'I've questioned many times why I took San Diego job'

2 months ago 7
San Diego Wave FC head coach Casey Stoney calls out to players during the play-off semi-finalsCasey Stoney joined NWSL side San Diego in 2021, two months after leading Manchester United to fourth place in the WSL

Casey Stoney's debut season in the National Women's Soccer League couldn't have gone much better on the pitch. Off the pitch it's a different story altogether for the former England captain.

Having been appointed San Diego head coach in July 2021 after leaving her role as Manchester United manager, the 40-year-old led the new franchise to third place and a play-off semi-final, as well as breaking the league's 21-year crowd record along the way.

But her move to California has come at a personal cost.

She is now more than 5,000 miles away - and a 12-hour flight - from her partner and three children, who were unable to join her because of visa issues.

"It wasn't planned this way," she tells BBC Sport. "If someone had said to me 'you've got a job but you've got to live without your family for 15 months, would you take it?' I wouldn't have taken the job.

"Single-handedly, mentally, [it's] the biggest challenge I've ever faced, not seeing them every day.

"Grabbing 10, 20, 30 seconds on a FaceTime because they're eight and five and they don't want to necessarily talk on the phone; then they're here for two weeks and then dropping them off at the airport and saying goodbye - it is a huge challenge. I've struggled with it.

"It's been a daily grind just to go to work and perform but I came here to try and develop and grow and make a difference in this league so I've stuck at it."

Casey Stoney celebrates with her family and twin children after the UEFA Women's Euro 2017 match between England and FranceCasey Stoney, pictured celebrating with her family after England beat France at Euro 2017, has three children - eight-year-old twins Teddy and Tilly and five-year-old Willow - with her partner and fellow ex-footballer, Meg Harris

Her family were finally able to get hold of visas at the start of the year, but they plan on waiting until the summer to join her so as to not disrupt their schooling.

"I've questioned myself many times as to what I'm doing. But I have to stick to my purpose and hopefully the players are feeling the benefit of the way we do things," she adds.

Results suggest that to be the case, with Stoney leading the Wave to the highest finish for a new NWSL team in their inaugural season. But their impressive displays have also raised expectations for the new campaign, which gets under way this weekend.

A successful season would be "matching or bettering" what they achieved last year, says the former Arsenal defender.

"Improving our style of play would be a success as well. We want to win, but we want to win with a style of play and identity."

'Morgan drives standards'

Key to the team's performances is the USA's World Cup-winning striker Alex Morgan, 33, who finished the league's top scorer last season with 15 goals in 17 games.

"She had an incredible season for us," says Stoney. "She led on the field and she led off the field. What you get with Alex is someone who drives standards.

"She does challenge everyone to constantly be better. She'll ask questions for the greater good of the group. She's great to have around, because she's been there, seen it and done it."

Fans cheer during San Diego's match with Angel City FC at Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego on September 17, 2022More than 32,000 fans watched San Diego Wave beat Angel City 1-0 in September, setting a new crowd record in the NWSL

Despite the team's success, creating a successful bond with her new players hasn't been straightforward.

"It took me so long to build trust with them because they've had so many coaches stand up and say they're going to do something and then do the opposite," says Stoney.

"So hopefully they're feeling that [trust] now and I have to remind myself of that every day when at four o'clock, everyone back in the UK has gone to bed and I'm still at work."

As well as forming that bond, she has also been trying to create "a safe space" for them "to make mistakes and know that that's OK".

"They have been so fearful of making mistakes, because from their coaching experiences if they make a mistake there are consequences," says Stoney.

"Or they're yelled at or shouted at. I don't understand that mentality because mistakes are the biggest place where you grow and you learn."

One of the deciding factors behind Stoney's decision to move to the NWSL was, unlike in her previous role at Manchester United, San Diego only have a women's team.

"It's a breath of fresh air that everything is dedicated to the women's team, for the women's team, about the women's team," she says. "We're never second best, or third best or fourth best to any other team."

She is also relishing the tight nature of the league, adding: "Having worked in the Women's Super League, and having worked here, [the NWSL] is the most competitive league in the world. You don't have big scorelines, it's just not a thing here."

'Man Utd will always be in my heart'

Jessica Sigsworth of Manchester United celebrates with Casey Stoney and team matesCasey Stoney, who won 130 England caps, became the first manager of Man Utd's women's team in July 2018

And yet, despite her obvious enjoyment of working in the NWSL, Manchester United still regularly occupy her thoughts. Having "helped build that team", she says she follows their progress "very closely, always".

She adds: "It's part of my history, they're in my heart. Many of the players that are still there, I signed. I watch them very closely, I care for the players in that team. I still have contact with a lot of the players."

When it comes to the question of whether she misses working in the Women's Super League, she is not afraid to share her feelings.

"It's home for me, so I'll always miss home," she says. "I'd never lived abroad before, let alone another continent. I miss home, I keep a close eye on the WSL. I miss my family."

But she is also quick to dispel any thoughts that she might be looking for a quick return, saying: "My immediate future is with San Diego Wave, building this club and this team to try and hope it has consistent success, to promote it as a global brand around the world, until the day I'm no longer required.

"I have such an incredible group of players here, I really do, who just want to work hard, want to learn, want to grow, and I love working with them every day."

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