Women's soccer boom hits Angel City opener: 'Best environment I've ever coached in'

·5 min read

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

On that date in 2018, Major League Soccer expansion side LAFC played their first home game there and defeated the Seattle Sounders. Four years later, the Banc was ready for yet another inaugural home match. This time it was new National Women’s Soccer League team Angel City FC flying high in a 2-1 victory over North Carolina Courage.

What made Friday night so special? It started at LAFC home matches over the years, where the raucous North End supporters' section included a banner with a forthright message: “Bring NWSL to LA.”

The proposition ignited a movement, and has now turned into a reality. That same section where the banner used to appear is home to members of the six official Angel City supporter groups, and they were rocking the drums, chanting and orchestrating the atmosphere for the sold-out crowd on Friday.

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

“It was unbelievable. Everything that we'd hoped that the club would deliver, they delivered in abundance and with more,” said head coach Freya Coombe. “The crowd was unreal tonight — their energy, enthusiasm, and support for the players and for the coaching staff was felt throughout the night.

“It's the best environment that I've ever coached in.”

If Angel City can keep up the enthusiasm, it might become the best-attended NWSL club on a consistent basis. The Portland Thorns held that honor in 2021, with over 14,000 fans on average.

Women's soccer is rising fast in popularity around the globe, too, with Barcelona setting the world attendance record for an official match twice in the past month.

A glance around the stadium Friday and you’d see World Cup legends like Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach (both part of Angel City's celebrity-packed ownership group), current professional soccer players, 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 contest, Vanessa Gilles scored the first official goal in franchise history:

Jun Endo, who assisted the opener with a filthy move and cross, found the back of the net 10 minutes later and doubled the score. North Carolina eventually got on the board in the second half and was knocking on the door for the equalizer, but Angel City held on.

They weren’t going to let the perfect night have a lousy ending.

“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’s the moment when it felt so much bigger than the game.

Angel City has incorporated a 10% sponsorship model, where the club reallocates a portion of all sponsorships directly back into the community. The club has also established grassroots outreach to get women involved on all levels.

“Everything we do at Angel City, the hope is we’re pushing things in a way that other people can see, replicate, build on and make it better,” said Head of Community Catherine Davila. “I think it’s something that’s going to help build the culture across the NWSL.”

As she walked into the stadium Friday, Davila couldn’t help but get emotional seeing years of work come to fruition.

Christen Press and Angel City won their first-ever home match with over 20,000 energetic fans in attendance. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)
Christen Press and Angel City won their first-ever home match with over 20,000 energetic fans in attendance. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

The same emotions were prevalent postgame. Captain Ali Riley, a Los Angeles native, was in tears on the field after the match. She's kicked a ball in many places — Sweden, England, Russia — but being able to finally do so in her hometown meant more.

“I have waited for a moment like this for 12 years. I hoped to get drafted to the (now-defunct) L.A. Sol, the team folded before I had the chance,” she said. “I have been all over the world, and to be here with my parents watching this game, for us to win, to feel the love and support, I think we proved that anything is possible in women’s sports.

“I went to the ‘99 [Women’s] World Cup final and that was what put this idea in my head,” Riley added. “I had no idea how it would happen but it planted the seed that maybe one day I could play soccer on a stage like that. So now for us to be here and for those little girls to see that, just that kind of visibility and how we are in the field with all different skin colors, experiences, backgrounds — such a diverse and inclusive group, that’s really important.”

The team's makeup reflected the crowd, a wide range of families, young kids and older adults filling the seats.

“The point is that women's soccer belongs,” Riley said, “and it belongs in this city.”

Like the banner said, the NWSL has been brought to L.A. What L.A. can bring to the NWSL is just as big.