Casey Stoney described herself as “a manager without bulls” upon her arrival as San Diego Wave FC’s first head coach last year. It seemed about right for the long-serving England international defender who quickly transitioned into training.
Stoney was a hard-working player who brought that spirit to her early managerial career, building Manchester United’s women’s team from the ground up, earning promotion to the top flight and challenging for a Champions League spot throughout. three seasons. A year later, and halfway through San Diego’s inaugural season in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), the wave has been sitting at or near the top of the table since the first week of the regular season – a surprising feat for an expansion team.
The wave’s success has been equal parts a talented team – including Alex Morgan, who is enjoying a career year with 15 goals in his first 18 games in all competitions – and an excellent manager. Wave players have collectively bought into Stoney’s approach, which has created a defined identity on and off the pitch.
“I think culture and environment are key on any team,” Stoney said. “I’ve played at a high level myself, so I’ve seen very good coaches and I’ve seen bad coaches. I’ve seen good environments, I’ve seen bad ones.
“Culture is a word that I think everyone uses now, but I think culture is what you live and breathe every day – the actions, the behaviors, the values. I always say the norms are set by the things you are prepared to walk past and ignore. We don’t do that. We challenge ourselves every day to be better. We create an environment where players can make mistakes. Psychological safety is important.
Stoney’s last point is crucial. She embodies the no-nonsense approach she promised when she arrived, but does so with empathy. It’s a basic concept, but timely, as the NWSL emerges from a year of turmoil that exposed allegedly abusive coaches and bad actors across the league. Half of the league’s 10 coaches from 2021 have been fired for cause or allowed to resign amid allegations of inappropriate behavior. Management turnover was so great that at the start of the 2022 regular season, Stoney – whose team was playing its first regular season game – was the league’s longest-serving coach.
Such context is not lost on Stoney. She has heard some of the horrific stories from her current players. She also makes sure to observe the antics of youth coaches on an almost daily basis where the Wave train in greater San Diego.
For Stoney, the coaching process needs to be more collaborative. “Players have a voice in my environment,” she said. She has consciously reduced the frequency with which she stops a practice session to point out errors, instead letting the players work through them and solve problems in individual contexts. Positive reinforcement is the concept she embraces, a sort of antithesis to several former NWSL coaches who have since been dismissed.
“If you’re a teacher and you’re in the classroom and you’re teaching math or science or English, you’re not yelling at kids,” Stoney said. “Why do we think that in youth football, and even when we go into professional environments, we’re going to get the best out of people if we just yell at them, we humiliate them, we bully them? I don’t think we’re working from this methodology, and I’m not working on this model.
“Will I challenge my players? Absolutely. Will I demand standards? Yes, of course I will. But there are ways to go about it. I think we provide a slightly different environment of those they have known.”
Morgan, who won two World Cups and Olympic gold and bronze medals in his illustrious career, praised Stoney’s approach to building relationships with players. “I think the proactivity in wanting everyone’s collaboration, wanting input and valuing that from the players and their staff, I think that’s given all of us the confidence of the players to be able to speak up during the meetings,” Morgan said. “So I think that’s really impressive and it’s helped this team to be so successful and have a really good dressing room culture and good team energy overall, just six months into our first season.”
Perhaps most notable is how Stoney’s approach works for such a diverse group of players.
Morgan is the team’s headliner, joined by other veteran international players such as Sofia Jakobsson, Emily van Egmond and Kailen Sheridan. San Diego also has nearly a starting XI of rookies, with several playing integral starting roles. There’s Kelsey Turnbow, who played in all three forward positions and in the No. 10 role, frequently leading the wave’s distinct and punishing high pressure. Amirah Ali provides a late-game spark off the bench, and Belle Briede and Marleen Schimmer have each played important roles in midfield and attack this season.
Naomi Girma was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NWSL Draft and already looks like not just one of the best rookies in a particularly deep class, but one of the best center backs in the NWSL. She offers the United States Women’s National Team a unique profile in this position and is expected to challenge for a starting role at the 2023 World Cup.
In Stoney’s system, each player must defend. “It’s part of the job description, a non-negotiable thing,” she said. It’s no surprise, then, that Stoney sought out Stanford graduate Girma as his first pick despite the widely held speculation that Florida State midfielder Jaelin Howell would be picked No. 1.
“I played as a centre-back for 18 years, so I know a good one when I see one,” Stoney said of Girma. “I think you build your foundation on your partnership with the centre-back, and she gives us so much in terms of coverage, the way she can play without pressure, her ability to read the game. She’s going to be one of the best of the world, and I wasn’t going to give that up for any reason.”
American central defender Abby Dahlkemper was the team’s first signing. San Diego’s first draft pick was Girma, which gave the team a strong defensive backbone alongside Sheridan in net. Girma is excellent in one-on-one situations and provides the wave – and the US Women’s National Team – with the ability to launch the offense from deep area. So far, the wave has possessed that identity, pushing teams to make mistakes with all 11 players defending high as a unit. Their 13 goals conceded in 15 games are the best defensive mark in the league.
“I think for any rookie it takes a bit of time to acclimate to this league, it’s so physical and the speed of play is so fast,” Turnbow said. “Casey really did a great job of breaking things down for me, watching the movie. We really break everything down into great detail, and I think that really helped me transition from college to pro.”
San Diego also continues to get younger. The Wave acquired 17-year-old United States international Jaedyn Shaw as part of the league’s discovery process. Shaw had been training with the Washington Spirit for months and received a league waiver to bypass the draft and turn pro this summer.
The Wave was on the front line for Discovery Rights – an antiquated system for teams to “claim” players based on a priority list – so they brought Shaw to San Diego to show him the setup and get a quick look. sure she would be comfortable signing there. “If you’re good enough, you’re old enough,” is Stoney’s mantra, and it immediately came to fruition with Shaw. Two weeks after signing with the Wave, Shaw made his debut and scored the game-winning goal in an important road win over the Chicago Red Stars at Soldier Field.
“I had 16-year-olds playing for me at Manchester United, so that’s nothing new for me,” Stoney said. “It’s not new, it’s ground I’ve covered before. I know how to support a young player from a holistic approach: the family, the education and the support they need. C “He’s a very talented young player, someone who we felt could really grow and learn and be in our environment. I take pride in creating an environment that is good for young players.”
Stoney is thriving where most have failed as new NWSL coaches, though his toughest adaptation is deeply personal. She’s been in San Diego without her longtime partner and their three children, first as they waited for their visas and now as they tried to plan the right time and logistics for the whole family to move out of town. ‘England. It’s the hardest thing she’s ever done, Stoney said, and it also gives her a better understanding of players who need to move teams around quickly, especially in a league where seismic trades happen semi-annually.
“I’m now able to really understand player transitions, what it’s like when they come from club to club,” Stoney said. “Now I understand what it’s like to change culture, to move, to be without your friends and family and so I now know what support they need, what player care processes we need to put in place. up to the club.”
His approach – which includes the support of general manager Molly Downtain and team president Jill Ellis, who won the last two World Cups as USA coach – is working. The Wave’s 25 points already eclipse the best result of any previous true expansion team, and there are nine games left in the season. San Diego is rewriting the definition of success on the field for expansion teams — and poses a serious challenge for the NWSL Shield in Year One.
“We’re not rushing,” Stoney said. “I strongly believe that complacency kills, anyway. We know we have a lot to work on, a lot of work to do and a lot to keep building on, but we’ve gotten off to a good start.”