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In the NWSL, the popular 4-3-3 formation is not a one-size-fits-all

There’s a clear formation of choice in the NWSL, but numbers don’t tell the whole story

Ray Acevedo-USA TODAY Sports

If ever more proof were needed as to the irrelevance of formations, this National Women’s Soccer League season has provided it. Almost all of the league’s teams settled, eventually, on some form of 4-3-3. But how they got there, and how they played when they did, is where the differences emerged.

When the playoffs commence, there may still be a uniformity in basic setup, but there will be plenty of variety to keep things interesting.

San Diego Wave

For San Diego Wave head coach Casey Stoney, good defense is the platform for good attacking play. That was the case during her time in charge of Manchester United, and has remained so since her move to San Diego. This season, she has been more open-minded with her defensive approach to games, utilizing various setups to counteract different opponents. Her team’s attacking play, on the other hand, has remained more or less the same, one significant personnel change aside.

San Diego’s 4-3-3 sees two holding players operating behind one attacking midfielder. Last year, that attacking player was Taylor Kornieck. This year, it has more often been Jaedyn Shaw, and this is where the Wave’s dynamic has diverged slightly. Kornieck was someone that goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan would feed directly in the air, safe in the knowledge she would win the high ball. Shaw, by contrast, is someone who prefers to receive the ball on the deck, a creative talent who can turn markers, shoot from distance and open up defenses with a killer ball.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, San Diego has gone direct less often this season, with their long-ball percentage dipping from 18.8% in 2022 to 16.2% this year. That 2.6% drop is significant, and is consistent with the emergence of Shaw as their attacking midfielder. Nonetheless, their frontline is composed primarily of runners — Alex Morgan, Sofia Jakobsson, Makenzy Doniak and Rachel Hill — who are all able to play off the shoulder of defenders, and are now often the target of Shaw’s through balls.

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