After a piecemealed Challenge Cup, by the time Angel City FC took to the pitch [at the Banc Stadium] for their first official NWSL match, there was almost a sense that they’d been hustling through pre-season. However, a better analogy would be that they simply had to iron out the kinks from their dress rehearsals, and by the time they got to opening night, the players were as polished as Oscar winners.
Red carpet extravaganza
The match was a sell-out and the star-studded investment team were mingling on the pitch before kick-off to inaugurate the team in its debut season, a club that roared into life as a brand more than sporting entity was about to face the critics for the first time. Up against a Courage side that had handled its fair share of big occasions, there was a worry that the sell-out would fast become a blow-out; yet when Angel City were expected to falter, they blossomed.
There were no opening night jitters to be seen, just a team coming together to play the best football of their very short life. When Jun Endo slipped away from Denise O’Sullivan to send the ball back into the box for Vanessa Gilles to nod home and ACFC claimed their first ever NWSL goal, less than 150 seconds into their debut match, they were an instant box office smash. The Banc erupted. Over a decade without a women’s professional football team and LA once again had one and they were putting on a show worthy of the occasion.
Endo’s silky solo goal promoted her from best supporting actress to leading lady, no one surprised when she ended the tie as player of the match. But it wasn’t just the Japanese international who had looked the pressure of the night in the face and delivered on the big stage, but all of the ACFC team who stepped up and came together as a team. The directing and production from the dugout as vital on such an important night, everyone playing their parts to a tee.
Like all sequels, the second half had mixed reviews and arguably failed to live up to the expectation crafted by the first, as the Courage found more purchase in midfield and pulled a goal back. With the Angel City attackers forced to wait in the wings for their cues, the defence, anchored by DiDi Haračić in goal played a bigger role, as game management became the order of the evening.
The crash, bang and wallop the match started with – both the football and pre-match pyrotechnics – a memory as the final act wrapped up. A sigh of relief breathed out by the tens of thousands of fans in the stands as the credits finally rolled, the hosts able to see the match out and claim all three points.
The diligent writers over at Angels on Parade, who know their beat, will tell you that LA is a tough market to crack, that the fans, whilst not fickle, have so very many options for how to spend their free time. Success, whilst important, isn’t paramount, but the paying public do demand a show, a reason to keep coming back and supporting their sporting entity and when it came down to opening night, ACFC delivered.
The fans were already decked out in the team’s colours, their voices primed and ready to take the roof off for a Christen Press goal that never came, they had already bought into the club and they were rewarded with a sterling performance. Angel City might not be about to rival Meryl – although, who can? – but they announced themselves, to NWSL, to their fans, to their rivals; they dropped that debut album and it was fire.
Beyond the football, the goals and highlights, they dealt with the pressure and expectations upon them, they treated the pitch as their stage, their lines practiced and delivered with purpose for the paying crowd. Whether or not they sustain the results and performances throughout the season, especially when they have to deal with long away trips to the East Coast and back, remains to be seen. Maybe they won’t be this summer’s box office blockbuster, but damn, what an opening night.