Saskia Webber addresses the crowd during a pregame ceremony for ACFC's Players 22 Future Program. (Courtesy of Angel City Football Club)

LOS ANGELES — Saskia Webber and Angela Hucles Mangano combined for three Olympic gold medals and a World Cup title in 22 combined seasons of professional soccer. Yet, when the U.S. women’s national team players hung up their cleats and headed into the next phase of their lives, their career options were limited and the paths unclear.

Webber, a part-owner of Angel City FC, and Hucles Mangano, the organization’s vice president of player development and operations, are committed to providing opportunities so that today’s women’s soccer players avoid the pitfalls they faced in retirement.

In a Saturday night ceremony ahead of ACFC’s 3-2 loss to OL Reign that featured the retirement of jersey No. 22, Hucles Mangano announced a funding milestone for the club’s Player 22 Future Program. The initiative aims to support retired NWSL players interested in careers in the sports industry by providing funding for educational and professional opportunities. Announced in October 2021, the innovative program does not yet have a launch date provided by the California Community Fund (CCF), but Hucles Mangano expects the application process to open by the end of 2022.

“This isn’t just something Angel City is doing for Angel City,” Webber said. “We want the whole league to embrace it, and hopefully all sports will embrace it.”

According to Hucles Mangano, ACFC will play a “hands-off” role in applicant selection and allow CCF to oversee the process, while she and the team’s star-studded group of investors will be responsible for “outreach galore.” Raising awareness to the public and NWSL players, retired and active, will be critical to increasing the funding capacity of the program and allowing it to reach its intended beneficiaries.

The last thing retired players like Webber want to see is the next generation of athletes struggle in retirement as they did.

“I was out on the field for the ceremony, and I looked over and saw (OL Reign midfielder) Olivia Athens,” said Webber, who coached Athens at UCLA. “Knowing what a great woman she is and a great student she was, and that she decided that instead of going into the job market she’d follow her dreams and play pro, instead of her worrying about if that’s going to put her behind, she knows now she has a safe place to land when she retires.”

For Webber 20 years ago, the experience was markedly different.

“We put our hearts and souls into soccer,” Webber said of herself and her USWNT teammates. “We started the WUSA, and when I retired, for me personally, there was nothing. I was already 10, 15 years behind the people I went to college with. It was a reality check.”

Retired players and Angel City FC investors present jersey No. 22 in honor of the Player 22 Future Program. (Courtesy of Angel City Football Club)

Webber described the program as one that embraces retiring women’s soccer players and tells them, “We’ve got you.” While P22 will give these women the opportunity to pay forward the gifts that pro soccer has given them, most crucially, it will help them sustain their lives after their playing days are over.

“Honestly, I’m still looking for that job,” said Webber, who was named the goalkeeping coach for USC women’s soccer in March. “It’s taken me over 20-something years, and I’ve bounced around from one thing to another because I was behind. People wouldn’t give me that chance. I found my way back to soccer, but it took a long time.”

Men’s professional athletes have historically earned significantly larger incomes than their female counterparts and are afforded much more visibility and additional opportunities, such as sponsorships. Despite the continued gender disparity, Hucles Mangano and Webber believe the tides are beginning to shift.

“We are seeing doors opening for women in sports and opportunities to place former professional female athletes in different careers,” Hucles Mangano said. “This program builds those pathways that never existed for female athletes before.”

Before this program, no professional sports league had offered such meaningful, hands-on career support to retired players, Webber says. If a retired NWSL player has played even just one minute in the league, she is eligible.

“We are going to take you under our wing and help guide you and place you whether you want to be a coach, in the front office or an owner,” Webber said. “We’re going to help you.”

“It provides the education and guidance to fill that gap between when you retire from soccer and when you’re going into your next career,” Hucles Mangano added.

Angel Hucles Mangano speaks at the jersey retirement ceremony Saturday. (Courtesy of Angel City Football Club)

Webber emphasized that while some retired athletes quickly ascend to roles as a coach, general manager, broadcaster or even owner, these individuals make up one percent or less of retired players.

“What about the other 99 percent who aren’t going to roll out of this and get an agent and get a broadcasting job?” Webber asked. “We don’t want to forget them. We’re going to pay as much attention to the 22nd person on that field and give as much opportunity to you as we would the marquee player, and that’s what’s important. In a lot of sports, those are the people that get left behind.”

In addition to continued outreach, Hucles Mangano plans to dream up other ways of supporting retiring women’s soccer players and bring the ideas to the CCF to put into practice.

“What’s amazing is how everything has changed with women’s sports, and women’s soccer specifically, in giving us opportunities,” Webber said. “If you said 20 years ago that I would become an owner of a team, I would have told you that you’re crazy. All of this, it snowballs. (Player 22 Future) is an amazing program, and the sky’s the limit.”

Joshua Fischman is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering Angel City FC and the Los Angeles Sparks. He has covered basketball for Vantage Sports and Hoops Rumors and served as co-host of “On the NBA Beat” podcast. Joshua received his master’s in Sports Media from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter @SportsCommsJosh.