2022 featured two NWSL expansion sides for the first time since…well, kind of ever. The year before there were two “new” teams, but one – Kansas City – was just Utah in teal. This past year we had two actual, no-shit, real expansion sides in California, the San Diego Wave and these folks.
Their 2022 couldn’t have been more un-alike.
As we’ve already discussed, San Diego was number three with a bullet, perhaps the single biggest expansion-team success story in league history, and came within a couple of golazos from going to the Final in their first ever season.
Angel City was, if anything, more anticipated and arrived with more word-of-mouth. A star-studded ownership group, relentless social media campaign, huge FOMO, and a roster full of NWSL A- and B+ listers promised big fireworks in Los Angeles.
What LA fans got, instead, was a soggy fizzle from…
Angel City FC
Year formed: 2020
Seldom has a team arrived in the NWSL with more play than ACFC.
The promotional videos burst on to social media practically from the announcement of the expansion deal in July. The owner group was a huge story in itself, a whole bunch of Hollywood A-listers and Angelino sports figures. Everything from kit colors to badge to venue were discussed, tweeted and re-tweeted, before so much as a single practice cone was set down.
Seasons ticket sales went through the roof.
Then the team had to live up to that hype on the pitch.
Owners: The A-List
There are about 44 people listed on the ACFC owners page. Think of a big-name entertainment or sports figure? They’re there. The names on the club Wikipedia page include: Natalie Portman, Serena Williams, Jessica Chastain, Mia Hamm, Jennifer Garner, Eva Longoria, Julie Foudy, Rachel Van Hollabeke, Shannon Boxx, Amanda Comwell, Joy Fawcett, Angels Hucles, Shannon McMillian, Abby Wambach, Billie Jean King, and, oh yeah, Cobi Jones, plus ladidadi-and-everybody-vloggers, entrepreneurs, and vulture capitalists.
Who actually runs this thing?
Julie Uhrman is the “president”. Here’s the story as it appeared in her Wikipedia page:
“Uhrman co-founded Angel City FC with venture capitalst Kara Nortman…and actress Natalie Portman. The NWSL club signed 21 sponsors and sold 14,300 season tickets before its first season of play…Nortman recruited Uhrman in 2019 from the pickup basketball league both women competed in and tasked her with building the team’s business plan, despite Uhrman not previously knowing that the NWSL existed.”~ Wikipedia, “Julie Uhrman“
Great story. How the hell about that..? Goes to show that you can be good or you can be lucky but it helps to be good n’ lucky.
Head Coach: Freya Coombe
Another Brit, this one from somewhere in Buckinhamshire (even her club page doesn’t say where, so probably some noplace called “Little Doddering” or something equally P.G. Wodehouse-y). She played for Reading, moved into management there, and then shipped over to the States where she managed in Jersey. Her two seasons at Sky Blue/Gotham include an overall 3-5-2 in the Challenge Cup and Fall Series, and a fifth place and playoffs in 2021 (but an uncermonious first-round ditching at the hands of the Chicago Red Stars).
The first season for Coombe and ACFC didn’t go well.
2022 – 8-9-5 (29 points; 8th of 12) 23GF 27GA -4GD
Season summary: ACFC jumped out of the gate; 3-1-0 and in second on Matchday 5.
That was the best they could do. They went 2-4-2 over the next eight, were below the redline and stayed there the rest of the season – in fact, they lost their last two games to drop to eighth.
The kind of amazing thing is that despite that the team drew like cold beer on a hot day; over 20,000 four times, averaging 19,000-plus…even locked out of the postseason and in a meaningless September match with the equally-dire Spirit ACFC drew 16,000-plus. Go figure.
Meetings with Portland: 6/3/22 (3-0 away loss), 7/1/22 (1-1 home draw)
Outstanding players: Well…that was kind of a part of the problem. When Savannah McCaskill is your best attacker? You got issues.
McCaskill was the top scorer – but only with 7 goals- and the player behind her was Cari Roccaro with only 4.
After that? Former Thorn Simone Charley with two.
What about their defense?
Looking purely at the GA, well…shipping only 27 goals wasn’t discreditable – four of the seven teams that finished above ACFC conceded as many or more.
Here again is our defending-and-goalkeeping table. How’d the Angels managed to do so well in back?
Oh, my. Oh my my…
What saved ACFC – the ONLY thing that saved ACFC – from being a raging tire fire defensively was Didi Haracic, full stop, who was the best technical keeper in the league in 2022.
Behind a backline that was as useless as a kleenex in a typhoon Haracic saved about 11 goals over the season, more than one every two games. Take her out – replace her with Casey Murphy, say – and you got +23GF -39GA -16GD and you’re Orlando or Gotham. That’s brutal.
As we saw when we looked at Carolina, bad backlines ship goals and drop points and, sure enough, the Angels dropped as many from leads as we did, about a dozen points all season.
And with a whopping seven goals from your leading scorer you wouldn’t expect a lot of come-from-behind wins, either, and you’d be right.
So with big name Hollywood star owners, a huge fanbase, exciting publicity, and a glittering FOMO public presence Angel City had everything you’d want in an expansion team except quality on the pitch…
…so they ended up being nothing but lower-mid-table dross.
How did they score?
Well…as we’ve seen, they didn’t.
As noted above, the Angels were useless in front of goal, which was a big part of their problem.
And ACFC was hugely reliant on the run of play, so not scoring goals from open play meant trouble. Their corner and setpiece goals – about 12% – were virtually nonexistent (tho no worse than most of the bottom feeders) so nothing from there, either.
Perhaps the most bizarre awful scoring thing about ACFC are the PKs.
McCaskill took them all, and took five through the season. She sank only two – and keep in mind the typical penalty taker scores something like 70% of the time – and missed the third but potted the rebound in the 1-1 draw with Portland in July. So had McCaskill been merely a normally-competent penalty taker ACFC should have had at least two more goals in 2022. But…McCaskill. Sheesh.
So just a mess.
How Did They Look?
I looked at ACFC over the course of five games.
Starting with the April home opener with North Carolina:
Pretty straightforward 4-3-3; Lussi-Press-Endo across the top, McCaskill at RW, Roccaro at LW with Dani Weatherholt in the middle, Spencer-Reid-Gilles-Riley in back. It worked well enough to tame the Courage 2-1
Next is the first meeting here in June:
Big change; 4-2-3-1. Lussi moves all the way back to RB but with the other three backs unchanged. McCaskill moves up to ACM and Le Bihan replaces her at RM. Simone Charley is the lone #9 as Press moves back to LW and Endo swaps with her for RW.
This worked like a boat anchor; the Thorns kicked ACFC around 3-nil.
When we saw them again in LA about a month later we saw the same formation but with a lot of player shifting:
Miri Taylor swaps for Charley, Le Bihan is now RW, McCaskill stays where she was but Endo is now LW. Nabet and Weatherholt replace Le Bihan and Roccaro as CMs and Neilsen swaps in for Gilles.
This worked better against us than the June lineup did; ACFC damn near ran off with a 1-nil home win except for the Po-to-Ryan header in last-second second half injury time.
Now it’s a week later, second week of July. The Angels are struggling along below the red line when the league-leading Wave comes to town:
Coombe goes to a 4-4-2; she’s now got Sydney Leroux up top with Le Bihan. McCaskill’s gone. Taylor drops back to RW, Endo still LW with Weatherholt and Nabet still in the middle. Same back four.
Result? Big 2-1 win for ACFC that sort of sparked a little run from them; including this game the Angels went 3-1-3 over the next seven.
Unfortunately for ACFC the other top six kept pace and the Angels stayed locked in seventh and out of the money and then shat the bed in September going 1-4-0 to drop to their finishing eighth.
Last game, mid-September away to San Diego:
Some kind of weird 4-1-3-2, or maybe a 4-4-2 diamond? Hard to tell and I didn’t watch it so I’m not sure.
McCaskill’s up top and back to missing PKs again with Claire Emslie beside her. Endo is still LW, Roccaro is back but RW with Le Bihan stacked over Weatherholt in midfield. Spencer replaces Lussi at RB with the other usual three.
Not surprisingly the Angels fell 1-nil; their season was over and there was nothing to play for but pride. Arielle Dror’s xG plot tells the story; neither team created much – the huge riser near the 75th minute is McCaskill missing another PK (sweet Jesus, woman..!)
So this all is pretty much what you’d expect; barren attack, poor defense that even the best keeper in the league couldn’t rescue left LA with a whole lot of glitter and no glue.
Changes for 2023
We already know two trades; Mathis from North Carolina for Tyler Lussi, so that’s close to like-for-like (interesting that the Angels still rostered Lussi as a forward, tho) and Roccaro to Chicago for Bairdbux (and shockingly little – $65K is peanuts for a veteran of Roccaro’s c.v. Not sure what’s going on there…).
Many of last year’s faces are back, so there’s continuity from 2022 tho given the season? I’m not sure how great that is.
ACFC had two draft picks including the #1 overall pick and went the expected direction:
Alyssa Thompson (forward/winger) – 1st round #1
No other first or second round picks. In the third round ACFC took:
Angelina Anderson (goalkeeper) – 3rd round #27
Henderson thought little of the Anderson pick but, c’mon! You got Didi Haracic! Who cares?
How they’ll look next year?
Here’s the Henderson guess:
Obviously this is before both the Mathias-Lussi and Roccaro deals. My guess is that instead we’ll see something like this:
What could this do?
Frankly, a lot hangs on some players who are known to be streaky. If Press and Leroux have great seasons – which they can, surely, but which they haven’t much, recently – if McCaskill can stop shanking fucking PKs, if Endo can pitch in some more…if Thompson is a Rookie-of-the-Year..?
Then if Gordon and Mathias can help shore up the backline – shit, all they need is to be half-decent and Haracic will do the rest. But they gotta be better than last year.
I dunno. I’d feel more worried about the Angels if I felt it was a lock that Leroux and Press and McCaskill and Thompson could suddenly run wild, that somehow the synergy of the three-plus-Endo-plus-the-rook will make the whole better than the sum of the parts.
But I just don’t feel it. I think they’re looking at another pretty meh season in the City of Angels.
Not great last season. Got a big name draftee and a couple of well-traveled aging stars plus whatever the hell McCaskill is. I love Endo but she underwhelmed last season. Haracic is a monster but her defense was shit and hasn’t really upgraded that much.
So…I think the Angels will be lucky to improve slightly on last season.
Another year of desperately clawing for the red line.
Will they be dangerous? Again…if the big stars suddenly catch fire, if Thompson really is all that, if Endo has a dozen assists, if the backline isn’t dross. That’s a lot of ifs, so I don’t think so. Maybe not an automatic “W”…but pretty much a point at least and probably all three most of the time.
Can the Thorns beat them? Yes. Absolutely. The key is closing down the strikers. If Press and Leroux can hurt you, they will. So body up to them and use the speed of our frontline to punch through the inevitable holes in their defending. These people should be eminently beatable.
Next up: Kentucky Kernels