The game isn't necessarily the thing for Angel City FC, which last year stormed into the National Women's Soccer League as if on a mission from God, fundamentally altering the 10th-year competition's landscape and revealing a vision for what women's sport can be.
Arriving with a Who's Who ownership group heavy on Hollywood stars and American soccer legends, the Los Angeles-based club provided a path toward permanence that has eluded the professional women's game for decades, doing so by approaching soccer as a means to far more vital stuff. The payoff has been extraordinary.
Angel City's crusade for female empowerment and the importance of women's sport and its laser precision in targeting community connections ignited a passionate and multicultural fan base -- one that set attendance records, spent millions on merchandise and furnished maybe the most exciting game-day atmosphere in the women's game -- while eliciting tens of millions in sponsorship dollars from like-minded outlets. And now there's an HBO docuseries on the way, due in May, executive-produced by Oscar-winner Natalie Portman, a club co-founder.
It's all manna for the scandal-scarred NWSL, changing the public narrative after an investigation into sexual-abuse allegations led to the removal of several top coaches and administrators and forced the ongoing sale of one of the league's two most successful franchises -- reigning champion Portland Thorns -- all the while suggesting, for the first time, that true major-league status might be in reach.
It's a tale of business more so than of sport, and the perception in what might already be the league's foremost rivalry says fellow expansionists San Diego Wave FC -- a side that spent a good deal of the season atop the standings and lost a semifinal to the Thorns in stoppage -- is about soccer while Angel City is about the show. Year two offers the opportunity to correct that, and it is the “show” that must do so.
Enter Alyssa Thompson, an 18-year-old “generational talent” (in general manager Angela Hucles Mangano's estimation), a budding U.S. national-teamer with exquisite skill and explosive pace who is wrapping up her senior year at prestigious Harvard-Westlake School just over the hill in Studio City. Angel City engineered a three-team trade to snag her, one step from Stanford University stardom, with the top selection in January's draft, the first high-schooler taking such a step.
Thompson, whether or not those in charge like it, is the new “face” of the franchise. That was apparent just five minutes into her public debut.
With her first significant touch before a crowd in an Angel City jersey, in a 3-0 romp March 8 over Club America Feminil, she collected a ball inside the midfield stripe, raced past four defenders, fending off one of them, rounded the goalkeeper, and deposited into an empty net. The magnitude of the moment could not be denied. Nor its promise.
She's a star in the making in a city that embraces stars, smart and mature, a delight to watch, fittingly representative of her diverse hometown: black, Peruvian, Filipino and Italian. Watch the run on No. 21 jerseys.
“I don't think players we play against will necessarily know how to defend her,” captain Ali Riley, another Harvard-Westlake product, said a few days before the game. “I think what I've seen, she's so composed, she's so mature, she's such an exciting player, and it's really cool to have this very impressive young talent playing at home in L.A. on this team. ... I think she's going to show that when you have the talent, anything is possible.”
Angel City, which kicks off its second campaign Sunday evening at BMO Stadium against Gotham FC, can certainly use what Thompson brings. It prospered everywhere but the field in 2022, struggling to find the net amid a season-long injury crisis and missing the playoffs after a dismal closing stretch left it 8-9-5 and four points out of the running. The prospect of Thompson teaming up front with Christen Press, the team's biggest name, and Sydney Leroux is most tantalizing.
Nobody knows when that will happen.
Leroux, 32, is nearly ready to return from an ankle injury that limited her to 182 minutes across three games after she was acquired, following Press' torn anterior cruciate ligament, in a late-June trade with Orlando. Press, 34, has undergone three surgeries on her right knee, and there's no timeline for her return. The club's line: “She is focused on rehabbing and will be back as soon as she is ready.”
Winning is key to Angel City's greater ambitions. It's “a club with the vision of being a global brand,” Hucles Mangano, a two-time Olympic gold medalist with 109 U.S. caps, told Soccer America. “Of doing things differently, of setting new standards.”
That starts with ownership, with a lot of celebrity bling among dozens of investors, including the likes of Portman, Eva Longoria, Serena Williams and Christina Aguilera, among many more, and also eight National Soccer Hall of Famers: Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Abby Wambach, Joy Fawcett, Shannon Boxx, Shannon MacMillan, Lauren Holiday and Cobi Jones. There's big money behind it, with internet entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian, Williams' husband, the lead investor.
The group, as a unit, is committed to creating a passionate following for women's sports, one composed of, well, everybody: young girls and their families, teenage boys, friends looking to be entertained, older couples, the elite and the working class. They want to be everything to everyone and believe they can.
The club's culture of diversity and inclusion and of community partnership, not unlike stadium partner Los Angeles FC's, has resonated in what can be a finicky town, as has its role as beacon for “progressive” causes -- equality and equity for all, ultimately. Angel City stands for something, and that's a powerful marketing tool.
Trophies, it is understood, will amplify its voice.
“This club has made such a positive impact in Los Angeles, in the league, in women's sports and globally. And people are talking about this club,” said Riley, who grew up in Pacific Palisades and captains New Zealand's national team. “And I do think it will help change the culture, which is what all of us are trying to do, really. Yes, we want to win soccer games, and if we win, it'll make it easier to change the culture, because the successful club gets more attention.
“I just think that this club is doing something so special, and it's setting a new standard, and I think other clubs will follow. That's the whole point, that there will be a domino effect, not to be the outlier.”
Head coach Freya Coombe (below), asked after the Club America victory about Angel City's ultimate legacy, desired “for us to be known as a champion.” She believes the tools are there.
“A club objective for how we are on the field and how we are off the field is we're ambitious,” she said. “I think that's something you'll see from us, is ambitious play and that we want to be ambitious in terms of the goals we set for ourselves this year.”
Reaching the postseason was last year's aim -- ACFC had it succeeded would have joined San Diego as the first expansion teams to reach the NWSL playoffs -- and failing to do so, Coombe said, “was heartbreaking.” Injuries were the primary culprit, starting in preseason when Sarah Gorden, a defensive-player-of-the-year finalist the year before with Chicago, tore her ACL. In all, 10 players spent significant time away or were greatly limited in what they could offer, especially on the backline and up top.
It sapped Coombe's resources, taxing her ability to rotate lineups and substitute effectively, and Angel City sagged as games wore on. It was outscored, 18-9, after halftime and wore down at the close of the campaign, losing four of the last five outings.
“We can talk about the off-field goals, that I think we did well,” Riley said. “I think we established a team culture. I think we showed our resilience when we had injury after injury -- top players that the club was building a foundation off of, getting injured, season-ending injuries. Because of the mentality of the players, because of some of the results we had, it felt like we were going to make the playoffs and to not do that ... we just wanted it so badly.
“Not making the playoffs really hurt. And I felt like we failed our fans. But then talking to them after, and the feedback I've gotten since, they do not feel like we failed us. And that's helped me a lot in assessing the season and and being really proud.”
Given the setbacks, it wasn't a bad season. After three wins in the first four games, most of the season was spent above the playoff line, and 19 of 22 matches were even or decided by a goal. Things were solid defensively -- only OL Reign, Portland and San Diego, the top three in the table, conceded fewer goals -- although DiDi Haracic, who would have been a worthy goalkeeper of the year, had to often be spectacular. Megan Reid, released by San Diego, played every minute and formed with Paige Nielsen, once she was fully fit in June, a fine partnership in the middle.
There were offensive struggles, with and without Press, a strong wide attacker often employed as a No. 9. Midfielder Savannah McCaskill stepped up with seven goals -- and nine in all games -- and the acquisition of Scottish forward Claire Emslie made Angel City more dangerous. Japanese national-teamer Jun Endo (below) was incisive on the wings. Angel City created chances but was inconsistent in taking them.
That needs to change, and Thompson will be a big part in that effort, working primarily with Emslie and Simone Charley until Leroux returns. A healthy, in-form Press would be a big step forward, but there seems no certainty of that.
Thompson, along with her little sister Gisele (a Stanford-bound defender who played in the U-17 World Cup and is training with ACFC), has been revered in SoCal youth soccer circles for years. She's impressed in MLS Next, playing against boys with Total Football Academy; was pivotal in making Harvard-Westlake the top girls program in a hugely competitive prep landscape; followed last year's U-20 World Cup with two appearances last fall for the full national team, the first before a sellout crowd at Wembley Stadium; and, alongside her sister, signed a Nike NIL agreement as a high school junior.
The 5-foot-3 sprinter evokes next-big-thing talk, and her performance against Club America did nothing to temper that. The goal was transcendent, but she wasn't done, repeatedly stretching the Mexicans' defense and challenging goalkeeper Itzel Gonzalez, delivering a gorgeous through ball for a goal flagged offside, even winning a post-corner kick duel to quash a dangerous situation with a two-goal advantage.
“It was a fantastic debut ...,” Coombe said. “Her goal, she took so coolly, like she had played in 100 games in this stadium. The occasion didn't put her off. ... She's a very smart presser. Defensively gets herself into really good positions. Tactically, she knows when to go and is able to work well within the team off the ball. On the ball, she offers really great movement, is able to face up -- how quickly she can take a touch, face up and go 1v1 with her opponent. And looking at how coolly she slotted the ball home, to finish [the goal], really impressive.”
“The first thing you see is the blazing speed,” Hucles Mangano told Sports Illustrated. “But then you also notice an intelligence beyond her years, with her movements, her runs. You can see she has the ability and the belief.”
Everybody gushes but nobody wants to weigh here down with lofty expectations. Hucles Mangano says “the expectations are growing Alyssa into a professional” and preaches caution in asking too much, “because what's very typical in American sports culture is to put a lot of high expectations that can be very negative for players.” She says there exists “time to develop [her] into the player that we think she can be and that she thinks she can be, as well.”
But there is expectation.
“Ultimately,” Hucles Mangano said, “our expectations for her are to come in and make an impact right away. But also have time to develop into an even greater professional that we know she can achieve.”
There's greater depth and talent at the back, with the versatile Gorden looking good, the addition of veteran Merritt Mathias from North Carolina Courage, right back Jasmyne Spencer fully healthy, and M.A. Vignola ready to go after missing most of last year through injury. Canadian national-teamer Vanessa Giles and Alison Swaby are expected back in July after loans in France. Coombe has in preseason looked at a double-hold in midfield, with Madison Hammond slotting next to Dani Weatherholt, to provide better support.
Coombe also has broadened her coaching staff, bringing in London City Lionesses head coach Melissa Phillips, who built dominant defenses at the University of Pennsylvania, as first assistant and reuniting with Becki Tweed, her assistant at Gotham FC before taking the Angel City post.
There's a foundation to build from, and that's enabled the staff to delve deeper into their game model.
“There's certainly less chaos [this year], to be honest,” Coombe said. “It was tough [last season]. It was exciting and it was a great opportunity in terms of picking all the players, but with that comes a lot of work. ... Now into year two, things are definitely a lot calmer. I think we can focus more on detail of some of the football, especially since we [return] the majority of our team. The players already have an idea of what we're trying to achieve, versus last year when everything was brand new and it was a blank slate and you're having to communicate to the players right from the get-go how we want to play.”
Riley says she's “seeing a cohesion that I don't think we maybe had time for last year.“
“Of course, it's very different going into season two with such a clear vision in place from our staff ...,” the 35-year-old left back said. “Last year there was a lot of Freya calls it, like, the 'washing machine,' like it was just so much, things that we didn't expect.”
Nielsen notes that “everyone came from a different team last year” and “we all had different ideas of what a team was and a culture was.” Fusing those together “is really hard for the first year.”
McCaskill says the needed “fluidity comes with time [and] we were just learning each other last year.” Angel City labored to find “that freedom of movement and just filling spaces rather than having such scripted movements. That's going to be huge for us going into this year, of not showing the other team the same pictures every single time that we have the ball, and it's going to make us really dangerous going forward.”
Angel City is about the “show,” and the show is an undeniable hit. There were more than 15,000 season ticketholders -- vastly more than the 2022 average attendance for 10 of the other 11 NWSL clubs -- with four 22,000-seat sellouts, a 19,000-plus average and no crowd smaller than 16,112. Some 90 percent of season-ticket packages have been renewed and new subscriptions have pushed the total past 16,000.
The club's first-year revenues have been reported as mid-eight figures, and they've sold, according to The Athletic, some $40 million worth of sponsorships, many of them over multiple years. Some 10 percent of that goes back into the community, as part of a club initiative. ACFC is a hot ticket, a cool look, and an example for the rivals/comrades here and around the world.
There's no limit to the vision.
“As far as I’m concerned,” club president and co-founder Julie Uhrman (center) told The Athletic, “we're going to be the first women's team to have a billion-dollar valuation in five years. There’s no better investment today than women’s sports.”
The “show” works best in tandem with the game. Getting that yin and yang correct is vital in getting where the club wants to be.
“I think we actually did well for the first season; there's always room to improve,” Hucles Mangano said. “Standing out differently on the marketing and investor side is definitely evident. And I think that is also where people come up with that phrase -- and it's one that I've heard before, as well, in terms of the soccer versus the 'show.'
“But, you know, that is a huge way that we're also elevating our players and also being able to provide more for our player experience. I think that's a huge component; our players want to be at Angel City and we are able to approach this in a way that it matters on the pitch, but it also matters off the pitch. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I think it's actually something that's attracted me to this club, because of a more holistic approach and how we can elevate and raise the brand and awareness of individual players.
“But the sport itself and these things need to be done concurrently. Together. We as a soccer club and organization definitely want to have even greater performances on the pitch and have more success, [and] it's equally as important, given the values and the mission of this club, to have both parts working really well together.”
“How can it get any better than this?” she said. “We have to repeat all the excitement and especially the support in the stadium, the home-game experience, and it's the fans. And that's why I think it's hard to separate the off-field and on-field, because if we can sustain this, if the support [remains so strong] ... the diversity of our fans, the public figures that that speak out and promote the club [and the rise of] women's sports. That's the mission, to show that women's sports, that it's popular, it's profitable. This isn't charity. This isn't a one off. This isn't a publicity stunt. It's not a gimmick. Like, this is the real deal. This is what the future is going to look like.
“For year two, I think we need to earn that continued support. And we did do well [last season]. Don't get me wrong, I think we did really well to finish in the middle of the table. But we want to do better, and if we have a top team, we need to then perform, we need to make the playoffs. And the more support we have, the more money we're donating, the more we're able to support initiatives that are so important to the players, to L.A.. and that's something that drives us to have a bigger purpose. Even bigger, and to how we can make a difference in people's lives who need it.”
The work never ends. Coombe was half-joking when she said winning “some silverware” would leave a legacy. Yes, it would, but that's not the point.
“Already the club has started to move the game forward with some of our initiatives,” she said. “The way in which we're working with the community, the way in which were looking at funding and sponsorship revenues, the way in which were working at being able to draw a crowd, giving back [to the sport].
“Already I think we're doing so much to help the game domestically. I would like to see us now start to reach out and branch out so that we're affecting football globally and [with] sports outside of football, the advancement of women's sport and the role of women in the community.”
Photos: Angel City FC