L.A. native Dani Weatherholt has started seven games for Angel City this season. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Dani Weatherholt’s first-ever soccer team was with her imaginary friends in the backyard of her childhood home just outside of Los Angeles. She’d organize scrimmages on the lawn beside the chipped chimney that she pitched softballs against for hours before.

“I would say, ‘Who’s she talking to?’” laughs her mother, Gail.

One of Weatherholt’s softball friends had invited her to the SoCal Blues’ Friday night clinics, but Gail had missed the sign-up. So, Weatherholt spent an entire season initiating her own backyard training sessions before joining the Blues at the age of 9, getting a banana and a Snickers bar from her dad before every game.

Her older, baseball-playing brothers were her role models at the time. There was no Angel City FC, no women’s professional soccer nearby. She had no idea that she would go from her empty backyard in Capistrano Beach, Calif., to a sold-out Banc of California Stadium two decades later, when Angel City joined the NWSL.

“It’s a dream come true,” Weatherholt, 28, says now, two months into her first season with the expansion club. “I don’t think many people get the opportunity to play where they grew up.”

‘Bigger than soccer’

Weatherholt’s rise up the youth soccer ranks was far from a straight-line path.

Nursing a torn meniscus at 9 years old, Weatherholt was placed on the SoCals B team and ended up staying there until the age of 14. Other soccer parents would tell her to go to a different club, that she deserved to play at a higher level. Her dad, however, believed if she wanted a spot on an A team, she had to earn it.

Weatherholt was finally called up to the A team midway through one season in her early teenage years. But she didn’t go. There was no way she was leaving her B teammates and coach behind, so she remained with them until the end of the year.

“She cared more about the team than herself and that was unheard of. It still is unheard of,” says Weatherholt’s high school coach, Stacey Finnerty. “I think kids, especially with women’s soccer, girls’ soccer, the parents are like, ‘You’ve got to be on the best team, be with the best kids and leave everyone,’ and they leave their teammates. With Dani, she just doesn’t do that. She’s team first.”

Finnerty coached Weatherholt for four years at San Clemente High School, becoming one of Weatherholt’s first and most impactful female role models in soccer. As the only female coach in the league, Finnerty demonstrated the value of women leadership, years before Weatherholt joined Angel City, with a majority female ownership group and front office staff.

After Weatherholt made the A team, she peaked as a soccer player, becoming more aware of the field and better positioned to shut down dangerous opponents. Soon, she earned a call-up to the U17 and U18 national programs.

For all of her successes, Weatherholt remained an “old soul” who always put others above herself. The San Clemente Hall of Famer certainly had the normal teenage struggles, juggling school and life, but the way she carried herself made it hard for others to know that.

As Finnerty explains, she had a way of connecting with her teammates and making every one of them feel special. On and off the field, she brought out the best in both the star and bench players. When she was on the San Clemente bench with an injury, she was able to get the beginners more engaged in the game than they otherwise would have been.

“No one really played just for themselves, and she cultured that into our program, into our team. It’s easy to win with Dani because she was who she was — a super magical, special kid,” Finnerty says.

That Weatherholt could make time for soccer in the first place was as impressive as her contributions to her teams.

The only female athlete in San Clemente history with 12 varsity letters, Weatherholt, at times, played for eight teams at once. Heavily involved in golf and softball as well as soccer, she dropped everything else to be at practices, games and class, and whenever she missed something, she would find a way to catch up and make up for it.

“I don’t know how she did it,” says Finnerty.

Through it all, she ended up as the fifth-ranked high school soccer player in SoCal and the 19th nationally, leading her team to their first state regional championship and a top national ranking.

Her motto: “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”

Being a good teammate has been central to Weatherholt's soccer career. (Jenny Chuang/Angel City FC)

Of all the sports Weatherholt played, soccer was her favorite because it allowed for more creativity than golf and softball.

She also found a sense of community in soccer, as it connected her with people from other parts of the world. When she was young, her family would visit her dad’s fishing friends in Mexico. Returning every Easter, Weatherholt would bring them soccer equipment and find commonalities through soccer.

With a love of travel and community, Weatherholt has continued to share the game with kids around the world. She traveled to Nicaragua with Soccer Without Borders, an organization that gives underprivileged youth an opportunity to receive coaching and equipment. They knocked on doors and invited young girls to come play for the first time.

“Soccer was always something where you put the ball down and it didn’t matter where you came from, it immediately broke barriers,” she says. “It became a pillar to why I play the game, and ever since then, it’s always had to be something bigger than soccer.”

The journey back to L.A.

Weatherholt left California in 2016 as a goal-driven 22-year-old, eager to get her first pro contract with the Orlando Pride, who selected her as the 31st overall pick in that year’s College Draft.

After going to school at Santa Clara, Weatherholt was living away from California for the first time and regularly moving to different apartments. In 2018, she even went overseas to Australia for 12 matches with the Melbourne Victory. Through the constant changes, she learned to create a home within herself, until she reached a point when she was ready to return to the West Coast and play closer to her physical home.

Ahead of the 2020 season, Weatherholt moved to Seattle to play for OL Reign, where she was able to train for two years with some of the best midfielders in the world, including 2021 NWSL MVP Jess Fishlock, World Cup champion Rose Lavelle and Olympic gold medalist Quinn. People asked her why she went to the Reign when other teams could have given her more playing time, and she said she wanted teammates who could take her under their wing.

“It was really a good experience for me to learn from them, so I’m really grateful I put myself in that situation,” she says.

While the Reign exemplified strong team culture, the Pride, where she played from 2016-19, matched her love of getting involved with the community. That’s how she met Zayne Burton, a young cancer patient whose family Weatherholt got to know after she brought him a signed Alex Morgan jersey when he was in the hospital. She has cited her friendship with Burton and his family as one of her favorite memories during her soccer career.

When asked how the Dani Weatherholt who returned to LA is different than the 22-year-old who left it, Weatherholt says she lives more in the moment now, as opposed to the goal-centric player she was as a rookie.

“It’s great to have goals, don’t get me wrong, but I think when they consume you, then it affects your play. It affects nearly everything,” she says.

By the time Angel City was scouting for its debut NWSL season, Weatherholt’s career experiences had made into just the type of player the expansion team was looking for in its leaders.

‘She is an angel at Angel City’

Weatherholt didn’t know she was going first overall in the 2022 NWSL expansion draft until Angel City head coach Freya Coombe called her minutes before her name was announced.

She did know that playing for the club would be a possibility. At the end of the 2021 season, NWSL players were asked if they would be interested in representing either of the expansion teams in Los Angeles or San Diego. Weatherholt gave her agent the go-ahead to submit her name.

“I loved my team in Seattle, like loved them,” she says. “But I was like, everyone is going to want to go to California, so if they want me and if it if it lines up, then I would love to go.”

Ahead of the draft, Coombe was drawn to the midfielder’s roots and her desire to fight for her home community. Coombe knew those qualities would be important not only to the culture Angel City wanted to build, but also to Weatherholt’s career.

Now two months into the regular season, Weatherholt is filled with pride for her new club, which has dedicated itself to expanding access to resources both on and off the pitch. With their Angel City Sponsorship Model, in which 10 percent of all sponsorship dollars go to community programs, the club has helped provide thousands of meals, soccer equipment and essentials kits to those in need around L.A.

“It just couldn’t align more with who I am and why I play and why I continue to play,” Weatherholt says.

Weatherholt’s steadiness in possession and her reading of pace and angles at the holding midfield position have been key for Angel City, who return to play Friday in sixth place in the NWSL standings with a 4-4-1 record. The way Weatherholt pushes her teammates to match their opponent’s level demonstrates the deeper understanding of the league that Coombe was looking for when building her roster.

“She’s been a fantastic leader for us,” Coombe says. “A great person to have around, and a key player for us as well.”

Training in L.A. has helped Weatherholt find a new level of freedom in her game. A veteran with ACFC, she’s taken what she learned from her two seasons with OL Reign’s world-class midfielders and helped set the tone.

She’s also regularly able to share her experiences with her family, including her dad ( who had only seen her play live once before she returned to L.A.) and her brother (who has never seen her play professionally). Weatherholt enjoys bringing her spunky, wide-eyed nephew onto the field after matches, and her dad still offers her a Snickers bar and banana before every game.

“Whenever my family comes to watch me play, I always play well because it’s like, you know your family loves you no matter what and they know who you are,” she says. “There’s something special about that and it definitely gives me this buzz.”

Finnerty can’t wait to show up to an Angel City game with the San Clemente girls’ soccer team and a big glittery sign for Weatherholt, just like Weatherholt did years ago for Finnerty’s 5-year-old daughter.

“I admire you so much. You’re not going to stop. You’re going to keep going and doing more and being more for others,” Finnerty once told Weatherholt. “She is an angel at Angel City.”

“It’s hard to find the words because it’s like a full-circle moment,” Weatherholt says. “All the people that supported you, loved you, and then life goes on and then all of a sudden to see that they’re still supporting you, and you get to fight for that community now.”

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.