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NWSL semifinal preview: OL Reign vs. San Diego Wave

The Reign face the NWSL Shield winners with a chance to advance to the final next week.

Last Updated
6 min read
Olivia Van der Jagt goes up to win a header for OL Reign against the San Diego Wave.
Mike Russell / Sounder at Heart

After defeating Angel City in the NWSL quarterfinals, OL Reign will play in the club's fifth straight semifinal match this weekend. The Reign head south to face the San Diego Wave at Snapdragon Stadium on Sunday, Nov. 5. The match kicks off at 6:30 PM PT and will air on CBS Sports Network.

That means the game won't stream simultaneously on Paramount+. Local fans can head to Rough & Tumble in Ballard or Doyle's Pub in Tacoma for official OL Reign watch parties and a chance to win 2024 Reign tickets or player-worn gear.

San Diego earned the top seed in the playoffs with a win on the final day of the NWSL season, jumping over Portland to secure the NWSL Shield. This will be the first semifinal in league history featuring the current NWSL Shield winner against the previous year's Shield winner.

"Oh, it’s gonna be a good one. We are not going to give away our game plan but you know we don’t like each other so much," Megan Rapinoe said after the Reign's quarterfinal win when asked about the matchup.

Both teams enter in good form, having lost just once in their last five matches. The Wave are coming in with a lot more rest – they haven't played since Oct. 15 – while the Reign are arguably coming in with more momentum, having won their quarterfinal match on Oct. 20.

Head to Head

This is the fifth meeting between OL Reign and the San Diego Wave this year.

  • In addition to beating the Wave in two Challenge Cup games, the Reign earned a 1-0 win at home and 2-1 win on the road in league play.
  • The Reign are 6-0-2 all-time against San Diego.

Quick Stats

  • In the regular season, San Diego (11-7-4) scored 31 goals and conceded 22.
  • OL Reign (9-8-5) scored 29 and conceded 24 in league play.
  • Alex Morgan leads San Diego with seven goals and five assists.
  • Jaedyn Shaw is just behind Morgan with six goals and three assists.
  • The Wave have been shutout only four times in the regular season – one of those came against the Reign.

What to Watch

San Diego plays compact defensively

Both teams come into this match with strong defensive approaches and great organization. The Wave (23.6 xGA) and Reign (25.4 xGA) have allowed the lowest expected goal totals during the regular season. Each match against the Wave is usually a chess battle and a tightly contested affair.

One thing that makes San Diego unique is how comfortable the team is sitting back deeper and defending. The Wave have forced the second-fewest high turnovers in the league, just above the Chicago Red Stars, who defended in a similar fashion – just not as effectively.

So, if they aren't pressing high all the time, where has San Diego found their defensive success? By playing organized and compact in the middle. As Blair Newman notes in The Equalizer, the Wave have consistently pull their players into the middle of the pitch – forcing their opponent to use the wide channels or go long.

Here's an example from a recent match against Portland that demonstrates San Diego's defensive shape. In this example, Alex Morgan actually drops deeper on the left wing to cut off the ball to Portland's right back. Everyone else cuts off options in the midfield and to the other centerback – forcing Emily Menges to attempt a ball over the top, which Naomi Girma easily defends.

The clip below shows what happens to teams who try to force the ball into the midfield when San Diego is compact: they win the ball and can counter quickly. While this ultimately didn't lead to a quality shot for the Wave, it just as easily could have. While the Wave don't force many high turnovers, they've scored five goals from them. They can be quite dangerous on the counter.

Reign need to play quickly – and be smart

While the Wave are certainly hard to break down, the Reign can get around this by moving the ball on their backline quickly, and by strategically switching the field or sending long balls over the top. The space is there, if they can find it.

In fact, as Newman notes for The Equalizer, Bethany Balcer's second goal against the Wave back in June is a great example of the quick movement and switches that can break down San Diego. Alana Cook's long pass found a Reign player, and the team quickly switched the ball to the left and then back to the right – creating space for Sofia Huerta to cross to an open Balcer on the far post.


Another great way to handle San Diego's compact defense is to create overloads that pull them out of position. That's exactly what Kansas City did in their 2-1 win against the Wave in September. While their first goal came from a superb Debinha strike, she only had that space because her teammates pulled the Wave into the box and out wide.

Overloads can also lead to more space on the back post for crosses – a Reign trademark, and something the team did particularly well in their first Challenge Cup match against the Wave.

The Reign should have a secret weapon that will help them move the ball effectively. Rose Lavelle – who has only started four matches for the Reign this year due to injuries and international duty – stayed with the Reign during last week's FIFA international break, meaning she should be ready to go for the semifinal.

A dangerous Wave attack

In addition to being comfortable defending deeper, the Wave are also comfortable building from deeper. Their pass maps show how much their backline and holding midfield build from a deeper spot on the field, and the Wave have the most touches in their defensive penalty area of any team in the league, along with the second most in their defensive third.

It's no surprise then that San Diego also has the third-fewest touches in their attacking third and penalty area this year. And still, the Wave have scored the second most goals this season.

One reason for that is just how dangerous they can be when they build from the back. The two centerbacks – Abby Dahlkemper and Naomi Girma – are arguably two of the best distributors from their positions in the league.

And Kailen Sheridan is the best long passer from the goalkeeper spot, averaging the most passes and touches per match for a starting goalkeeper in the NWSL. The team is incredibly comfortable using her as they build – and she can bypass multiple lines with her long balls.

Jaedyn Shaw is particularly dangerous in this style of play. She has the ability to roam and find space in the middle of the field – and if teams aren't watching her, she'll pop up in extremely dangerous positions. The Reign need to ensure her time on the ball without pressure is limited, because she has some incredible vision.

The Wave are always pushing the offside lines. They lead the league in offside passes and through balls completed. That means they're looking for balls behind the defense often. Sometimes it works, and sometimes they don't get the timing right. Shaw leads both categories for the Wave, with Morgan leading the team in offside calls – another reason the Reign will need to close down on Shaw quickly.

On top of that, Shaw has great timing and instincts in the box – often playing as a second forward for the Wave. The Reign have been organized in and around the box in recent matches; they'll need to be organized again to contain Shaw and the rest of her teammates on Sunday.

Injury / Availability Report

OL Reign

OUT: None

San Diego Wave

OUT: None

How to Watch

OL Reign kicks off against the San Diego Wave in the NWSL semifinal at 6:30 PM PT on Sunday, November 5. The match will air on CBS Sports Network in the U.S. and the NWSL website for international viewers.