Women’s Pro Soccer is Back in Southern California – A ‘Transformational’ Moment for the Girls’ Stronghold 03/21/2022

Christen Press could hardly believe what she was seeing: thousands of football fans were yelling at her as she struggled in her own backyard for a top division club.

Women’s professional football returned to Southern California Saturday night for the first time in more than a decade, and that was something that Press, a US national team star who was born in Los Angeles and based in the posh Palos Verdes Estates in South Bay, did growing up from LA, never expected to experience.

Her Angel City FC side played the San Diego Wave to a 1-1 draw in the debuts of the two National Women’s Soccer League expansion clubs in 2022, and wowed a raucous crowd of 6,307, which seemed larger – most of Cal State Fullertons 10,000-seat Titan The stadium was packed – and it sounded much, much louder.

It’s taken a long time, an oddity that addresses some of the issues women’s football has faced since the United States triumphed in 1999 – in front of a staggering crowd that culminated in 90,000 for the Rose Bowl title game – to be resolved in this country the first of three professional leagues.

Southern California has been the epicenter of American football for at least three decades, producing talent that populates our national teams — and those of some rivals too — as the sport’s position in society has steadily grown into something fairly important, no matter mainstream media’s ignorance against this fact. That’s never counted for much in these leagues, at least until now.

Now there’s Angel City, with a star-studded ownership group — more on that later — and a season ticket sale of nearly 15,000, playing its Challenge Cup games in Orange County before relocating to Los Angeles FC’s Banc of California Stadium in Exposition Park the actual season. And the Wave two hours south on the 5 freeway. Things are finally right in the world of Press and so many others.

“I’ve played my entire professional career for going home and playing at home,” said Press, a two-time world champion who has played for clubs in Chicago and Salt Lake City, in Sweden and for Manchester United. “For most of my career, I didn’t think it would become a reality. I felt like there was still a long way to go before we would ever have an LA team.”

It took the NWSL 10 seasons to reach California. In the 16 years of pro women’s leagues in America – with the Women’s United Soccer Association (2001-03) and Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-11) paving the way for the NWSL – there has only been one Los Angeles team, the Sol , and for only one season and disappeared immediately after reaching the first WPS championship game.

San Diego, which is smaller and separated both culturally and geographically from the greater Los Angeles area – LA, Orange and Ventura Counties and the most populous part of the Inland Empire – but is just as passionate about soccer, had a three-year run with WUSA’s Spirit. Nothing in the following 13 years.

Saturday night was a celebration of the end of the drought, with a captivated audience standing in long lines to buy scarves or jerseys with Press’ 23 on the back after there were longer queues to enter the stadium, and then their gratitude showered upon those who ran up and down a pristine field.

Everyone was excited about the electricity running through the site. Wave Head Coach Casey Stoneya former England star who had managed Manchester United’s women for the past three seasons said things had gotten so loud she couldn’t hear herself thinking, calling it “one of the best atmospheres in which.” I trained”.

Most of the crowd was against her, of course. San Diego will make its home debut this weekend, Saturday night against the Portland Thorns at University of San Diego’s Torero Stadium, where the Wave will play through to Snapdragon Stadium — which is under construction on the Mission Valley site of the late, great Jack Murphy Stadium is , longtime home of the San Diego Padres and Chargers and regular USNT/Mexico stop, is operational in mid-September.

“The atmosphere in Angel City was incredible,” Stoney told Soccer America on Sunday. “We want to achieve that, raise that, really.”

Both teams want to be competitive in their early seasons and have the talent to do so, San Diego maybe even more so. The Wave, led by a former US head coach Jill Ellis as president, has built a deep, high-calibre group based on years of experience and led by US stars Alex Morgan front and Abby Dahlkemper on the back line.

They have a top goalkeeper (Kailen Sheridanfrom Gotham FC from New Jersey), built up offensive depth through the Sweden international Sophie Jakobsson and jodie taylora former England regular with NWSL experience, and has 10 players with US youth national team experience including three (crossers Amira Alimidfield player Kelsey Turnbow and defender Naomi Girmatop pick in December’s NWSL draft), who made their pro debut in the starting XI.

Angel City have two local stars – Press up front and New Zealand captain Ali Riley from Pacific Palisades, north of Santa Monica, left back – and outstanding midfielder Savannah McCaskill and defender Vanessa Giles, one of the keys to Canada’s Olympic gold medal last summer. If you don’t have it, you’re a US star Julia Ertz, the rights to which the club acquired in a deal with Chicago Red Stars in December but are unsigned. From all appearances she won’t be playing this season, at least not in the NWSL, but will be head coach Freya Coombe says the lines of communication are open.

“We’d love to have them with us…” said Coombe, an Englishwoman who has spent most of the last year at Gotham FC, who won their first place in the playoffs since 2013 when it was still known as Sky Blue FC. has achieved. “We will continue to have talks and we will always have a place on the list for them.”

The first game was a first game, with everything that goes with it. Teams are still building chemistry, figuring out connections, evolving playstyles, and building foundations for their cultures, and things have been a godsend for both sides. The Wave was much better before halftime, dictating the conditions through possession and chasing, but couldn’t create any great scoring chances. Angel City, playing with more organization and panache, looked stronger after the break and took the lead in the 50th minute on McCaskill’s header from Riley’s feed.

Jakobsson made an immediate impression as he entered in 76th position to join Morgan up front and San Diego rallied for the tie as Kaleigh Riehl scored by Marlene ShimmerCorner kick in the 81st minute

“It’s a great first step,” McCaskill said. “There are tons to learn from, but there are great moments in it too. Very good things to build from.”

Ten starters from Angel City went over the full 90. Morgan and Dahlkemper were good for just 45 for San Diego and Jakobsson for just 15. Fitness has more work in progress. Saturday night’s work was most important – the regular season begins April 29 and there is still work to be done – but the occasion, with such a lively crowd, made it special.

Morgan, who grew up just a dozen miles north on the 57 Freeway in Diamond Bar, said she has “a lot of memories from that field” and that it was “really great for Angel City to see a full stadium, but for all of us ahead.” play so many.”

Like Press, she hoped for that day without trusting that it would actually happen.

“Ever since I became a professional athlete, I’ve always wanted to have a team in California,” said Morgan, who has won two world championships and Olympic gold and bronze medals while scoring 115 goals in 190 US games. “Not just to play here, but because California deserves to have a professional women’s soccer team. … It was time for a team or teams in California, and I think it’s great for California football. I’m biased, but I think Southern California is the Mecca of youth football, so giving the next generation access week in and week out is so important.

“It was there that I developed my passion for the game, watching the Sol and the teams before that. When the national team came to LA, it was always a really exciting thing. …

“It’s a little surprising [that it’s taken this long]But better late than never.”

Given Southern California’s sporting heritage and a population of about 20 million, the wait has been an odd one, and it’s worth considering whether an American league can be considered truly “big” without a team in LA or its sprawling suburbs. There are two in each of the seven major men’s competitions (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, MLS, and college football and basketball), although the NFL — and LA — thrived between 1994 and 2016 without an NFL team.

The biggest struggle of professional women’s football has always been with the economy. The WUSA and WPS had fantastic teams with the best talent in the world – something the NWSL doesn’t have – but the revenue never came close to covering the costs. It was difficult to find suitable management in Los Angeles. The Sol, who won the regular-season title in WPS’ inaugural season and lost in the title game (to Sky Blue) after giving up an early goal and taking a 27th-minute red card, died because Galaxy owners AEG the partnership with Semiprofi left powerhouse Pali Blues at the end of that season.

Angel City’s novel approach to overcoming such difficulties cannot be duplicated. The club’s list of investors so far is 120, including some real backers – venture capitalists Alexis Ohanian (husband to Serena Williams) and Kara Nordman — in the Who’s Who of women’s football (Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett, Abby Wabach, Shannon Boxx, Shannon MacMillan, Rachel Buehler Van Hollebeke, Tisha Venturini High, Lauren Cheney and Angela Hucles), entertainment (club founder Natalie Portmancurrent Oscar nominees Jessica Chastainfellow actors Jennifer Garner, Eva Longoria and America Ferrera), other sports (skiers Lindsey Vonnbasketball star candace parker) and Men’s Hall of Famers Cobi Jones. Hucles is Vice President of Player Development and Operations and a former England star Eniola Aluko is sports director.

(San Diego is a bit laissez-faire when it comes to professional sports — the Padres are the only major team, though there are those too Landon Donovan-Coached San Diego Loyal in the United Soccer League — but is back in the game thanks Ron Buerklewho decided last year that The Wave would play in San Diego rather than Sacramento after withdrawing from MLS’ expansion efforts in Sacramento.)

The addition of these clubs is a huge step forward for the NWSL and women’s football in this country and whatever it took, Press is thrilled to see it happen.

“Southern California is a soccer hotspot and so much of our talent in this country comes from that area,” she said. “For this mass of young girls to have professional teams to watch, learn and learn from, but also dream about and be inspired by, I think is transformative. I hope it is.”

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