Exclusive: Rich Gunney discusses new chapter with San Diego Wave

Rich Gunney graphic from San Diego Wave FC

For Richard Gunney, the opportunity to trade Portland for San Diego wasn’t something he could turn down. Its warm weather and beautiful beaches would offer his family the best quality of life.

“The weather is so nice here. In February, I spent most days on the field in just shorts and a t-shirt,” he tells Her Football Hub with the smile of a man who’s spent most of his life living in the not-so-warm UK climate.

He still gets a regular reminder of home. In the evenings, when the sun has set, the cool coastal breeze is a cold reminder of his roots in South Wales.

But it wasn’t just the sunny climate that drew the Welshman to California. Gunney was ready for a new challenge after half a decade in Rose City with the Portland Thorns.

During the process of interviewing for the head coaching roles at Orlando Pride and Racing Louisville, Gunney was approached by San Diego Wave president Jill Ellis about their vacant assistant coaching position.

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It’s a role he knows very well. Five years as Mark Parsons’ assistant at the Thorns yielded five titles—including the big one, the 2017 NWSL Championship.

“They made a pretty strong case for me to come in and support Casey [Stoney]. After I’d spoken to Jill and Casey, I came down and visited the club.

“The style of play and the club’s vision excited me. We have two top-quality grass fields and we’re in the process of building a new facility right next to the training field which will have everything we could ask for.”

The facility will boast a new gym with a weights room and a strength and conditioning area. It will also allow the Wave players to step straight out onto the field after their early morning meetings.

A new challenge in a new town

Joining San Diego was never going to be an ordinary “new challenge.” When Gunney joined Portland in 2017, they were already an established team—in NWSL terms—with a four-season history in the league.

Things were very different when he joined the Wave in November.

His announcement came before the club even had an official badge. Former England international Casey Stoney had been announced as head coach in July of 2021. And their squad had just a single player to show, UWSNT defender Abby Dahlkemper.

But the opportunity to help build the foundations at a new club, to paint a new canvas, was something he couldn’t turn down. “That was another big appealing factor for me. We started from scratch. We’ve had to build the roster from zero players to 26.”

This is where his experience and knowledge of the league have been crucial. He’s been able to inform and assist Stoney, who is embarking on her first season in the United States, about the differences between the game in Europe and in the US.

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Stoney, who spent three seasons as Manchester United head coach before making the jump across the Atlantic, is doing things her own way. After learning about the traditional dynamic between players and coaches, the 39-year-old wanted to shake things up.

“We are trying to make it a very decision-making environment,” Gunny said, “by giving the players the opportunities to be challenged and make lots of decisions in practice. In order to do that we need to make it a really safe environment for the players to express themselves. That’s something that Casey has put at the forefront.”

That welcoming environment has been one of the many things that have helped attract a who’s who list of World Cup winners and Olympic gold medallists, international stars, and NCAA college standouts.

“Not only is it the right thing to do and invest in, but it’s also a selling point for new players. We can show them that we are going to provide them a quality environment and experience for all the players.”

Building San Diego’s inaugural roster

The Wave have built a stacked roster ahead of their maiden campaign in the NWSL. Perhaps the standout name amongst their 26-player-strong roster is Alex Morgan, who’s been described as the face of women’s soccer by her teammate Dahlkemper. Her acquisition cost San Diego $250,000 in allocation money and Angharad James.

“I think that’s where Jill Ellis being the president of the club comes in. Obviously, she has a relationship with Alex from her time with the national team. But I also think that Alex being from California originally made it a perfect set of circumstances for the club to pursue the move.”

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San Diego have also set their scouting sights outside of the league. Veteran English goalkeeper Carley Telford brought an end to her 20-year-long stint in the highest division of English football. Swedish winger Sofia Jakobsson called time on her disappointing stint at Bayern Munich just a few months after joining the German champions.

The club also made strong use of both the expansion and college drafts. The former offered them an opportunity to recruit Kristen McNabb from OL Reign, a player with plenty of league experience.

Other additions from within the league saw the Wave add Canadian goalkeeper Kalien Sheridan from Gotham FC. Katie Jonson and Makenzy Doniak joined from Chicago Red Stars. And a slew of trades with Orlando Pride saw Emily van Egmond, Taylor Kornieck, and Jodie Taylor swap the Exploria Stadium for the Torero Stadium.

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The college draft allowed them to sign the potential next generation of stars to their first professional deal.

Preparation for the draft involves endless hours of analysing players to devise a list of potential signings. Teams need to anticipate any draft adjustments, meaning contingency plans must be in place should a rival team snatch a targeted player before your turn.

San Diego had the added benefit of going first. That gave them an open goal to select Naomi Girma, a standout defender from California-based Stanford University. In the same round, they also picked up German-born Marleen Schimmer from GCU as the 9th overall pick.

“We tried to build a profile of players that we wanted to sign. We spoke to a lot of players who entered the draft, and their coaches to see if they fit that profile. It’s important to us because if we do that consistently in the draft, it builds value for the club. You add quality players and quality people to the team season after season.”

Investing in success

Development is something Gunney mentioned throughout this conversation. It’s clear to see that developing players—whether they are in the twilight of their career or heading into their rookie season—is central to the club’s philosophy.

“Casey’s a very honest, authentic, and direct coach. I think her saying that she wants to develop everybody at the club is something she will try and do, and I’ll support her in that. She’s passionately told every player that, regardless of their age.

“Our role is to support the players. But our role is to also develop them. We want them to have the hunger to try to keep getting better.”

Before taking on Houston Dash in their first-ever NWSL fixture in May, San Diego will compete in the Challenge Cup, a curtain-raiser for the regular season. The tournament will give them a chance to test themselves in a more competitive environment than their pre-season scrimmages.

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“If we were heading straight into the regular season next week, we would be ready. But, with the Challenge Cup, we have an extra few weeks where we are part of a competition that we want to be performing well in.

“It gives us some extra breathing space to discover a little bit about ourselves—to learn and to develop. Every opportunity can be a chance for us to learn and keep progressing week by week, day by day.

“It’s a bit of a coaching cliché, but, to be honest, that’s the winning formula. The most successful formula is to just take it one step at a time.”

Having the correct structure in place will be vital if they are to be successful in their maiden campaign. As an expansion side, with a totally new crop of players, it won’t be easy. As the English author John Haywood wrote, “Rome was not built in one day,” and that isn’t something that Gunney is shying away from.

“We want to be successful. We want to be striving for silverware. But, we know that we are a very young club with so many new pieces.

“If [the Challenge Cup] goes really well, we won’t get too high. If it doesn’t go to plan then we won’t get too low either. We know we’re in good shape and that we’re trending in the right direction.

“Developing players and a team takes time. I think we’ll be competitive in our first year, but it might take a long journey to get there. But we’re going to be very competitive for sure.

And what better opponent to take on in your first official match than your local rivals and fellow expansion side Angel City FC? The two California-based sides have been drawn alongside two giants in OL Reign and Gunney’s former side, the Portland Thorns.

“We get to start a new rivalry which is going to be really enjoyable. I think the excitement levels could lead to a chaotic opening 30 minutes of the game. The players are going to have a lot of adrenaline and they’ll be playing in and enjoying the moment.”

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