all scores

How Casey Stoney created an NWSL title contender in San Diego

Sofia Jakobsson, Kelsey Turnbow, Alex Morgan and Taylor Kornieck (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

In the weeks leading up to the 2021 Expansion and College Drafts, no one was thinking about the San Diego Wave sitting atop the NWSL standings in July other than their coaching staff. The team had signed stars Abby Dahlkemper and Alex Morgan early on, but what the rest of the team would look like around them was largely unknown in December.

And yet, seven months later, manager Casey Stoney and her staff have achieved an unprecedented start for a new club in NWSL, as the first-place Wave return from the international break Sunday with a record of 5-2-3.

When creating an expansion side from scratch, coaches have to take into account short- and long-term planning, and often the expectations of steady progress trump a win-now mentality. The Wave have achieved both in 2022, with a mix of veteran and young talent coming together to create one of the most tactically versatile sides in the league.

It’s one thing to talk through the best-laid plans in NWSL expansion history, and another to execute it every week in one of the most competitive leagues in the world. Just Women’s Sports spoke with Stoney back in December, in the days before her team went through both drafts. Since then, her vision has played out in both expected and unexpected ways.

“Our aim is to have players that are really comfortable on the ball and can make decisions,” Stoney said then. “So their IQ in football is good. And if it’s not, that’s our job as coaches to educate and to give them the tools that they need to go out there and perform.”

Stoney was quick to credit her assembled staff, including data analyst Michael Poma, Rich Gunney (former assistant coach of the Portland Thorns) and Victoria Boardman for helping her get up to speed on the college and youth player pool as well as international recruiting.

At the time, Stoney had expressed a need for patience with the midfield, specifically. With their eye on a number of players in the international market, the Wave surprised many when they surpassed Florida State defensive midfielder Jaelin Howell with the No. 1 pick in favor of Stanford defender Naomi Girma.

Howell seemed like the better fit for the Wave’s positional needs, but Girma has quickly rewarded Stoney’s faith in her ability to make decisions with the ball. Through 10 games, the 2020 U.S. Soccer Young Female Player of the Year has quickly risen up the stat sheet in passing accuracy, while consistently putting out fires defensively and distributing the ball from a variety of distances. She’s also kept a cool head despite the prolonged absence of Dahlkemper, who has missed a number of games with an injury to her ribs.

(Jenny Chuang/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Amid the chaos and uncertainty of the past offseason, the Wave also infused their attack with young talent. In December, Stoney specifically called out Amirah Ali and Kelsey Turnbow as players she wanted to work into the rotation immediately. They have each appeared in nine games for San Diego, with Ali making one start and Turnbow five.

While players have stepped up across the lineup to get the Wave to where they are at this point in the season, the lingering question of San Diego’s midfield hasn’t exactly been answered.

The January transfer market yielded the signing of Sofia Jakobsson, and a January trade for Emily van Egmond and Taylor Kornieck from the Orlando Pride helped the Wave establish their preferred trio in the middle of the pitch. Stoney acknowledged that the NWSL has to continue to build its reputation for more Champions League-eligible players to view the U.S. league as a prime opportunity. Until then, the greatest dividends will likely come from in-league deals.

Van Egmond has functioned as a more traditional No. 6 for the Wave, allowing Kornieck to drift forward and play the best soccer of her young career. She’s currently fourth in the league in g+ — a metric that generally measures a player’s ability to create actions that lead to goal-scoring opportunities — sitting behind only Sophia Smith, Mallory Pugh and Trinity Rodman. Alongside her on the list is teammate Alex Morgan, perhaps providing a glimpse into the on-field relationship the players formed in Orlando and have brought to San Diego

When asked about the Wave’s style of play in December, Stoney deadpanned, “The plan is we go: goalkeeper, to center back, up to the forwards and we score.” She may have been joking then, but the Wave have scored at least one goal this season using this exact formula: Against OL Reign in June, Kailen Sheridan found Morgan with a beauty of an assist for the score. Sheridan explained afterward that she was able to exploit the Reign’s defense because their front three hadn’t been closing down in front of her and their defensive line hadn’t adjusted to keeping Morgan from running in behind.

That sort of hyper-direct goal production won’t carry San Diego all the way to the playoffs, but it is an extreme example of Stoney’s general principles of squad construction: Bring in players with good decision-making skills, let them problem-solve to exploit the other team’s weaknesses, and shore up any positional deficiencies with a certain amount of maneuverability.

Within that philosophy, locker-room chemistry ended up being the main pillar of the Wave’s foundation. When pursuing Sheridan, in addition to her obvious abilities in net, Stoney spoke extensively with Canada head coach Bev Priestman and Sheridan’s former Sky Blue FC teammate, Leah Galton, about who the 26-year-old is as a person. She received glowing recommendations about the goalkeeper.

“She’s going to be a real leader for us in lots of different [ways], in the dressing room, great character, really positive,” Stoney said in December.

Stoney took the same approach when bringing in Dahlkemper and Morgan, the team’s first two marquee signings.

“Abby’s just a fantastic human being, really positive, wants that leadership role, wants to lead by example,” she said. “And I think you have to lead by example, you have to talk the talk, and walk the walk. … Alex Morgan comes with a reputation, every little girl looks up to her. She’s a role model, she’s a player that’s won everything at the very highest level.”

Morgan’s NWSL resurgence this season isn’t something the public had as much faith in as her manager did, but by all accounts, this is the best season the USWNT striker has ever had in the NWSL. She currently sits atop the Golden Boot race with 11 goals and one assist — including 15 goals in 17 games across all competition — and leads the league in xG, according to American Soccer Analysis. The underlying data indicates not only her finishing success, but also that she’s been actively making runs that put her in position to get a foot on high-opportunity chances.

The Wave play with a full-team defensive press that causes problems for opponents trying to play out of the back. That press starts at the top with Morgan and the attack, and it’s an ethos Stoney has passed on to her entire squad.

“I think they’re just extremely well-coached,” Gotham head coach Scott Parkinson said after his team’s second consecutive loss to the Wave. “I think they’ve recruited knowing exactly how Casey wants to play. They’ve had a fresh slate, and they’ve not brought in anyone that doesn’t fit the style that she’s looking for.”

The Wave will have to rely on that full-team buy-in over the next month, with Sheridan, Morgan, Girma and Jakobsson on international duty and away from the team. Given the basic principles Stoney has instilled in her team, and brought to fruition through the first two months of the season, it’s hard to imagine San Diego not being firmly in the playoff hunt by the end of the regular season.

“They started the season really direct, so every time they got the ball, you just got set up for them to be direct and play the first and second balls,” Parkinson said. “But now they try to play a little bit, so they pull you out to press them, and when they go long, you’re not set up to solve the long ball.”

For Stoney, the club’s results are less surprising. The concept of what the club has become was born over a year ago.

“I think you will see a team that works for every single ball, that works hard for the club, that gives absolutely everything,” Stoney said in December. “But we want to be a team that entertains, a team that can score goals, that can keep clean sheets.”

Mission accomplished so far on the field. But from the very beginning, San Diego’s vision has always been even bigger. As Stoney said, “We’re going to connect with our community. We’re going to connect with our fan bases. We do really genuinely want to be a team that our community can be proud of.”

Claire Watkins is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering soccer and the NWSL. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.