How Casey Stoney turned the San Diego Wave from expansion to NWSL title contender

Casey Stoney describes herself as “a manager — no speculation” when she comes as the first head coach of San Diego Wave FC last year. That seems fitting for the longtime England international defender, who quickly transitioned into coaching.

Stoney is a hard-working player who brought that spirit to her early managerial career, building Manchester United women’s side from the ground up, winning promotion to the top team and challenge for a place in the Champions League for three seasons. A year later, and the inaugural half of San Diego’s season in National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), Wave has been at or near the top of the table since the first week of the regular season – a surprising feat for an expansion team.

Wave’s success is somewhat equal in terms of its talented team – including Alex Morganwho is enjoy a career year with 15 goals in her first 18 games in all competitions – and great coaching. Wave players bought into Stoney’s approach, which created a defining identity on and off the pitch.

“I think culture and environment are key in any team,” Stoney said. “I’ve played at a high level myself, so I’ve seen really good coaches and I’ve seen bad coaches. I’ve seen good environments, I’ve seen bad things.

“Culture is a word that I think everyone talks about now, but I think culture is something you live and breathe every day – actions, behaviours, values. I always say standards. It’s set by the things you’re prepared to pass and let go of. We don’t. We challenge each other every day to be better. We create an environment where players can make mistakes. . Psychological safety is very important.”

Stoney’s last point is crucial. She embodies the no-nonsense approach she promised upon arrival, but executes it with empathy. It’s a basic, yet trendy concept, as the NWSL emerges after a tumultuous year that uncovered allegedly abusive coaches and bad guys throughout 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 revenue is so great that by the time the 2022 season begins, Stoney – the team playing its first game of the season – is the longest-serving coach in the league.

Such context is not lost on Stoney. She has heard some terrible stories firsthand from her current players. She also makes sure to observe the antics of the youth coaches almost daily where the Wave train in San Diego is larger.

For Stoney, the training had to be more collaborative. “The players have a say in my environment,” she said. She has consciously cut back on how often she will stop a practice session to point out mistakes, instead letting players correct them and work out issues in personal settings. Positive reinforcement is a concept she adheres to, something counterintuitive to some of the former coaches in the NWSL, who have since been dropped.

“If you’re a teacher and you’re in the classroom and you’re teaching math, science or English, you don’t yell at the kids,” Stoney said. “Why do we think that in youth football and even when we enter the professional scene, that we will bring out the best in people if we just yell at them, we humiliate them, I don’t work from that method, and I don’t work with that model.

“Will I challenge my players? Sure. Will I ask for standards? Yes, of course I will. But there are ways and means of doing that. I think they are. I provide a slightly different environment from what they’ve been through.”

Morgan, who won two World Cup and Olympic gold and bronze medals during his illustrious career, praised Stoney’s approach to building relationships with players. “I think the initiative in wanting cooperation from everyone, wanting input and evaluating that from her players and staff, I think that gave We all have the confidence that players can speak up in meetings,” Morgan said. “So I think that’s really impressive and that’s made this team very successful and have a really good dressing room culture and good team-wide energy, just six months after his first season. we.”

Perhaps most notable is that Stoney’s approach works for such a diverse group of players.

Morgan is the head of the team, along with other veteran international players like Sofia Jakobsson, Emily van Egmond and Kailen Sheridan. San Diego also has almost 11 rookie starters, some of whom play an integral starting role. Have Kelsey Turnbowwho played in all three forward positions and as a No. 10, regularly leading the Wave’s distinct and punitive high press. Amirah Ali provide a late-game spark off the bench, and Belle Briede and Marleen Schimmer played important roles in midfield and attack this season.

Naomi Girma is the #1 overall pick in the 2022 NWSL draft and doesn’t appear to be just one of them the best rookies in a deep special class, but like one of the best central defenders in the NWSL. She provides the US women’s national team with a unique profile of position and should challenge for a starting role at the 2023 World Cup.

In Stoney’s system, every player needs to be on the defensive. “It’s part of the job description, a non-negotiable thing,” she said. It’s no surprise, then, that Stoney looks to the female Stanford graduate as a top pick despite the widespread assumption that the Florida State quarterback Jaelin Howell will be chosen number 1.

“I played central defender for 18 years, so I know a good thing when I see one,” Stoney said of Girma. “I think you build your foundation on a centre-back partnership and she gives us a lot in terms of fit, how she can play under pressure, her ability to read the game. She’s going to be one of the best in the world, and I wouldn’t give up on that under any circumstances.”

United States Midfielder Abby Dahlkemper was the team’s first contract. San Diego’s first draft pick was Girma, who provided the team with a solid defensive spine alongside Sheridan in the net. Girma excels in one-on-one situations and gives Wave – and the US women’s national team – an ability to set up attack from a deep area. So far, The Wave has possessed that identity, cornering teams into mistakes with all 11 players defending tight. Their 13 goals conceded in 15 games is the best defensive mark in the league.

“I think for any rookie, it takes some time to get used to this tournament, the physicality is too fast and the pace of the game is too fast,” Turnbow said. “Casey really did a great job of really breaking things down for me, looking at the movie. We really analyzed everything in great detail and I think that really helped me transition from college. to the professional.”

San Diego also continues to get younger. The Wave has attracted US 17 year old international youth Jaedyn Shaw through the tournament’s discovery process. Shaw has trained with Washington Spirit for months and received an exemption from the federation to pass the draft and turn pro this summer.

The Wave was first lined up for discovery rights – an ancient system that allowed teams to “request” players based on priority lists – so they brought Shaw to San Diego to show her the setup. and make sure she feels comfortable signing there. “If you’re good enough, you’re big enough,” was Stoney’s mantra, and it immediately became a reality for Shaw. Two weeks after signing with Wave, Shaw made his debut and scored the winning goal in an important match first Chicago Red Stars at the Battlefield.

“I had 16-year-olds playing for me at Manchester United, so this is not new to me,” Stoney said. “This is not a new platform; this is the one I’ve mentioned before. I know how to support a young player from a holistic approach: family, upbringing and the level of support that comes with me. This is a very talented young player, someone we feel we can really grow, learn from and be in. I take pride in creating an environment. good for young players.”

Stoney is thriving as most fail as a new coach in the NWSL, even though her toughest adaptation is deeply personal. She was in San Diego without her longtime partner and their three children, first as they waited for their visas and now as they try to plan the right time and logistics for the whole family. family moved there from England. It’s the hardest thing she’s ever done, says Stoney, and it also allows her to empathize even more with players who have to switch teams quickly, especially in a tournament where seismic trades take place. out once a year.

“Now I can really understand the transition of players, what it’s like when they come from club to club,” Stoney said. “Now I have what it is to move culture, move house, without your friends and family and so I know now what support they need, what player care processes we need. I need to apply at the club.”

Her approach – including support from general manager Molly Downtain and team president Jill Ellis, who won the last two World Cups as coach of the US team — Working. Wave’s 25 points eclipsed the best of any previous real expansion team and had nine games left in the season. San Diego is rewriting the definition of success on the field for expansion teams – and seriously challenges the NWSL Shield in its first year.

“We don’t get ahead of ourselves,” Stoney said. “Anyway, I’m a big believer in killing complacency. We knew we had a lot of work to do, a lot of work to do and a lot of work to keep building, but we had a start. good head.”

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