SAN DIEGO — The gates to Snapdragon Stadium opened at 5 pm PT on Saturday to welcome San Diego Wave FC to their home opener. Not less than five minutes later, team president and former USWNT head coach Jill Ellis appeared dancing and taking selfies with the already enthusiastic fans who had already arrived.
She was there from 3:30 pm, four and a half hours before kick-off, 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 a long-awaited encounter.
Earlier this summer, Ellis reached out to NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman with a bold statement: “We’re going to sell this.”
Ellis didn’t just say that internally, he lit the fire publicly and started a wave (pun intended) of fans rallying behind this team that aspired to greatness. On Saturday, they did just that with 32,000 fans 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, he used to move pretty quickly, I really wanted to pause and take this in today. A lot of hard work has gone into this point, obviously on and off the pitch. It is this moment of culmination that is very special.”
The way the match went could not have been more fitting, as 17-year-old Jaedyn Shaw scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over Angel City FC.
To have a teenage rookie score such a historic goal on that stage was iconic, especially considering it was Shaw’s third goal in just three appearances.
Despite the result, Wave FC was not too satisfied with the performance. Angel City arguably played one of their best games of the year and had a perfect equalizing shot from the penalty spot in the 74th minute. San Diego goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan made a great save and was quickly greeted with the roar louder as the realization of the perfect night approached and chants of “Beat LA” filled the air.
But here’s the thing, when you take all the X’s and O’s out of football, the message is to create something beyond a marker.
“I didn’t even dare to dream as a kid because they told me I shouldn’t and couldn’t play, especially in England because it was a men’s game and there were no runs in it,” Wave’s coach said. Casey Stoney. “Now I look and I think there are 32,000 people here for the wave of San Diego – you look at this year’s Women’s Euro and its crowds. We are really into something special and I think it transcends society.”
The Wave played their first nine home games at the 6,000-capacity Torero Stadium at the University of San Diego. So anyone who was at Snapdragon Stadium, even visiting fans from Los Angeles, had to feel good about contributing to the moment. With women’s sports and leagues too often overlooked, showcasing world-class athletes in an exhibition of that magnitude is a testament to what can happen with support and faith.
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, for the NWSL, as such a young league, it’s invaluable.
Berman has only been at the top of the league for a few months, but as he soaked up the atmosphere, he couldn’t help but be optimistic about the road ahead.
“This combination of athletic and business performance really creates the foundation that allows not just San Diego, but the entire league, to instill a level of excitement about our future that I think is unprecedented,” he told Yahoo Sports.
The NWSL keeps moving forward and expects another packed crowd for the championship game in Washington DC on October 29. That will be the first time in league history that the title game will be nationally televised in prime time.
San Diego, currently sitting atop the league table, also has a strong chance of being a part of that moment. Wave star Alex Morgan leads the Golden Boot race with 15 goals and looks to add to a CVS receipt-like list of accolades that includes Olympic medals, World Cups and more. As she said with a smile on Saturday, “I love breaking records. It feels good.”
Regardless of how the year ends, it’s a victory. 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 have waited for this moment,” Stoney said. “To be able to do this without another shield, like in England, how we rely on Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool to win big crowds, but this is San Diego Wave, eight months into its existence and to draw a crowd like this, it just shows what what San Diego is as a community.”
It turns out that Ellis knew exactly what he was doing when he made that ambitious promise.