about the road ahead.

“This combination of both athletic and business performance really creates the foundation that allows for not just San Diego, but the whole league to really infuse a level of enthusiasm into our future that I think is unprecedented,” she told Yahoo Sports.

NWSL keeps making strides, and is hoping for another sellout crowd for the championship game in Washington D.C. on Oct. 29. That will be the first time in league history the title game will be televised nationally in prime time.

San Diego, which currently sits atop the league table, has a strong chance of being part of that moment, too. Wave star Alex Morgan leads the Golden Boot race with 15 goals and is looking to add to a CVS receipt-esque list of accolades including Olympic medals, World Cups and more. As she said herself Saturday with a smirk, “I just love breaking records. It feels good.”

Regardless of how the year ends, it’s a win. In so many ways. The opener will always be a reminder of that.

“As someone who has been involved in this game for 30 years, I've waited for this moment,” said Stoney. “To be able to do this without another crest, like in England how we rely on Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool to gain big crowds, but this is San Diego Wave, eight months into existence and to pull a crowd like this, 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.