Angel City FC’s first season in the NWSL was a rousing success by almost every metric off the pitch. The team hosted sold-out crowds, sold sponsorships, connected with the community and more.
On the field, the results were slightly less conclusive, as a number of key players suffered injuries and the team’s plans hit bumps in the road. An expansion team taking some time to find its footing in its inaugural season is understandable, but the Los Angeles club will need to take steps forward on the pitch in 2023 to keep pace with the rest of the league.
Angel City made a handful of splashy moves prior to their inaugural season. The team swapped their first-round draft pick for USWNT superstar Christen Press and benefitted from smart deals and player wishes to compile what looked like a competitive starting XI.
The team’s best-laid plans never quite came to fruition, in part due to an influx of injuries. Angel City lost center-back Sarah Gorden for the year with an ACL tear as well as star striker Christen Press to an ACL tear in June. After trading for Orlando’s Sydney Leroux later in June, the forward’s availability was limited the rest of the season. Winger Simone Charley dealt with lingering Achilles issues in the latter half of the summer, and midfielder Julie Ertz took time away from the sport entirely after the club acquired her rights before the season.
Angel City’s availability issues made it difficult to gauge their roster construction. The team became a gritty unit of starters who withstood the ebbs and flows of possession to try to grind out results. Angel City’s depth was put under a microscope by necessity, and the toll at the end of the season showed as the expansion side faded to eighth after a season-ending loss to the Chicago Red Stars.
After an inaugural season involving many factors outside the club’s control, Angel City took the two-pronged approach of running it back and planning for the future. The club traded for the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NWSL draft, selecting local teenage talent Alyssa Thompson. Thompson will get significant minutes in her first year as a pro as Press and Leroux continue to work their way back from injuries.
The assets L.A. dealt to acquire Thompson, in addition to the assets used to pick up Press and others in 2022, left the club with little room for more moves. As a result, Angel City needs to rely on their current team taking steps forward in 2023. Canada international Vanessa Gilles remains on loan to Olympique Lyon, but Gorden has made a full recovery and appears ready to run the backline in 2023.
“We didn’t necessarily get where we were looking to in the first season but were able to establish a foundation and a training facility,” general manager Angela Hucles Mangano said at the beginning of preseason. “We are looking at how we’re rounding out our entire roster, for the immediate and long term. We really want to make sure that we can provide depth in different positions. That is where you see how those players can be additive.”
While Angel City eagerly awaits the returns of Press and Leroux, the club made no moves to shore up the frontline that will likely be commanded by Thompson and Charley. Former North Carolina outside back Merritt Mathias should walk into a defensive role if she’s available, and former San Diego Wave forward Katie Johnson can also connect the attack to the midfield with her connective passing.
It’s difficult to gauge how head coach Freya Coombe plans to manage Thompson’s high ceiling while also getting the most out of the rest of her squad. A preseason friendly against Club América showed both the strengths and the weaknesses in Angel City’s roster construction.
While Thompson showed off her electric speed and poise to score her debut goal, the team started defender Madison Hammond at defensive midfielder and center back Paige Nielsen at outside back. Angel City never quite addressed the positional needs in the offseason that would allow the club to control the pace of play without requiring as much off-the-ball defending to pick up points. Jun Endo and Savannah McCaskill’s playmaking will be the key toward unlocking opposing defenses, and reliability at the less flashy positions might be what Angel City needs more than a brand-new star.
Angel City could be one of the biggest boom-or-bust propositions in the NWSL. They have the on-the-ball quality and speed of play to put opponents on their heels, but they might find that living dangerously gets in their way during a punishing regular season.
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.