San Diego Wave FC are in their first season, have five games left to play in the regular season, and sit in 2nd place in the standings, level on points with table-toppers Portland Thorns.
Go ahead and re-read that sentence. It’s a terrific start, and while many, many people are contributing to this “pretty easily best-ever expansion season in NWSL history” at Wave FC, there’s someone who is clearly doing a lot of the work to set them off on the right foot.
That person is head coach Casey Stoney. And she should absolutely be a top candidate for NWSL Coach of the Year for 2022.
The 40-year-old has brought together a new squad, established a culture, brought the best out of her players, seemed to figure out the tactics in NWSL more often than not, and picked up wins along the way. Quite a lot of wins, by expansion team standards, already besting the previous marks for wins in a season set by the Houston Dash (2014), Orlando Pride (2016) and Racing Louisville (2021).
While San Diego have several very good players who were expected to play a key role this season, almost to a player their games are being elevated. This includes Alex Morgan, already one of the biggest names in the league, currently enjoying a career year in the NWSL.
They entered the season with a huge question mark on their midfield, as it appeared their midfielder corps was quite shallow and some players would have to be brought in to play a different position than usual. With Taylor Kornieck enjoying a breakout season, good enough to get her on the U.S. Women’s National Team, and Emily Van Egmond pretty much being a fixture, Stoney has been rotating a third player in midfield and it’s working. From a major question mark to a group that is holding its own game in and game out, it’s been impressive.
Consider the following: Six rookies have at least one regular-season start, while one more got a start in the Challenge Cup, and two others have come off the bench this season. This year’s NWSL rookie class is bigger than normal due to COVID and eligibility changes, and around the league, more rookies are getting real minutes than we’ve seen, but for a team this high up in the table to get so much in contributions from rookies is remarkable. From No. 1 overall pick Naomi Girma, who’s somehow been better than even expected in her debut season, to regular minutes for Kelsey Turnbow and Belle Briede, impactful minutes from Amirah Ali, and Marleen Schimmer and Mia Gyau making use of their playing time, the rookie class has been impressive in its breadth and depth for Wave FC.
Aside from the top-line stars and huge rookie class, it’s also impressive to see how well the veterans and role players have done. Christen Westphal is a fixture at right back after mostly being a rotational player previously, Jodie Taylor, Makenzy Doniak and Katie Johnson have all elevated their game when the team needs it, and Carly Telford has played well in limited minutes in the regular season. I’ll be honest, I thought I knew those players’ levels coming in, and they’ve each exceeded expectations, often by a long way.
But having a collection of players doesn’t do much unless they come together and play as a team. After a trial by fire in the Challenge Cup, where admittedly San Diego had a tough group and struggled, Stoney made clear tactical changes to get her team in a better position to win. After successfully figuring how to defend compactly, San Diego doesn’t have a central playmaker (most NWSL teams don’t, to be honest), and their attacking approach is varied. They combine outside-in play with cutbacks and crosses from the flanks with route 1 soccer, hitting balls over the top, including a memorable goal from goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan directly to Morgan earlier in the season. Kornieck and Morgan have developed a terrific partnership in attack, and the whole group is committed to defending. Stoney combines an ability to have a stable tactical identity with broad changes occasionally depending on the opponent, and overall it’s worked very well.
This is all happening, and the players have been complimentary of Stoney’s work with the group. She’s arranged classes for the rookies to learn how to cook for themselves, for example, and to a player they have spoken about her approach to the group, treating them like adults, working with them to improve, and not motivating through negativity. For her part, Stoney credits American players for their competitive nature, but has expressed concern at the emphasis on perfection and seeing players full of fear as they play. Given the number of toxic coaches who have been belatedly kicked to the curb in the past few years in the NWSL, a culture correction has been sorely needed, and if San Diego can help fix the league’s culture while also getting wins, that should turn the tide pretty quickly.
Stoney will have some sharp competition for the Coach of the Year award, from Rhian Wilkinson who is doing a terrific job keeping a good team good at the Portland Thorns, to Matt Potter completely reviving the Kansas City Current, among others. But given past history and how Wave FC looked on paper coming into the season, even if Stoney was well-regarded as a manager at Manchester United, did we expect it to be this good? And they have been doing well for months, this isn’t a three-game heater. To be sure, the regular season isn’t yet over and we’ll have to see how it ends for all the clubs, but the front-runner for NWSL Coach of the Year should be clear, Casey Stoney is doing an unprecedented job with an expansion team and she deserves the award in 2022.
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