Kaleigh Riehl (center) laughs with teammates at training. Photo by Chris Stone
Kaleigh Riehl (center) laughs with teammates at training. Photo by Chris Stone

Less than a week from its first preseason match, the new women’s soccer team here is making strides to build a united group of strong, competitive female role models.

But addressing the mental health of San Diego Wave FC members has proven just as vital as healing physical injuries.

Some call the new team “starting from scratch” or “starting with a blank sheet.”

Yet many team members are national and international veterans. While that means having experience — even in championship play — some have endured emotional harm as well.

San Diego’s expansion team follows closely on a tumultuous National Women’s Soccer League season with national headlines about abuse.

Alex Morgan (left) and Abby Dahlkemper were key pickups. Photo by Chris Stone

In 2021, five of the 10-team league’s coaches plus a general manager were fired or resigned amid player accusations of toxic environments, racial remarks, verbal and emotional abuse and, in one case, sexual misconduct.

The league’s commissioner resigned, and it wasn’t until last week that a new leader was named. But a season schedule still hasn’t been released.

And that hits home because at least eight Wave players are from teams where the accused have coached.

Wave head coach Casey Stoney realizes their emotional pain.

“Some of them have had terrible experiences within the game,” she said. “Their openness to still wanting to be coached and learn is incredible.”

In the third week of training last month, Stoney told reporters: “I think one of my biggest challenges is the way they’ve been coached over here (USA) is very command style. ‘You do as I say!’ They’ve had a lot of challenges in their youth environments, where they have such a fear of making mistakes because they get berated or belittled.”

Wave head coach Casey Stoney doesn’t fear making mistakes. Photo by Chris Stone

“That’s not who I am as a coach,” she continued. “I’m a massive believer in where you make mistakes is where you learn and you grow. So we need to create an environment where there is no fear of making mistakes.”

One Wave member at a recent news conference reacted positively.

“I feel like a completely different player in this environment,” said Tegan McGrady. “I don’t feel the need to look over my shoulder every time I make a mistake … you know that pressure to impress every second.”

She said she just focuses on what she needs to work on, “and getting the feedback in such a positive way is so different than what I have experienced in the past couple of years … over my entire career.”

Saying she’s really loving Stoney’s coaching style, McGrady concluded: “It’s already helping me grow as a better player.”

Stoney appeared in three World Cups and managed Manchester United Women’s Club in England.

Alex Morgan (left) and Kristen McNabb walk onto the training pitch. Photo by Chris Stone

Casey has said she wants a positive, energetic and yet challenging space for the women to grow.

Asked last week about her season’s goal, Stoney said: ”I want to give these players an experience that they deserve, to help them to become the very best that they can possibly be and to make sure that they have an environments that they want to get up everyday and come to. Everything else is a bonus from there.”

Recent weeks have been difficult, though, especially the March 1 news that “massively” impacted a lot of her players — that Katie Meyer, captain of the Stanford University women’s soccer team, had taken her own life.

One Wave player, top draft pick Naomi Girma, was a teammate and friend of Meyer.

Veteran international Abby Dahlkemper said: “With the heavy news … I think it brought us closer and just made us realize that we are a family. We are here for each other. There’s so much more to life than just a game of soccer.”

She cited the importance of being mentally well and “having people around you that are going to be there and lift you up and give you a hug or whatever you need.”

Bonding off the pitch

Dahlkemper, 28, said teammates need to check in on each other and continue to build strong relationships on and off the pitch.

To that end, the women have been getting together in free time, including coffee and lunch dates, so they can become better acquainted and work as a unit on the pitch.

McGrady said: “It was tough the first couple of weeks, not knowing each others’ style of play and trying to get on the same page with that.” But she said open communication has helped the team gel.

Abby Dahlkemper stretches out at training. Photo by Chris Stone

Stoney remarked: “I’m pleased with where we are at, but I’m not naïve. We have a long way to go. There’s a vast difference from Week 1 to now. We’re constantly improving.”

Superstar Alex Morgan, 32, another top player for the Wave, lauded the training camp as an “incredible experience” since training began Feb. 1.

“It hasn’t been without challenges for an expansion team, and building from the ground up takes a lot more time than what we have,” she said. “So we are trying to do it at an accelerated pace.”

In the rearview mirror are logistic decisions like the name of the team, the roster, the crest, uniforms, match locations and a training facility (Del Mar’s Surf Sports Park, the old polo grounds).

The Wave is owned by investor Ron Burkle, but the management building the team is all female.

Molly Downtain, former administrator for the U.S. national team, is general manager. Jill Ellis, who won a pair of World Cups as coach of the U.S. national team, is the San Diego team’s president. She is also a FIFA World Women’s Coach of the Year recipient. And Stoney is head coach.

When choosing the team, Stoney, 39, said they looked at not only ability but also character.

“We want the right people on the bus on this journey with us wherever we want to go,” she said.

The Wave signed Naomi Girma, the No. 1 draft pick. Photo by Chris Stone

The roster included top names in world soccer:

Goalkeepers: Carly Telford, Kailen Sheridan and Melissa Lowder.

Defenders: Dahlkemper, McGrady, Christen Westphal, Kaleigh Riehl, Kayla Bruster, Mia Gyau, Naomi Girma, and Taylor Hansen.

Midfielders: Belle Briede, Emily van Egmond, Kelsey Turnbow, Kristen McNabb, Sydney Pulver, and Taylor Kornieck.

Forwards: Morgan, Amirah Ali, Jodie Taylor, Katie Johnson, Makenzy Doniak, Marleen Schimmer, and Sofia Jakobsson.

World-class players signed

Dahlkemper, a World Cup titlist in 2019 and former National Women’s Soccer League defender of the year, was the first to be signed.

Morgan, the two-time World Cup winner and Olympic gold medalist, was a significant gain.

Dahlkemper called the Morgan signing “a huge win for us. … She is the face of women’s soccer. She is a trailblazer. Everyone looks up to her, males and females. She is huge for the culture of this club. To have her back on the field is so important, and she’s going to have a huge year.”

Morgan said she had an unspecified “setback” recently but has returned to training.

Alex Morgan (right) stretches out with the team. Photo by Chris Stone

“She looks great and is going to be so helpful for the team, and we’ve got to get her in the box and start scoring some goals. She’s the best. We’re lucky to have her,” Dahlkemper said.

Morgan, who scored 115 international goals for the U.S. Women’s National Team, helped Team USA to the 2015 and 2019 World Cup championships. She captained the team from 2018-2020. She’s also a veteran of the NWSL, helping Portland win the inaugural championship in 2013.

A native of San Dimas, a Los Angeles suburb, she was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2019.

In addition, the team gained the No. 1 overall NWSL draft pick, Girma. In 2019, she captained the Stanford Cardinal to win the Women’s College Cup. She was named U.S. Soccer Young Female Player of the Year in 2020.

She is also a two-time Pac-12 Defender of the Year, United Soccer Coaches All-America first team, and MAC Hermann Trophy Semifinalist.

Also on the roster is Sheridan, goalkeeper of the Canadian national team and another winner of Olympic gold.

The Wave includes players from England, Germany, Australia, Sweden, Mexico and Canada as well as those born in the United States.

Another expansion team has been added to the league, for a total of 12 teams. Angel City FC, based in Los Angeles, has many high-profile owners, including Becky G., Natalie Portman, Eva Longoria, Mia Hamm and Serena Williams.

The Wave’s first game is 6 p.m. Saturday at Cal State Fullerton. They’ll take on Angel City FC in their inaugural game of the NWSL’s Challenge Cup. Fans can visit SanDiegoWaveFC.com to learn more about the club, buy tickets and obtain official club merchandise.

In the Challenge Cup preseason games, regional teams play a round-robin competition.

Other Challenge games are 7 p.m. March 26 at Torero Stadium at the University of San Diego vs. Portland Thorns; 1 p.m. April 2, when the Wave hosts Angel City at USD.; April 14 at OL Reign in Tacoma; April 17 at Portland; and 7 p.m. April 23 vs. OL Reign at USD.

Winners of the semifinals will meet in a final Saturday, May 7.

Torero Stadium is temporary home

Morgan said, “For us, it’s a really exiting time because we are going to get a chance to finally play in front of our fans, which we have been talking about for many weeks now.”

Torero Stadium is the temporary home for the Wave for part or all of the 2022 season.

Their permanent home will be Snapdragon Stadium in Mission Valley, expected to be completed at the end of the summer.

The regular season begins in April and continues to November during which they will play 24 games per team. The top six advance to the playoffs.

Teammates help each other get ready for practice. Photo by Chris Stone

The NWSL is the third attempt to sustain a women’s soccer league in this country.

Women’s United Soccer Association (including the San Diego Spirit) had its first season in 2001 with eight teams but suspended operations in 2003. Women’s Professional Soccer, a league of six to seven teams operated from 2011 to 2012.

The NWSL began in 2013.

San Diego hasn’t had a women’s professional team in San Diego for quite some time, Morgan noted, “and we are excited to step in and be that team and definitely be a role model for girls and that next generation.”

Morgan said she was very proud to be a woman in sport today, “one that tries to trail-blaze and break barriers, and my hope is that as a female athlete today, the next athletes that come after me won’t have to fight as hard and will be able to focus on what they love to do, which is playing sport.”

Dahlkemper, sitting next to Morgan at a training camp press conference, added: “It’s an honor and humbling to be a part of such a strong group of women at the Wave. It’s an exciting time to be a woman right now, and I think it is very powerful. Unity is very important as well.” 

Coach Stoney, speaking earlier, said being a woman in athletics is a world away from what it was when she started playing the game.

“I’m in a really privileged place to be a head coach of amazing club,” she said. “There are so many head coaches in this league. Now we need to set the standards. There is still a lot of work to do. There are still unconscious biases.”

“But just by being in these positions, it gives us visibility. If you can see it, you can be it,” she concluded.

Tegan McGrady said she likes Coach Casey Stoney’s style. Photo by Chris Stone

For years, Morgan has been in the struggle for equal pay for female soccer players on the national teams.

In February, The U.S. Soccer Federation and the women announced a $24 million deal for equal rate of pay for the women’s and men’s national teams — including World Cup bonuses.

Morgan reacted: “This was years and years of fighting, and I might benefit from it for a few years, but this was really set up for the next generation to be able to really focus on playing soccer and not have to worry about proving their value or demanding the respect they deserve because we were here fighting for that.”

Wave President Ellis said she was pleased for the national-team players.

“They continue to push the game forward and I believe this settlement will set a precedent for other organizations around the globe,” she said.

Morgan also has helped fight for player safety. She reportedly organized a letter from 240 players to then commissioner Lisa Baird in March 2021 demanding safe and inclusive workplaces.

Coaches exit after scandal

Baird later resigned following the departure of half the league’s coaches, including Paul Riley of title winner North Carolina Courage, Richie Burke of the Washington Spirit and Christy Holly of Racing Louisville.

Looking forward to the coming season, Stoney said she wants to showcase strong female role models. 

“I want to be competitive and bring excitement into the league,” she said in a podcast.

Although she thinks defensive organization is key, she favors attacking the ball.

And after years playing and coaching in England, she is taking to Southern California, and “being able to coach with the sun at your back.”

So players are eagerly awaiting a schedule after preseason — and filling Torero Stadium at their first home match March 26.

Said Dahlkemper: “It’s exciting to have the fans back. … Hopefully there will be a lot of people in attendance.”

McGrady told reporters: “We’re not just an expansion team; we are here to make big waves in our first season.”