LOS ANGELES — “Futból Sin Fronteras, ¡Una Sola Pasión!” read a sign in the supporters’ section during Angel City FC’s match against Tigres Femenil on Wednesday night. The club’s first international friendly was a celebration of the increasing interconnectedness of the women’s soccer world. In the words of the sign, the match was “soccer without borders” in action.

ACFC forward Stefany Ferrer Van Ginkel may have felt that sentiment most strongly. The 23-year-old has played competitive soccer in four countries (Spain, the United States, England and Mexico) and was facing her old team on Wednesday. Afterward, she said the best part about playing her former teammates was having the opportunity to hug them and catch up after the game.

In her first start for ACFC, Ferrer Van Ginkel was named Player of the Match despite having a beautiful assist called back after rookie Hope Breslin was ruled offside. Head coach Freya Coombe praised Ferrer Van Ginkel’s ability to “show some class on the ball in possession” throughout the game. The midfielder played the bulk of the match, which Angel City won 1-0 on Savannah McCaskill’s goal in the 79th minute.

Next year, ACFC will visit Tigres in Monterrey, Mexico to culminate the two-year home-and-home series. On Tuesday, the clubs held a festival that included a youth soccer clinic, a five-on-five tournament and player appearances. Tigres will also host events for fans ahead of next year’s game to promote women’s soccer and engage their community.

Ferrer Van Ginkel understands as well as anyone the unique way sports can connect people. She was born in Brazil and began playing soccer in middle school to make friends after moving to Spain and not yet speaking Spanish. She and her two sisters were adopted by a Spanish family after their mother could no longer take care of them. What began as a way to fit in became an obsession and ultimately a career for the young footballer.

After spending last season in Liga MX Femenil with Tigres, Ferrer Van Ginkel signed a one-year deal with Angel City on Feb. 1 through a transfer agreement between the clubs. Now months into her first NWSL season, she describes the U.S. pro league as more physical and Mexico’s as more technical. Coombe believes the pace of play is faster in the NWSL, but what made Wednesday’s game a good test is that Tigres is one of the faster teams in Liga MX Femenil.

Four players born in California started the game for Tigres, including three with Southern California ties. Defender Anika Rodriguez and forward Mia Fishel were teammates at UCLA, Ammanda Marroquin was born in San Diego, and Bianca Sierra hails from the Bay Area.

In total, nine of the 21 players on Tigres’ roster attended universities in the States, including San Diego State, Washington State, Oregon State, Auburn, Toledo and South Florida. Nigerian-born forward Uchenna Kanu scored 115 goals in 55 games with Southeastern University (Florida) before scoring 17 times in 12 appearances for Pensacola in the Women’s Premier League. Ferrer Van Ginkel became the first international player to sign with Tigres last season, and this year’s team boasts six foreign players (four Americans, a Colombian and a Nigerian).

Rodriguez, a Los Angeles native, said that the partnership between the clubs was important to her personally as a Mexican-American and to the women’s game.

“It’s challenging the boundaries of this sport and crossing borders,” Rodriguez said. “Soccer is universal and knows no boundaries. This partnership is just one step closer to that ideal.”

After signing with the Portland Thorns in 2020, Rodriguez did not make an appearance and instead went to play for a Dutch team for two seasons before joining Tigres. She said the partnership with ACFC benefits her team by expanding its viewer and fan base and reaching the Latinx community in Los Angeles.

Ferrer Van Ginkel predicted the match would also have the effect of growing soccer in L.A., since many other professional sports may steer American fans’ attention away from soccer. In Monterrey, by contrast, the community is “100 percent attentive to soccer,” she says. Ferrer Van Ginkel has found Angel City’s robust, league-leading attendance impressive given all the other choices sports fans have in L.A.

“Maybe other teams in the NWSL now are going to follow and do the same thing,” she said of her club’s partnership with Tigres. “Or maybe it’ll become even bigger and we’ll become a league like a Copa. I think it’s huge for women’s soccer, to always be growing and doing new things like this.”

Before the game started, the teams exchanged scarves and took photos together, which Tigres head coach and three-year NWSL veteran Carmelina Moscato said signified a “football friendship.”

“It’s celebrating the spirit of women’s football, how it’s growing, how two clubs are pushing boundaries, how two clubs are first movers in their respective countries,” Moscato said.

For Coombe, too, the partnership exceeds far beyond the pitch.

“It it is more about how we are able to learn from each other,” Coombe said. “How we are both looking to take the best points from each other’s clubs and implement those to grow the game in our communities.”

Both head coaches said the goal is to push women’s soccer forward and agreed that, in the absence of a Champions League in the Americas, partnerships like this are needed to elevate the game. Last month, the women’s Euro final between England and Germany easily broke the attendance record with 87,192 fans watching the Lionesses win at Wembley Stadium.

“I think (this partnership will) inspire other leagues to get moving,” Moscato said. “When you start to see the game growing and connecting in these ways, people want to be part of this. It’s unique.”

Moscato said that a few Concacaf leagues are invested in and pushing boundaries for women’s soccer. She identified the NWSL and Liga MX Femenil as leaders among this group.

“The women’s game is growing rapidly, globally and regionally, which has been happening in almost an accelerator for the past decade,” said Moscato, specifically referencing the visibility that stems from every major international tournament. “It’s the years between those international events where club football does the heavy lifting.”

Angel City and Tigres Femenil are doing the heavy lifting, and they’re doing it without being bothered by arbitrary national borders.

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.

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.

LOS ANGELES — Two seasons ago, Haley Jones was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player after guiding the Stanford women’s basketball team to a national championship. This year, fresh off falling to UConn in the Final Four in April, the rising senior said her offseason has been focused on ball-handling and shooting from the perimeter.

As opposed to switching between playing in the backcourt and frontcourt, as she did her first three years at Stanford, Jones expects to embrace a heavier guard role in 2022-23.

“This year, I’m going to be a guard 90 percent of the time,” the 6-foot-1 Santa Cruz native said.

Last season, Jones led the Cardinal with 3.7 assists per game, despite not being the team’s primary point guard. She also averaged 13.2 points and 7.9 rebounds per contest.

Jones’ ability to play each position on the court led Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer to compare her to NBA legend Magic Johnson. As a kid, Jones’ parents would often encourage her to play all five positions, telling her that if she could do so, there would be more playing time for her. She said continuing to build every aspect of her game will allow her to find a role on the WNBA team that drafts her next year.

Incoming UCLA freshman point guard and 2021-22 Gatorade Women’s Athlete of the Year Kiki Rice, who began watching Jones during her freshman year in college, said she was always drawn to playing with her.

“She’s extremely versatile,” Rice said about Jones. “Her ability to affect the game in so many ways is impressive. I’m really impressed by her passing ability. She has a point guard’s vision and IQ but can also play inside.

“I know there are going to be some fun matchups playing against Stanford this year.”

While the rest of the Cardinal’s schedule has yet to be announced, college basketball fans are in for an early-season treat on Nov. 20 when Stanford takes on reigning champion South Carolina.

The Cardinal will bring a top-five freshman class to those matchups, a group that includes No. 1 recruit Lauren Betts of Grandview (Colo.). Jones describes them as coachable.

“What I like most about them is they seek help from the older players,” Jones said. “They’re constantly asking, ‘What can I do better? What are the reads you’re making? And can we work extra?’ Them being that way is going to help our team chemistry, but also help them individually down the road.”

This offseason has been Jones’ first running the point full time, and she’s relishing being a mentor to the two incoming point guards, Indya Nivar and Talana Leopolo.

“Now, all of a sudden, I’m in the leadership role, and I’m the old one,” Jones said. “Last year, I still felt like a freshman as a junior. It’s a different role to take on. It’s been really cool to be able to mentor the younger players.”

The newfound mentor is part of one of the strongest senior classes in the history of women’s basketball, partly as a function of some players taking advantage of a fifth year of eligibility due to the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season.

Jones named South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke as well as Virginia Tech’s Ashley Owusu as fellow natural seniors she expects to be elite professional prospects next year. As for the fifth-year seniors, Jones acknowledged 6-foot-7 Oregon forward Sedona Prince and Iowa State sharpshooter Ashley Joens.

“Our class is kind of stacked,” Jones said. “There’s a lot of depth in next year’s draft class, a lot of players who can make impacts in the WNBA next year.”

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.

LOS ANGELES — Kiki Rice has racked up enough individual awards this year to cover the hardwood from baseline to free-throw line.

The incoming UCLA freshman added to her collection Tuesday night when she was named the 2022 Gatorade Female Athlete of the Year, an honor she described as the most meaningful of all her accolades thus far.

Clutching the shiny metal “G” trophy, Rice said she did not expect to win and thanked her parents and coaches. She also thanked Gatorade for an “incredible experience,” during which she and her fellow athletes were treated “like stars” over the past few days.

“Winning Gatorade Athlete of the Year, amongst all the other incredible athletes, it’s an awesome honor,” Rice said. “It’s a testament to the hard work I’ve put in and the forces around me.”

The Gatorade Athlete of the Year ceremony on Tuesday in Los Angeles. (Photo provided by Gatorade)

The two-sport star made her biggest mark on the court, averaging 15.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game her senior season for Sidwell Friends School (D.C.) and leading her team to a 30-0 record and a national championship. In March, she was named Just Women’s Sports’ inaugural high school basketball Player of the Year.

Rice was also the D.C. Gatorade Girls Soccer Player of the Year. She credits playing soccer with helping her footwork in basketball and keeping her in shape. Rice said she’s in peak condition by the time basketball season comes around because soccer season is right before, and that requires a lot of running.

“For a few months of the year, focusing a little less on basketball and having some time to be with a new group of people, play under different coaches and enjoy a different sport is really valuable,” Rice said. “I definitely encourage athletes to continue to play multiple sports as long as you can. It shows you don’t need to specialize at such a young age. There are still opportunities there.”

Rice, who moved into her Westwood dorm less than two weeks ago and signed with Wasserman for NIL representation, is interested in sports business but has not yet decided on a major. She’s received plenty of buzz throughout her prep career, gaining more than 35,000 followers on Instagram before even playing a college game.

Off the court, she sees college as “an opportunity to grow in different areas, take interesting classes, meet new people and dabble.” Rice has found the basketball adjustment from high school to be a challenge, adding that she loves to compete.

“What’s not to love about L.A.?” Rice said of her first couple of weeks living in Southern California. “And the campus is super nice.”

As a high school star, Rice had no shortage of college suitors, including Stanford, UConn, Duke and Arizona.

Ultimately, the 18-year-old chose UCLA because she felt the school’s coaches would best be able to help her develop into the professional basketball player she hopes to become. She also cited the strong connections she built with players and coaches on her official visit to Westwood last year.

Rice will now be coached by UCLA’s Cori Close, a former standout point guard herself who averaged 15.4 points and 8.3 assists per game her senior season at UC Santa Barbara.

“Coach Cori does a great job of motivating me, and she holds me accountable,” Rice said. “I’m going to grow a ton under her, so I’m really excited about the next four years.”

When asked about the Bruins’ stacked 2022 recruiting class, before the question was finished, Rice excitedly pointed out that UCLA boasts the No. 1 class in the nation. The group includes two guards, Gabriela Jaquez and Londynn Jones, with whom Rice has already won. She and Jaquez shared co-MVP honors at the 2022 McDonald’s All-American Game, while Rice and Jones won gold for Team USA this summer at the FIBA U18 Americas Championship. Rice took home MVP honors, while Jones contributed 15 points. The Bruins have three incoming freshmen ranked by ESPN in the top 25, and post player Christeen Iwuala from Texas gives them four slotted inside the top 50.

According to Rice, the McDonald’s game foreshadowed what lies ahead in Westwood this coming season.

“We have a ton of talent, and the fact that we were both able to shine in a game like that shows there really is a bright future at UCLA,” she said. “Gabs is an incredible player who has a high basketball IQ.”

(Photo provided by Gatorade)

Rice is pleased with the entire incoming freshman group so far and is most impressed by everyone’s willingness to learn and accept constructive criticism.

“We’re all coming from being the best players on our high school and AAU teams,” she said. “To come in a new environment and still have a ton to learn can be difficult at times, but we’ve done a great job so far. I’m excited for this group because we’re going to be really good.”

Before Rice has played a single game at the collegiate level, her talent is no secret. Stanford star Haley Jones, who met Rice on her official visit to Palo Alto last year, described the incoming freshman as an “amazing player and person.”

“There’s a reason she won the National Player of the Year Award — she does it all,” Jones said with a smile. “I’ll see her in the Pac this year, so that’ll be exciting.”

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 @JJTheJuggernaut.

LOS ANGELES — Fans had the inaugural NWSL regular-season match between Angel City FC and San Diego Wave circled on their calendars for months. The expansion clubs would not only be playing for bragging rights in their debut seasons, but Angel City — the league leader in average attendance — would have another opportunity to showcase its growing fan base.

With the new rivals playing in front of a sellout crowd of 22,000 at Banc of California Stadium on Saturday night, the game’s drama matched its anticipation. Angel City, despite going a player down late in the second half, defeated the first-place Wave 2-1 to tie the Portland Thorns with 17 total points in the league standings.

ACFC captain Ali Riley, the game’s first goal scorer, saw Saturday’s game as a celebration of the progress this country has made with women’s soccer and women’s sports, and she expects the rivalry with San Diego to propel the NWSL further.

“I thought all day about how incredible it is to not just have one team in Southern California, but to now have two,” Riley said after the inaugural Chanclásico (chanclas is the Spanish word for flip flops). “We haven’t had that before, and it’s not something I was able to see when I was growing up.”

ACFC president Julie Uhrman also spoke about the budding rivalry.

“This is a city of champions, and we want to be the best in the league, but we absolutely want to be the best in Southern California,” she said. “As much appreciation as I have for San Diego and as much as I want them to be successful this year, every single time we step on the pitch, we’re looking for the three points and the rivalry makes it a bigger game.”

In the 81st minute, as Angel City was playing with just 10 players after Tyler Lussi received her second yellow card of the match, a wide-open Claire Emslie scored from the right side of the box off a cross from Cari Roccaro. The right-footed shot to the bottom left corner gave the home team a 2-1 lead it would not squander. It was also ACFC’s first score in front of its supporters’ section all season.

Emslie, a 28-year-old forward from Scotland, made her team debut off the bench after landing in Los Angeles on Tuesday and officially signing on Thursday. For dinner the night before the match, Riley made Emslie vegan enchiladas to welcome her. The jetlagged Emslie, who was the organization’s second pick in the expansion draft, has been drinking coffee at night to stay awake. She said she has been so exhausted that she has begun feeling tired around 6 p.m. since landing in L.A.

In the ninth minute of the match, Riley drilled the opening goal with a left-footed strike through a tight window past San Diego goalkeeper Carly Telford. Jun Endo made the assist on a setup from Sydney Leroux. The goal marked the 34-year-old defender’s first in the 2,155th minute and 29th game of her NWSL career. Emslie’s goal was also the first of her NWSL career.

Leroux, who spent her college years across town at UCLA, was listed as questionable for the game with a right ankle injury. Making her first start for ACFC a week after debuting with the team following a trade from the Orlando Pride, Leroux didn’t take long to assuage concerns over her health.

In the second minute of the second half, Leroux nearly doubled her team’s lead with a nifty bicycle kick that went wide right. Five minutes later, when it appeared Leroux had scored on another attempt, the crowd erupted and pink smoke emanated from the supporters’ section. The noise died down when the forward was ruled offside and the goal was disallowed.

ACFC keeper DiDi Haračić was spectacular throughout the match, and especially busy in the closing moments. In the 86th minute, the goalie flashed the save of the match, jumping to deflect an on-target header out of play. Three minutes later, San Diego missed a go-ahead goal by inches on a Katie Johnson attempt from close range.

Kristen McNabb scored the Wave’s lone goal in the 60th minute, evening up the match with a left-footed drive into the bottom left corner. The Wave dominated possession in the first half (58.5 percent) and in the contest overall (56.2). They also outshot their northern neighbors 18 to nine, completed 27 crosses compared to ACFC’s eight and kicked five more corners than their opponent. And yet, the home club found a path to victory.

Important players on both sides missed the contest in favor of Women’s World Cup Qualifiers, including the league’s leading goal scorer, San Diego forward Alex Morgan (U.S.). For ACFC, starting defenders Vanessa Gilles (Canada) and Alyson Swaby (Jamaica) were also sidelined due to international duty. The club continues to be without star striker Christen Press and key defenders Jasmyne Spencer and Sarah Gorden due to injury. Press was met with enthusiastic pregame applause when she was shown on the jumbotron walking with crutches, flanked by ACFC investors Jennifer Garner and Glennon Doyle.

As ACFC players and staff reflected on their second sellout of the season Saturday night, they were equally proud and emphatic about the future. The Los Angeles club continues to easily pace the league in average attendance, with 19,006 fans per its seven home contests.

“Invest in us,” Riley said. “Look at all the people who care about women’s soccer, not just in Southern California.”

“We’re trying to show that women’s sports deserve the attention that these women got tonight,” Uhrman added. “The fans have supported this team in a way that feels completely unrivaled in women’s sports. You’re starting to see us women believing in our power and our strength and saying enough is enough, we deserve the attention.”

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 @JJTheJuggernaut.

This Labor Day, Angel City Football Club (ACFC) and the Mexican women’s national team (MWNT) will make history when they face off in the first annual Angelina Cup at Banc of California Stadium. The Sept. 5 event is believed to be the first-ever promoted match hosted by a women’s professional soccer team in its home stadium against a national team.

While women’s national teams have previously played friendlies in the U.S. against pro or semi-pro clubs, these matches are usually scrimmages and often occur behind closed doors. By contrast, this match is open to the public and will be broadcast on the TelevisaUnivision family of networks throughout the U.S. and Mexico.

ACFC president Julie Uhrman described the Angelina Cup as an innovative way to spread awareness for women’s soccer and its players and drive not only pay equity but also viewership, sponsorship and coverage equity. The plan is to use this event, which will evolve each year, as a springboard for the continued growth of women’s soccer worldwide.

“We view ourselves as a global brand,” Uhrman told Just Women’s Sports. “We view Angel City as part of the global world of soccer. We want to play with and against the best athletes in the world, and we want to bring these individual communities together to celebrate women, these athletes and this sport.”

When Soccer United Marketing first reached out with the partnership idea, it was a “yes from the word ‘go,’” Uhrman said. ACFC’s leadership team recognized this kind of event had never been done before and envisioned its massive potential to amplify women’s soccer.

“It’s that opportunity when you don’t let the distinction of a national team and professional team prevent two incredible communities and brands from coming together to create what is going to be an incredible match on the pitch,” Uhrman said.

Federación Mexicana de Futból (FMF) sporting director Gerardo Torrado told JWS that, similarly, his organization “didn’t think twice” when presented with the opportunity for partnership.

“We’ve seen it with the men’s team, how Mexican people around the world receive their national team,” Torrado said. “It’s a great opportunity to continue developing the women’s team — not just the players, but also the awareness, fan base and excitement around them.”

The partnership is a natural fit with Los Angeles’ rich Mexican culture and large Mexican population given the city’s geographic proximity to its southern neighbor. The Los Angeles and Mexican communities share a passion for soccer and field talented and exciting women’s teams.

The official logo of the Angelina Cup. (Courtesy of Angel City FC)

The event also presents enticing opportunities for the development of the MWNT, which ranked 26th in June’s FIFA World Rankings.

The match will give potential new fans in the U.S. a chance to see the MWNT play and club owners, scouting directors and coaches in the U.S. the ability to scout top Mexican talent. Conversely, it creates an opportunity for players in the U.S. to experience Mexican soccer and perhaps begin to explore the idea of playing in Mexico’s professional league, Liga MX Femenil.

Six years after the league kicked off in December 2016, Torrada described the current state of the women’s game in Mexico as “growing strong.” He said that the impressive performance of C.F. Pachuca, América and Chivas Guadalajara in the most recent tournament bodes well for a league that has traditionally been dominated by northern powerhouses Monterrey and Tigres.

Mia Fishel, the No. 5 draft pick of the Orlando Pride in December’s NWSL Draft, sent shockwaves through the league when she opted to sign with Tigres in January instead of joining the Pride. Likewise, the NWSL has welcomed high-profile players from Liga MX Femenil. Notably, star Mexican forward María Sánchez signed a two-year deal with the Houston Dash this past offseason after leading Tigres to the league final with five goals in three playoff games.

“This will show young girls in Mexico what level they can reach in the future and that they can work hard to make their dreams come true,” Torrado said. “They are going to have chances to play in important environments, and having young girls know that, will help us a lot.”

Torrado added that there are Mexican girls in the U.S. who wish to play for Mexico, and the event will give them a chance to be close to the MWNT.

Beyond Mexico and the U.S., the Angelina Cup, which features its own logo, cup and branding, will celebrate the interconnectedness of the women’s international soccer community.

“There are no barriers,” Uhrman said. “We are going to highlight the absolute best athletes.”

Community is everything for ACFC. At its founding, Uhrman said the first questions the club’s owners and leaders asked were: “Who is our community, and what can we do with and for our community that elevates the sport of women’s soccer and creates connections and an opportunity for them to come together?” The annual event is the latest example of ACFC deploying the power of collective action to make an impact on its local community and the global women’s soccer community. In May, ACFC struck up a historic partnership with Tigres Femenil that will see the clubs play each other in home-and-home friendlies over the next two years.

ACFC plans to engage the local community in activations leading up to the Angelina Cup, just as it did with its Pride initiatives last month and beyond. The idea is for supporters to have fun while doing good, a model that has proven extremely successful for ACFC during its inaugural NWSL season.

Torrado expects this first-of-its-kind event will open doors for other women’s national teams “to play really competitive matches against important professional teams.”

Uhrman, too, sees the Cup as just the beginning for transnational and cross-cultural collaboration in women’s soccer.

“(ACFC and the MWNT) do have the benefit of geography,” she said, “but I could argue that there are teams in Europe and Latin America and in other places where there is commonality, and sport brings people together.”

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 @JJTheJuggernaut.

A day after the Sparks parted ways with head coach and general manager Derek Fisher, Fred Williams, who had served as assistant since Fisher took over in December 2019, was introduced as interim head coach.

Williams brings 39-plus years of women’s college basketball coaching experience, including having coached in the WNBA since 1998. The 65-year-old coach said Fisher informed him on Monday afternoon that he and the organization had mutually agreed to split, and that he felt Williams was the right person to assume head coaching duties in his place.

The following day, Sparks CEO Eric Holoman officially elevated Williams to interim status after the two spoke. Williams then called each of his players individually to discuss the coaching change.

“Fred’s been an OG,“ Sparks captain Nneka Ogwumike said. “Having that sageness and wisdom in a no-nonsense type of way is what he offers.”

“That man has the brain for basketball,” guard Brittney Sykes added. “There’s that level of comfort knowing that we have someone who knows the game in and out. There’s no bad blood on his name. To have that as a head coach, that’s amazing.”

Both Sparks players characterized their new head coach as a man of few words.

“He talked a little bit more than usual (in practice Wednesday),” Sykes said. “When he talks, it’s very important and we all listen.”

Sykes was getting her hair done on an off-day Tuesday when, suddenly, her phone blew up with messages form people sending her articles and asking about the big news. She still hadn’t had much time to absorb the change when asked about it Wednesday.

“I don’t know how to feel,” Sykes said. “We’ve just been in game after game after game.”

Fisher’s ouster marked the third time during Ogwumike’s Sparks tenure that the team has let go of its head coach. Los Angeles had won three of its last five games under Fisher after enduring a five-game skid, leaving them at 5-7 a month into the season. The expectations were higher in his fourth season after the Sparks acquired several marquee players in the offseason, including Liz Cambage, Jordin Canada and Chennedy Carter.

While Ogwumike said that she did not expect Fisher’s exit and was “not necessarily excited about it,” she said she was locked in with her teammates and focused on remaining unified.

“When these changes happen, we can’t stop,” Ogwumike said. “Someone’s gotta play the game, someone’s gotta coach.”

Sykes expressed a similar sentiment, saying that she can only control what she can control, which is playing hard and staying positive.

“Whoever it is in that seat, then so be it,” Sykes said. “We know that the team is together. We all want the same thing and so do our coaching staff and front office.”

On Wednesday, Williams led his first practice as Sparks head coach, laying the foundation for how all his practices will be run. And run the Sparks players he did, as cardiovascular conditioning is a hallmark of Williams’ approach. He told the team that in two weeks they’ll be a “well-oiled machine.”

“We got in, we got out, we were detailed. We came in and got a sweat,” Sykes said of practice Wednesday.

Williams said he wants to see a more up-tempo offense, a more aggressive defense and a lot more help defense. He feels his duty as head coach is to understand individual and team needs and to be attentive to and communicative with each of his players.

When asked who might replace Fisher long-term as head coach, Ogwumike refused to overlook Williams.

“We have a coach who has decades of experience, and I’m totally OK with that,” Ogwumike said. “Everyone knows Fred — not just on this team, not just in this organization, around the league, around the college game. He knows what he’s doing. He knows what he’s talking about.”

Williams had previously accepted an associate head coaching job with Auburn women’s basketball and was set to leave the Sparks for that opportunity in July. Of course, the circumstances are different now, and according to Williams, Tigers’ head coach Johnnie Harris completely understands. Williams described Harris as a close friend and relayed that the pair will reassess the situation after the Sparks’ season ends.

For now, Williams is the head coach in Los Angeles, and as he said, he’s ready to “roll up his sleeves and get it.”

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 @JJTheJuggernaut.

LOS ANGELES — Angel City FC defender Paige Nielsen was queer before the club celebrated Pride Night on Tuesday and played the Houston Dash to a 0-0 draw, and she will be after it. Just as Nielsen’s sexual orientation and identity will outlive the rainbow bandanas and henna tattoos of the evening, and the pomp of the marches during Pride Month, the 24-year-old’s club is committed to LGBTQIA+ inclusion indefinitely.

In April, Angel City hosted stakeholders from eight professional North American soccer teams to learn about and discuss LGBTQIA+ inclusion, and Nielsen and ACFC teammate Madison Hammond participated.

“Learning to be inclusive opened my own eyes,” Nielsen said. “I have a wife, and I didn’t even understand.”

Prior to the training, Nielsen didn’t think she had strong feelings about Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, for example. Then someone brought up that if a child’s parents were gay, under the law, the child would not even be able to talk about who their parents are.

“And I was like, holy crap, why didn’t I even think about that? I want to raise kids of my own,” Nielsen said.

Since the workshop, Nielsen has connected with some of the organizers on LinkedIn and plans to participate in more Play Proud trainings.

The week-long training was part of the Play Proud Initiative, which grew out of a conversation between ACFC Head of Community Catherine Dávila and Common Goal Executive Director Lilli Barrett-O’Keefe about a collective action effort to combat homophobia in soccer. All clubs and participating individuals — ranging from owners, players and coaches to club supporter group leaders and members — enter the workshops at different levels in their understanding and ability to make an impact. The idea is not to compare, but rather to share knowledge, experiences and best practices when it comes to creating a safe, welcoming and inclusive experience for all LGBTQIA+ individuals in soccer.

Angel City’s commitment to inclusion is what led Senior Director of Community Impact Chris Fajardo to join the organization, where he now collaborates with Dávila on the Community team. He estimates that ACFC has already put in 3,000 hours of training through this initiative, with much more planned for the future.

“This club has made such intentional moves to be inclusive and have it not be performative,” Fajardo said. “What I love to witness continuously, especially at game days, is how fans come in and engage in a community that expresses that. We’ve created something special, a space that’s electric.”

Dávila and her team are actively looking to incorporate as many marginalized identities into their club’s representation as possible. They also often find “low-hanging fruit,” as Dávila puts it, or easy things to correct. For example, the team discovered that adding pronouns to their email signatures would go a long way toward making non-binary and trans individuals feel comfortable and respected.

Fajardo pointed to relationships with the LA LGBT Center and the West Hollywood Soccer Club, the oldest LGBTQIA+ soccer club in Southern California, as ways ACFC is supporting the community beyond Pride Month. ACFC is working with the Center to support Youth Prom and a prom for senior members and to tackle food insecurity issues. As for the West Hollywood Soccer Club, ACFC is helping the organization organize their tournament in November.

Before coming to ACFC this offseason from the Washington Spirit, where she won the 2021 NWSL championship, Nielsen said she never knew a single club could make such a profound impact.

“I was like, holy crap, they stand for everything I believe in,” Nielsen said. “Then when I got here, I saw we had six different supporter groups, and the community initiatives we’ve done have been incredible.”

Paige Nielsen and comedian Lilly Singh pose for a photo after Tuesday's game. (Katharine Lotze/Getty Images for Angel City FC)

Nielsen, who grew up in Nebraska unaware of knowing a single queer person, did not begin to realize she fell somewhere on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum until a female friend kissed her in college. At the time, she identified as straight and had previously only dated men. For a while, Nielsen kept things platonic. Eventually, she realized her feelings were stronger than that and allowed herself to explore her sexuality.

The fifth-year NWSL veteran describes herself as an open book who has always believed that love is the answer to all questions. Yet, Nielsen only recently came to the conclusion that she needs to be vocal with her story.

“I didn’t think it was so important,” Nielsen said. “I was like, ‘Our world is changing. Everyone is going to love each other. We’re all humans,’ because I’m such a hippie. But people are reaching out to me and saying even Nebraska is changing because of the impact I’m making.”

Last week, Nielsen shared her coming out story and revealed how she met and fell in love with her wife on the Attacking Third podcast, which has been airing during halftime of NWSL matches on CBS. This has led to even more LGBTQIA+ people reaching out to her for support.

“I think making single, individual impacts can go very far,” Nielsen said. “Some people were very vulnerable with me and said they never told anyone before.”

She said her goal for the rest of the month is to respond to everyone who has reached out and talk to them about how to approach coming out if that’s what they want to do. Nielsen wants people to know that sexual orientation can be fluid and no one has the right to judge anyone’s journey. She believes that people coming out and sharing their stories will help others navigating their identities.

“Especially in sports, since we have a huge platform,” Nielsen said.

She credited soccer stars Abby Wambach, Ashlyn Harris and Megan Rapinoe for publicly coming out and making it easier for people like her to do so.

Allies, like ACFC team captain Ali Riley, have also made life easier for Nielsen. Riley asked her over lunch on Tuesday what she identifies as and whether she went back and forth between dating men and women.

“Just talking about that in a safe place to someone who is willing to learn about every individual is so important,” Nielsen said. “There aren’t a lot of safe spaces anymore, especially on Twitter and social media, and that’s where your allies on a team really help you feel safe.”

Fajardo, who is gay, also spoke about Riley’s allyship.

“Ali being so vocal is a brave thing,” Fajardo said. “We still haven’t come to a place, especially in sports, where individuals feel safe. To have somebody that has a platform, is open to being vocal and is so present makes such a difference. She’s creating space for people who could be allies to feel safe expressing that, and she’s showing for those that identity on the LGBTQ+ spectrum that people care and that there is space for them to be themselves. Since so many young kids look to her and other players, it’s an especially powerful statement.”

Riley is continually asking questions and learning so that she can be the best ally possible.

“When I look at my friends and teammates and think that they wouldn’t be treated or have the same opportunities as I would, it makes me so angry,” Riley said. “Particularly with trans kids and sports, I look at what sport has done for me and my life and to think that little kids are not allowed to play sports (because of their identity), it really breaks my heart.”

Like Nielsen and the ACFC Community team, Riley emphasizes that the fight for equality extends beyond the month of June. Still, she hopes that this month can be a time to highlight and celebrate the LGBTQIA+ women on Angel City, in soccer and in the NWSL, including the supporter groups and fans. This month, ACFC participated in the WeHo Pride Parade; next, they will take part in the L.A. Pride Parade on June 12 and Trans Pride from June 16-18 and have a few players volunteer at the Pride Picnic on June 26.

“And I hope that it can be that balance of a time to really fight, but also to celebrate,” Riley said.

At ACFC’s Pride Night on Tuesday, Mariachi Arcoíris — the first LBGTQ+ mariachi group in the world — performed the national anthem, bisexual comedian Lilly Singh led the ceremonial three-clap and special guests from the LA LGBT Center and TransCanWork were honored on the field. All evening, LGBTQIA+-centric music blared from the stadium speakers.

“I hope people feel seen, loved and welcomed here because I see them, I love them and I welcome them,” Riley said after the match. “I really hope that we can continue to show that, here at Angel City, everyone is welcome and we accept you for who you are. We continue to grow together and be an example for other teams, other leagues, and other sports.”

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 @JJTheJuggernaut.

LOS ANGELES — Backup point guard and Brittney Sykes are two phrases not often heard together, but the six-year veteran thrived in the role Tuesday night, leading the Los Angeles Sparks to a 93-91 nail-biting win over the Dallas Wings. Sykes played the position for the second consecutive game in the absences of the injured Jordin Canada and Kristi Toliver, who completed her assistant coaching duties last Thursday after the Dallas Mavericks were eliminated from the NBA playoffs.

Sykes got to the basket at will against the Wings, scoring a season-high 25 points on 8-for-11 shooting, which included seven layups. The 28-year-old guard also was 9-for-11 from the charity stripe, marking her most free-throw attempts as a Spark.

“Shoutout to ‘Fish’ for our offseason pickups, because that’s honestly what’s giving me the space to go and drive,” Sykes said after the game, referencing the attention shooters Katie Lou Samuelson and Lexie Brown get on the perimeter and that Liz Cambage receives in the paint. Head coach and GM Derek Fisher acquired all three during the WNBA offseason, raising expectations for the Sparks after two straight seasons of disappointing finishes.

In the Sparks’ 85-83 win Sunday in Minnesota, Sykes attempted just two field goals but did get to the line for six free-throw attempts. Fisher said he is continually encouraging Sykes to be aggressive, even when she’s playing point guard.

“When she sees gaps, she needs to attack and try to get to the front of the basket,” Fisher said. “We’re starting to see the potential she has to impact us offensively, and that really starts to create a balanced team that we’ve always wanted to have.”

Sykes heeded Fisher’s advice, spending much of her 26:53 on the court driving to the rack. This led to six assists, tied for Sykes’ most helpers in a Sparks uniform, and a 60-36 advantage for L.A. in points in the paint.

Fisher credits’ Sykes experience playing in Australia this past winter for her effectiveness at the point. After frequently handling the ball with the University of Canberra Capitals in the WNBL, her confidence in the role has grown even further with additional reps in the past two games.

“You’ve really seen her come into her own,” Fisher said. “We, for sure, plan to continue to explore it.”

Sykes’ most critical assist of the night came with 36 seconds left to play, when the guard crossed over Allisha Gray en route to the basket and appeared poised to try her eighth layup of the game. Instead, when Isabelle Harrison committed to Sykes, the Sparks guard made a perfect left-handed pass to an open Cambage for an easy lay-in and a 90-85 lead.

Despite holding a five-point advantage with 36 ticks on the clock, the Wings cut the deficit to 93-91 and then got the ball right back with 5.5 seconds left after Sykes was called for a questionable offensive foul as L.A. tried to inbound. On the ensuing play, Arike Ogunbowale was fouled. After missing her first free-throw attempt, she was whistled for a lane violation after pump-faking what would have been her second try.

Following the victory, Sykes was interviewed on the court and hugged comedian and Sparks superfan Leslie Jones. Seeing this, a group of teenage girls ran down the sideline to the corner of the court, where the night’s leading hugger also met them with hugs.

Prior to Wednesday’s game, Fisher said that it felt like his team had played “every minute of every day” thus far this season. On Thursday, the 5-6 Sparks will enjoy a rare break before preparing for Sunday’s matchup with the Phoenix Mercury, and the star of the game has big plans for her day off.

“Sleep, eat, sleep,” Sykes said with a smile. “Maybe a little NormaTec (a compression device for recovery and rehabilitation).”

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 @JJTheJuggernaut.

LOS ANGELES — For Jordin Canada, the celebrations were endless on Wednesday night. The point guard sank a key free throw with 16.8 seconds remaining and dished out a team-high six assists to help the Los Angeles Sparks to a 99-94 win over the Phoenix Mercury. As Canada eclipsed 500 assists for her WNBA career, the Sparks snapped a five-game skid with the victory.

She also celebrated a reunion of sorts with Phoenix Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard. Nygaard, Canada’s former high school coach at the Windward School in the Los Angeles area, was named Phoenix’s head coach this offseason, making Wednesday the first time the pair met in the WNBA as player and opposing head coach. Fittingly, the reunion happened with Canada in a Sparks jersey, months after she signed with her hometown team in free agency.

“I love Va,” Canada said. “She has definitely helped me in my player development, especially in high school. She really helped me think the game a lot and not just base it off my athleticism … I can always count on her if I need to talk basketball or anything life. She’s been a great asset to my village and getting me to where I am today.”

At Windward, Canada and Nygaard won a state championship and three CIF Southern Section titles together, with Nygaard as associate head coach for Canada’s first two seasons before becoming head coach.

Nygaard’s first impression of the point guard was “how fantastically athletic she was.”

“I remember, as a freshman, seeing her run,” Nygaard said. “She didn’t look like a regular high school kid. Her speed and athleticism, and her quiet demeanor off of that. Her game is so big and so loud, and then she as a person is so humble and kind.”

The vision of Canada suiting up for a WNBA team started to materialize during her junior year of high school.

“Vanessa told me I was good enough to play in the league,” Canada said, “and that if I just worked hard and continued to practice and kept doing what I was doing, I would make it there. And I believed that. From that point on, my main focus was how I could get better to be ready for the league.”

The dream itself started years earlier, in the same arena where Canada played with the Sparks on Wednesday night. Canada and future high school teammates Courtney Jaco and Juice Powell would go to watch the Sparks as kids and picture themselves taking the court someday. Playing for two of the best club teams in California — Canada for the GBL Lady Rebels and Jaco and Powell for the Monterey Park Heat — pitted them against each other.

“We were rivals,” Powell said. “We weren’t friends.”

Still, they bonded over their love of basketball and a shared goal.

“All kids growing up in the inner-city in L.A. have a dream,” Powell said. “We all watch women’s basketball, and we all have this plan. We all were hoopers, and the plan was to go to USC, to go to the WNBA, to play for the Sparks, period. … This is the dream that’s keeping you going day after day, and Jordin did it.”

Jaco said that Canada always remained humble, even when younger kids started to idolize her and she became “the talk of L.A. in terms of girls basketball.”

“Not a lot has changed,” Jaco said. “She’s probably stepped out of her shell just a little bit. For the most part, she’s still the same reserved, collected person.”

In her early basketball days, Canada was used to being faster and more athletic than the competition. When she got to Windward, Nygaard encouraged her to take more of a mental approach to the game. The coach ran the Wildcats “like a college team,” Jaco said, with the players lifting weights, doing skill work and bonding exercises and competing in grueling practices.

“Vanessa challenged Jordin to be great every single day, which is a hard thing to do at such a young age,” Jaco said. “Sometimes you don’t feel like going to practice, that kind of stuff. She continually challenged her to be the best in all areas: the best point guard, the best leader.”

Off the court, Jaco remembered Canada as “just a goofy, regular high schooler” and “a really great friend to me.”

After Windward, Canada starred at UCLA while Jaco went on to play for crosstown rival USC, where she remains the Trojans’ all-time leader in 3-point percentage and second all-time in 3-pointers made with 217. The Trojans had plenty of experience with trying to defend Canada during her four years in the Pac-12.

“On offense, she started learning how to pick defenses apart,” said Jaco, now the director of player development for the USC women’s basketball team and video coordinator for the Connecticut Sun. “It was very hard to guard her. At USC, a big part of our scouting report was figuring out how we could get the ball out of her hands. That was really difficult. She’s really quick with the ball and with her dribble and can get out of a trap easily.”

Canada also became a “defensive pest” at UCLA, as Jaco described her. She was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year her junior and senior seasons.

Canada finished her UCLA career first all-time in assists and second in points, among many other accolades. The Storm drafted her fifth overall in the 2018 WNBA Draft, and in four seasons in Seattle, Canada won two championships while playing alongside legendary point guard Sue Bird.

“I learned how to be a pro in this league, what it takes to be a good point guard in this league,” Canada said. “She’s one of the best to ever do it at her position and in the game, period. Just seeing her day-in and day-out, how she approached the game, how she approached practice, how she prepared taught me so much.”

Canada won two WNBA championships in four seasons with the Seattle Storm. (Norm Hall/Getty Images)

With the Storm, Canada played a backup role for the first time in her career. Other than the 2019 season, when she started 29 of 30 games, Canada was often one of the first players off the Seattle bench.

“As a friend, it was interesting to see that transition for her,” Jaco said. “She’s always been a team player at all levels, but she had to sacrifice a lot and had never been in that position before. It took a while for her to embrace that, but over time, you could see more confidence. She’d come in and change the pace of the game.”

Canada took advantage of the opportunity to play for one of the WNBA’s best teams, enhancing her basketball IQ and relying on her defense – she earned All-Defensive First Team honors in 2019.

So, when Canada hit the free-agent market this past offseason for the first time, other teams were interested. Within just a couple of days of Seattle rescinding her qualifying offer, Canada was in talks to sign a one-year deal with the Sparks.

She signed with L.A. on Feb. 8, bringing her career full circle.

Starting in each of the Sparks’ first eight games, Canada is averaging career-highs in points (11.8) and field-goal percentage (44.2). She estimates that she had 50-plus friends and family members attend the Sparks’ May 18 home opener against the Minnesota Lynx.

“I remember being on this floor when I was younger, playing at halftime or before the game, and just watching the games and just imagining myself out there,” she said. “The fact that I’m back in my home city … I’m super blessed and humbled. I tried not to be too high that day, because I knew it was a big moment for me and also for my family and friends.”

“For a minute there, people didn’t know if the Sparks was a part of the plan,” Powell said. “But we knew, and it was just a matter of the call. We were always at Staples Center. It’s a full-circle moment in every sense. She did it, man. Built, not born, is a part of her. Jordin was definitely born with natural ability and talent like a lot of people, but she built this journey for herself.”

All three players know their basketball journeys might not have flourished as much as they did without Nygaard. None of them were surprised when she was named Mercury head coach this past offseason after playing five seasons in the WNBA and coaching since 2003, including two years as an assistant coach in the WNBA.

Nygaard is in her first season as a WNBA head coach. (Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)

“I had seen Jordin after the (2021 WNBA) season,” Nygaard said. “She said, ‘When are you going to be a head coach?’ I said, ‘Give me three or four years,’ and it ended up being three months. She’s always been really supportive. She comes back to talk to the (Windward) team a lot. I have a great connection with her. She’s such a great icon for basketball in Los Angeles.”

The milestones of the past few months culminated in one special moment in Los Angeles on Wednesday night, 11 years after Canada and Nygaard first joined forces at Windward.

“It’s crazy,” Nygaard said an hour and a half before tipoff. “I don’t think any of us would have guessed that, when we were in the gym running layup drills and all the time we spent together, that we’re both here and doing our thing. I’m so proud of her and so happy for her to be back in L.A. with her parents, family, her brother and everybody here to celebrate her.”

Their history together also meant that Nygaard had a personal scouting report on Canada ahead of the game, in which her former star scored seven points to go along with the six assists in 21 minutes of play.

“Keep her in front,” Nygaard said of Canada. “Don’t let her get going in transition. Be really physical with her. And you can talk trash and touch her headband. She doesn’t like it when you touch her headband.”

After all, as Nygaard said earlier, “I’m forever her coach.”

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 @JJTheJuggernaut.