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Angel City home opener a big win for NWSL

LOS ANGELES — April 29 seems like a good day in Banc of California Stadium lore.

On this day in 2018, LAFC, Major League Soccer’s expansion team, played their first home game there, defeating the Seattle Sounders. Four years later, the Banc was ready for another first home game. This time it was new National Women’s Soccer League team Angel City FC who soared with a 2-1 win over North Carolina Courage.

What made Friday night so special? It began over the years at LAFC home games, where the North End’s vociferous supporters department hung a banner with the blunt message: “Bring the NWSL to LA.”

The proposal sparked a movement and has now become a reality. The same area that previously featured the banner is home to members of Angel City’s six official supporter groups, and they rocked the drums, sang and orchestrated the atmosphere for Friday’s sold-out crowd.

22,000 people on a Friday night in Los Angeles to support a women’s soccer team.

“It was incredible. Everything we hoped the club would do, they delivered in abundance,” said head coach Freya Coombe. “The crowd was unreal tonight – their energy, their enthusiasm and their support for the players and that coaching staff were felt throughout the night.

“It’s the best environment I’ve ever trained in.”

If Angel City can sustain the enthusiasm, it could become the NWSL’s busiest club on a permanent basis. The Portland Thorns held that honor in 2021, averaging over 14,000 fans.

Women’s football is also popular around the world, with Barcelona holding the world record for attendance at an official match twice Last month.

If you look around the stadium on Friday you will see World Cup legends such as Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach (both part of Angel City’s prominent ownership group), current football pros, actresses, celebrities and much more. It was as Los Angeles as it gets.

And Los Angeles didn’t wait long to celebrate. Three minutes into the competition, Vanessa Gilles scored the first official goal in franchise history:

Jun Endo, assisting the first set with a dirty move and a cross, found the back of the net 10 minutes later and doubled the score. North Carolina finally got on the board in the second half and knocked on the door for the equalizer, but Angel City held on.

You wouldn’t let the perfect night end lousy.

“My teammates were screaming and crying tears of joy and it meant the world to me,” said ACFC midfielder Dani Weatherholt. “This organization is just more than a sport and I think that was the moment where it felt so much bigger than the game.

Angel City has adopted a 10% sponsorship model where the club returns a portion of all sponsorships directly to the community. The club has also built grassroots work to include women at all levels.

“With everything we do in Angel City, we hope to push things forward in a way that other people can see, replicate, build upon and improve upon,” said Catherine Davila, community leader. “I think it’s something that will help build the culture across the NWSL.”

Entering the stadium on Friday, Davila couldn’t help but get emotional as she saw years of work come to fruition.

Christen Press and Angel City won their first ever home game in front of over 20,000 enthusiastic spectators.  (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Christen Press and Angel City won their first ever home game in front of over 20,000 enthusiastic spectators. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

The same emotions prevailed after the game. Captain Ali Riley, a Los Angeles native, was in tears on the field after the game. She’s kicked a ball in many places – Sweden, England, Russia – but the opportunity to finally do so in her hometown meant more.

“I’ve waited 12 years for a moment like this. I was hoping to be drafted into the (now defunct) LA Sol, the team collapsed before I had the chance,” she said. “I’ve been all over the world and to be here with my parents and to watch this game so we win, feel the love and support, I think we proved that anything is possible in women’s sport.

“I went to the ’99 [Women’s] World Cup finals and that gave me this idea,” added Riley. “I had no idea how it would happen but it planted the seed that maybe one day I could play football on a stage like this. So for us to be here now and for these little girls to see that, that kind of visibility and how we’re on the ground with all the different skin colors, experiences and backgrounds – such a diverse and inclusive group, that’s really important.

The composition of the team reflected the crowd, a diverse range of families, young children and older adults, who filled the seats.

“The point is that women’s football belongs,” said Riley, “and it belongs in this town.”

As the banner said, the NWSL was brought to LA. What LA can bring to the NWSL is just as big.

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