August 13, 2022

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“It was a huge challenge, but a big learning curve for me,” Casey Stoney recalled after a whirlwind few months as head coach of one of the NWSL’s newest teams, San Diego Wave. The expansion team are currently at the top of the league, having already won more games than ever before by a club in their first year.

Leaving Manchester United after three years in charge, Stoney decided to step out of his comfort zone and move halfway around the world. Despite loving her new surroundings, it was not without its difficulties. Visa issues forced her to move on her own, leaving her partner Megan in England with their three children. Thankfully the situation has been resolved and her family will join her in due course, but Stoney describes leaving them as “the hardest thing I’ve ever done”.

One would imagine that starting a new team from scratch would be a daunting prospect for any manager, but Stoney approached the task with a cool head. After all, it’s not his first rodeo to have embarked on a similar project with United in 2018. “I think where other people maybe freak out about things or think we’re not going to have a players, I’m pretty calm because I’m like, ‘They’re coming,'” she said. “We’re in an amazing city. We’re building something new and exciting.

For Stoney, establishing a solid environment is essential. “I did a lot of research and came in with very open eyes,” she says. “One thing that I was very aware of was that some of them have been in environments where it hasn’t been conducive for them to be able to perform. I wanted to create something with the club where it’s different. Where there is no fear of making mistakes and where they have psychological safety.

There are, of course, differences with his time in England. The rules in the United States meant it had less control over recruiting players, acquiring them through drafts as well as trades. Instead of starting with young players at 16, she now works with them at 22 when they are out of the education system: “They come out of college, in my opinion, not really prepared for the professional game. That gives us a challenge in the first year – we’re going to have to take a trip with a lot of them to prepare them.

Fans wave Mexico during the game between San Diego Wave FC and NJ/NY Gotham FC in May. Photography: Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

Nevertheless, it is keen to emphasize the quality of the young people it has in its ranks and does not hesitate to give them opportunities. Naomi Girma, for example, “looks like a veteran” and has played regularly, having recently been named the NWSL’s “Rookie of the Month”. This youth, mixed with the experience of Alex Morgan and Jodie Taylor, made Stoney’s work pleasant: “It’s a great group. They are so coachable. They want to learn and they want to do well. When you have a group like that, as a head coach, it’s a dream.

Other contrasts include athleticism and the transient nature of the league: “I walked out of the game the other day thinking I’m going to go gray so soon here. We feel that we can score and cash in the same phase of the game. It’s fast; it’s from start to finish; it is transient. There’s probably not as much desire to keep the ball, which I’m trying to improve.

Community foundations are essential for American clubs. The wave was greeted enthusiastically by his growing fan base at the Torero Stadium. “I’ve never encountered anything like it,” enthuses Stoney. “The crowd here is amazing. We get over 5,000 every game; this is the norm for us. At United I didn’t understand that and you think how important it is with that brand and that badge. It’s a clear difference I’ve seen here. The ability to get into the local community and drive the fan base from there. In September, Wave will move to Snapdragon Stadium, a 35,000-seat arena, an exciting prospect as the club continues to grow.

Alex Morgan (right) in action against OL Reign in June.
Alex Morgan (right) in action against OL Reign in June. Photography: Justin Fine/CSM/Shutterstock

Community work includes occasions such as Pride Night, held at Torero for the first time last week, which help educate and bring visibility. LGBTQIA+ rights are close to Stoney’s heart and she’s passionate about her club standing up for what they believe in: “If I’m being honest, it’s really needed here because some states are backing down. It is important. I have Megs and the three kids, and I want them to grow up in a society where that’s not a problem.

With the NWSL only months away, Stoney will have a busy summer in California. However, she will have one eye firmly fixed on home as England host the European Championship this summer. “I was a Lioness for 18 years so it is deep in my heart. I will follow them every step of the way. I think they have an amazing manager who knows how to win. And we have a good mix of experience and youth… It is [about] players go there and see it as an opportunity, not a threat. What an opportunity they have to change the game forever.

quote of the week

“It took me until I met Megs maybe and the kids were comfortable in my skin…because you’re taught to conform and that’s not normal. What is normal? And that’s what I teach children. Families look different; everyone looks different. If we were all the same, it would be so boring” – Stoney on the importance of Pride Month.

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