Should we all chip in for Casey Stoney's fines?

The San Diego Wave manager was fined by the NWSL for the second time in less than a month for comments about league conditions and refereeing.

I don’t always get the violin out for football managers.

But imagine being asked to do hours and hours of time with the media. You have journalists and broadcasters constantly badgering you for honesty, analysis, and compassion about the football.

And then, when you do speak your mind on a match, you receive an email saying that you’ve been fined a few hundred U.S. dollars for doing so. Not fun. Not fun at all.

This week, for the second time in 24 days, San Diego Wave FC manager Casey Stoney was fined by the National Women’s Super League (NWSL) for comments “detrimental to the league.”

In both cases, the league has stated that the Englishwoman violated Section 12.2.5 (e) “Prejudicial Statements and Public Criticism” of the NWSL’s Operations Manual. This is not a public document, so we do not know the exact wording that explains what managers can and can’t say in interviews and on social media.

Casey Stoney on the touchline for San Diego Wave FC | Daniel Bartel (USA Today)

Mmm, what she say?

The first time that Stoney was officially penalized in 2023 was on the 20th of June, after a 0-0 away to Racing Louisville FC that had occurred 11 days prior.

Now, I actually owe Stoney an apology because it was me who asked the question, during the post-match press conference, that teed her up to make a comment that resulted in a fine. But it was a fair question to ask. And that’s why we’re here.

San Diego’s club captain and leading goalscorer Alex Morgan did not play in the match, despite not being injured or (seemingly) fatigued. Before every NWSL match, all 12 clubs in the league have to submit an availability report that makes public any injury and its severity. Morgan did not appear on this report prior to the match on the 9th of June.

So why was Morgan a surprise absentee from the match in Louisville?

“I'm not gonna put a player on the injury report when it's just a precautionary rest,” Stoney replied.

“You know, [last week] she came off the pitch with a tight calf. It was a long travel trip here. She's got a World Cup ahead. So it wasn't a matter of she wasn't fit to play, it was precautionary.

“We just didn't wanna push her. We didn't know what this surface would be like either. Notoriously we've come here and it's been a poor surface. So yeah, it was about looking after her and also putting the players out there that could go.”

It was that second part of the answer, where Stoney references the “poor surface” that got her the fine.

Whilst I cannot speak to the quality of the pitch at Lynn Family Stadium on the 9th of June, Stoney is not wrong to talk about the state of that grass as being less than favourable.

Since entering the league in 2021, the Lynn Family Stadium pitch has had a reputation for being choppy. At the 2021 NWSL Championship, the grounds staff even appeared to spray paint certain parts green to make it look more appealing.

In 2022, Stoney and the Wave played away to Louisville a week after Janet Jackson played a Kentucky Derby Day concert on the pitch at the stadium. Ahead of that match, which ended 1-0 to Racing, chunks of the pitch had to be patched together and replaced to make the surface playable. There were visible irregularities all over. Quite frankly, the pitch was in a right state that day.

Not only was Stoney speaking from first-hand experience when it came to a dodgy and unpredictable pitch, but there’s something quite sinister about the league trying to police what could be viewed as “detrimental” to the NWSL.

If you love something, you criticize it. You question it and want it to be better. The same goes for the Louisville pitch. Or anything else that isn’t up to scratch. The NWSL has a long history of shoddy conditions for players and staff. And it’s vital that we hear about them.

It’s going to be a slippery slope, and makes me uncomfortable, if the NWSL intends to stop anyone, manager or otherwise, from having an open conversation about the match facilities they use and the experiences they have.

I must add that, to Racing’s credit, there have been reports that the pitch in Louisville has vastly improved this year.

“An investment in technology. You decide”

Fine number two is a bit more classic. Straight from the greatest hits of an aggrieved manager who disagrees with the referee.

On the 8th of July, the Wave drew 2-2 at home with the Washington Spirit. In the 36th minute of the match, with San Diego trailing 1-0, Wave forward Rachel Hill is brought down in the box via a sliding challenge by Spirit defender Sam Staab.

Although Staab tries to play the ball, she appears to miss it entirely and cleans out Hill. The call on the pitch was: Play on.

In real-time, with the referee positioned yards behind the challenge, one could make a case that it’s not the easiest call to make. But on video replay, it becomes quite apparent that Staab missed the ball and a penalty kick should’ve been awarded.

Since the NWSL now has Video Assisted Referees, in theory, this would’ve been an easy mistake to correct moments after it had happened. But, alas, the officials on the day did not review or overturn the decision.

Not using VAR in this instance was particularly odd because, just 16 minutes before the incident involving Staab and Hill, referee Adam Kilpatrick had already gone to his screen in order to confirm awarding a penalty to the Spirit for a foul on Ashley Hatch by goalkeeper Shae Yáñez.

This time, Stoney remained tight-lipped in the post-match press conference but at 2:26 a.m. in San Diego, a few hours after the match, she used Twitter to vent her frustration. “Investment in technology. You decide [shrugging emoji],” she wrote under a clipped video of the foul.

We’ve all been there, right? Kept up in the middle of the night. Sleeplessly scrolling through the timeline while we’re rewatching the match. Itching to post a hot take. Stoney’s only human.

Above all, Stoney has a point. What was the answer for this not being reviewed? And subsequently, what does that say about the NWSL’s investment in VAR leading to better officiating and matches?

It is notable that the NWSL edited the no-call out of their Youtube and social media highlights packages. The footage is still in the full match replay on Paramount+.

How players and managers should talk about officials is disputed. But in my opinion, so long as someone isn’t conjuring the idea of bias, hurling abuse, or insisting there has been some sort of personal vendetta against their team, then opinions, experiences, and explanations on officiating are essential. The NWSL’s fines threaten that transparency.

In both cases, Stoney’s point of view and criticism is valid. For all the noise from the NWSL about investment and being the first women’s football league in the world to use VAR, a shoddy pitch and the reluctance to review a call speaks to growing pains.

I can appreciate that a spicy Tweet in the middle of the night may not be the best vibe. But it’s 2023, this is the way. Stoney is still a respected voice providing a call-in to the league.

More than anything, I do hope there has been a dialogue between the NWSL, the Professional Referees Organization, Stoney, and the Wave in both these instances and moving forward.

The league will continue to do itself a disservice should it behave like a dictatorial regime. Insisting that nothing critical can be said. That silence is normal. Both the NWSL and the officials should be responding with statements that clarify their points of view rather than quietly hiding behind fines and violations.

We need more coaches like Stoney who speak their minds. Fans and media desire it. And more discussion will only help raise the standards of the game along the way.