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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.

Barcelona Beat Lyon to Win Back-to-Back Champions League Titles

Barcelona's Aitana Bonmatí and Alexia Putellas celebrating after beating Lyon at the 2024 Champions League final
Ballon d'Or winners Aitana Bonmatí and Alexia Putellas helped Barcelona to a second-straight UWCL title on Saturday. (Ramsey Cardy - Sportsfile/UEFA via Getty Images)

Barcelona was crowned champion of the Champions League on Saturday with a 2-0 win over Lyon in Bilbao.

Alexia "La Reina" Putellas, who recently re-signed with Barcelona, came off the bench to score the team's second goal. Fellow Ballon d’Or winner Aitana Bonmatí provided the team’s first. After the game, defender Lucy Bronze said Putellas was nicknamed "the queen" for a reason.

"Alexia is the captain of the team and she's the queen of Barcelona for a reason,"  defender Lucy Bronze told DAZN. "She's got the quality to do that in the last minute of the Champions League final when we were up against it at the end and it just sealed the win for us. It was amazing."

The victory marked Barcelona's first win over Lyon in a UWCL final, having previously gone up against the French side at both the 2019 and 2022 Champions League finals. It's also Barcelona's second Champions League title in a row.

"It's hard to win it once, but to do it back-to-back, Lyon showed how difficult it is and this team has finally done that," Bronze said. "I think we go down in history as one of the best teams in Europe."

This season, the team also secured a quadruple for the first time in club history, having already won Liga F, the Copa de la Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. The win ensures that coach Jonatan Giráldez — who has officially departed the team to join the NWSL's Washington Spirit — leaves Europe a champion.

"It was an incredible game. I am really happy, it's one of the best days of my life for sure," Giráldez told broadcaster DAZN after the game. "We did an amazing job. I am very proud of all of them."

Following the win, Putellas said her team "can't ask for anything else."

"Our objective was to win four out of four," the Spain international told reporters. "We have achieved everything we wanted. Every minute of sacrifice has been worth the effort — and I'd say that not after the game, but before, just entering in the stadium, with all the support we had here, it was worth it."

2024 Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year Aitana Bonmatí said that the crowd support made it "feel like Camp Nou."

"I am on cloud nine right now," she said. "It is an historic day which we will remember forever."

Sun’s Alyssa Thomas Ejected After Flagrant 2 on Sky Rookie Angel Reese

Angel Reese said there were "no hard feelings" stemming from Alyssa Thomas's flagrant foul. (Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Angel Reese might have gotten knocked down on Saturday, but she got right back up again. 

Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas was ejected from the Sun’s 86-82 win over Chicago following a flagrant foul 2 on Reese — the first of her career. While the two were battling for a rebound, Reese took a clothesline hold around the neck courtesy of Thomas before hitting the ground.

After the game, Reese told reporters that there were "no hard feelings" and she appreciated Thomas for playing her hard beneath the basket.

"I know she purposely probably didn’t do it towards me," Reese said. "But just being able to come out there and just be strong and stand on two feet, it was going to be a tough game and that’s what I’m built for. And my teammates had my back throughout the whole game. So I was prepared for it."

She also didn’t buy into the idea that it was a "Welcome to the WNBA" moment, but thanked Thomas "sending a message" because it helped her get back up and "keep pushing."

"It’s not just because I’m a rookie. I’m a player. I’m a basketball player. They don’t give a damn if I’m a rookie. I mean, I want them to come at me every day. I want them to come at everybody," she added. "I mean, they’re not supposed to be nice to me. I hope y’all know that. They’re not supposed to be nice to me or lay down because I’m Angel Reese or because I’m a rookie."

Reese finished the game with 13 points, five rebounds, and two assists over 33 minutes.

Barcelona to Face Lyon in Champions League Rematch This Weekend

UEFA Women's Champions League Final"Barcelona FC - Olympique Lyonnais"
Saturday's game will be the third UWCL final meeting for Barcelona and Lyon, having previously gone up against each other in 2019 and 2022. (ANP via Getty Images)

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off in Bilbao on Saturday, with a couple of familiar foes set to face off for the trophy.

Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, making its 11th final appearance since 2010, will go head to head with a Barcelona side making its fourth final appearance in a row.

This will be the third time these two teams meet in the UWCL title game, having previously appeared in the 2019 and 2022 finals. Lyon won both of those prior games against Barcelona, alongside a total of eight Champions League trophies. That’s double that of any other club, with Eintracht Frankfurt coming in a distant second with four. 

Should Barcelona win, this would be the team's third title — breaking a tie for the third in the UWCL total titles race. 

But as these teams return to the UWCL final, it also marks the end of an era for both clubs. The game will be the last for both club managers, as Barcelona’s Jonatan Giráldez and Lyon’s Sonia Bompastor depart for new jobs after the season's end.

Giráldez is set to leave for the NWSL's Washington Spirit, while Bompastor will take over for incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes at Chelsea. Both coaches have earned one UWCL trophy during their tenures, while Bompastor also brought two Champions League trophies to Lyon as a player. She was the first coach to win a UWCL trophy as both a coach and player.

This season, Barcelona is looking for its first quadruple, having won a fifth Liga F title alongside the Copa de La Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. 

"We hope he can go out with the four trophies because we know how competitive and ambitious he is," Barcelona midfielder Patri Guijarro told ESPN. "It has been a winning era with him in charge and for him to go out with all four trophies would be historic and incredible."

But Lyon's Damaris Egurrola is excited about her team's chances of overcoming Barcelona once again — and to do it in front of family and friends.

"Lyon have something special," she told Forbes ahead of the weekend's final. "We have a great team and we have the players with enough talent to win any match."

The game will be a homecoming for Egurrola, who began her professional career with Athletic Bilbao.

"I’ve been thinking of this day and night," she said. "I’ve been dreaming of playing this match. Having the opportunity to play in San Mames is amazing. This is where it all started for me."

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off Saturday, May 25th at 12 PM ET and is free to stream on DAZN.

World No. 1 Iga Swiatek Headlines a Stacked 2024 French Open

Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico
Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico. (Robert Prange/Getty Images)

The 2024 French Open starts on Sunday, with a match schedule that promises to wrap the short clay court season up in style.

Looking for her fourth title at the major is three-time Roland Garros champion and World No. 1 Iga Swiatek, considered the favorite to win the whole Slam. Three of her four major titles have come at the French tournament. 

Swiatek's career record at the French Open is a dominating 28-2, and she's currently on a 16-game winning streak fueled by victories at tune-up tournaments in Madrid and Rome.

But that doesn't mean she won't face some serious challengers along the way. Get to know some of the Polish tennis champ's strongest competitors.

Aryna Sabalenka

Sabalenka is ranked No. 2 in the world and faced Swiatek in the finals at both Madrid and Rome. She lost in three sets in Madrid, which included a close third-set tiebreak, before losing in straight sets at the Italian Open. 

She enters the French Open having won the Australian Open in January, successfully defending her title in the first Slam of the season. At last year’s French Open, Sabalenka reached the semifinals — a career best — before being ousted by Karolina Muchová in three sets.

Season record: 25-7

Coco Gauff

Currently sitting at No. 3 in the world, the highest-ranked American on the schedule is none other than Coco Gauff. Gauff won her first major at the US Open last year, and reached the semifinals of this year’s Australian Open. She faced Swiatek in the semifinals of the Italian Open last week, losing in straight sets. 

But her first major final came at the French Open in 2022, before being ousted by Swiatek in the quarterfinals at last year’s French Open. The two are on a crash course for a meeting before the finals, as Gauff anchors the other quadrant on Swiatek’s side of the draw, should they both advance deep into the competition.

Season record: 25-8

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