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

Casey Stoney described herself as "a no-bulls--- manager" upon her arrival as the first head coach of San Diego Wave FC last year. That sounded about right for the longtime English international defender who quickly transitioned to coaching.

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 all over the course of three seasons. One year later, and halfway through San Diego's inaugural season in the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL), the Wave have sat at or near the top of the table since the first week of the regular season -- a surprising feat for an expansion team.

Success for the Wave has been equal parts talented roster -- including Alex Morgan, who is enjoying a career year with 15 goals in her first 19 games in all competitions -- and great coaching. Wave players have collectively bought into Stoney's approach, which created a defined identity on and off the field.

"I think culture and environment is key in any team," Stoney said. "I played at a high level myself, so I've seen really good coaches and I've seen poor coaches. I've seen good environments, I've seen bad ones.

"Culture is a word that I think everyone throws around now, but I think culture is what you live and breathe every single day -- the actions, behaviors, the values. I always say that the standards are set by the things you are prepared to walk past and ignore. We don't do that. We challenge each other 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 that she promised upon arrival, but does it with empathy. It is a basic, but timely, concept as the NWSL emerges from a year of turmoil that unearthed allegedly abusive coaches and bad actors throughout the league. Half of the league's 10 coaches from 2021 were fired for cause or were allowed to resign amid allegations of inappropriate behavior. So vast was the managerial turnover that by the time the 2022 regular season kicked off, Stoney -- whose team was playing its first regular-season game -- was the longest-tenured coach in the league.

Such context is not lost on Stoney. She has heard some of the horrible stories firsthand from her current players. She also makes sure to observe the antics of youth coaches on a near-daily basis where the Wave train in greater San Diego.

To Stoney, the coaching process must be more collaborative. "Players have a voice in my environment," she said. She has consciously cut back on how often she will stop a training session to point out mistakes, instead letting players work through them and addressing issues in individual settings. Positive reinforcement is the concept by which she abides, something of an antithesis to several past coaches in the NWSL who have since been removed.

"If you're a teacher and you're in the classroom and you're teaching math, science or English, you're not yelling at the kids," Stoney said. "Why do we think that in youth soccer, and even when we go into professional environments, that we're going to get the best out of people if we just yell at them, we humiliate them, we intimidate them? I don't work from that methodology, and I don't work to that model.

"Will I challenge my players? Absolutely. Will I demand standards? Yeah, of course I will. But there are ways and means to go about it. I think we provide an environment that is slightly different to those they've experienced."

Morgan, who has won two World Cups and Olympic gold and bronze medals during her illustrious career, lauded Stoney's approach to building relationships with players. "I think the proactiveness in wanting collaboration from everyone, wanting input and valuing that from players and her staff, I think that's given all of us player confidence to be able to speak up in meetings," Morgan said. "So, I think that's really impressing and that's helped this team be so successful and have a really good locker-room culture and good team energy overall, only 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 worth of rookies, several of whom play integral starting roles. There is Kelsey Turnbow, who has played across all three forward positions and in the No. 10 role, frequently leading the Wave's distinct and punishing high press. Amirah Ali provides a late-game spark off the bench, and Belle Briede and Marleen Schimmer have each played important roles in the midfield and attack this season.

Naomi Girma was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NWSL draft and already looks like not only one of the best rookies in an especially deep class, but like one of the best center-backs in the NWSL. She offers the U.S. women's national team a unique profile in the position and should challenge for a starting role at the 2023 World Cup.

In Stoney's system, every player needs to defend. "That's part of the job description, a non-negotiable," she said. It is no surprise, then, that Stoney sought out Stanford grad Girma as the top pick despite the widespread assumption that Florida State midfielder Jaelin Howell would be chosen No. 1.

"I played center-back for 18 years, so I know a good one when I see one," Stoney said of Girma. "I think you build your foundations on your center-back partnership, and she gives us so much in terms of coverage, the way she can play out of pressure, her ability to read the game. She's going to be one of the best in the world, and I wasn't going to give that up under any circumstances."

U.S. center-back Abby Dahlkemper was the team's first signing. San Diego's first draft pick was Girma, which gave the team a solid defensive spine alongside Sheridan in net. Girma is excellent in one-on-one situations and offers the Wave -- and the U.S. women's national team -- an ability to set the attack from a deep-lying area. Thus far, the Wave have owned that identity, pressing teams into mistakes with all 11 players defending high as a unit. Their 13 goals conceded in 15 games is the best defensive mark in the league.

"I think for any rookie, it does take a bit of time to become acclimated to this league, it being so physical and the speed of play being so fast," Turnbow said. "Casey's really done a great job of really breaking things down for me, looking at film. We really analyze everything in so much detail, and I think that's really helped me transition from college to pro."

San Diego continues to get younger, too. The Wave acquired 17-year-old U.S. youth international Jaedyn Shaw through the league's discovery process. Shaw had trained with the Washington Spirit for months and received a waiver from the league to bypass the draft and turn professional this summer.

The Wave were first in line for discovery rights -- an antiquated system allowing teams to "claim" players based on a priority list -- so they brought Shaw out to San Diego to show her the setup and make sure she would be comfortable with 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 her 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 this is not new for me," Stoney said. "This is not new ground; this is ground that I've covered before. I know how to support a young player from a holistic approach: the family, the education, and how much support they need. This is a very talented young player, someone who we felt could really grow and could learn and be in our environment. I pride myself on creating an environment that's good for young players."

Stoney is thriving where most have failed as new coaches in the NWSL, though her most difficult adaptation is deeply personal. She has been 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 timing and logistics for the entire family to move there from England. It is the hardest thing she's ever done, Stoney said, and it also allows her to further empathize with players who must move teams quickly, especially in a league where seismic trades are a semi-annual occurrence.

"I'm now able to really understand transitions for players, how it is when they come from club to club," Stoney said. "Now I get what it is to move cultures, move homes, be without your friends and family and therefore I know now what support they need, what player-care processes we need to put in place at the club."

Her approach -- which includes support from general manager Molly Downtain and team president Jill Ellis, who won the last two World Cups as coach of the U.S. -- is working. The Wave's 25 points already eclipse the best finish of any previous, true expansion team, and there are nine games left in the season. San Diego is rewriting the definition of on-field success for expansion teams -- and seriously challenging for the NWSL Shield in year one.

"We're not getting ahead of ourselves," Stoney said. "I'm a big believer in complacency kills, anyway. We know that we've got a lot to work on, a lot of work to do, and a lot to keep building, but we've had a good start."