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‘Angel City’ documentary: The realest look yet at an NWSL team

Angel City captain Ali Riley celebrates a goal with Sydney Leroux during the club’s inaugural season in 2022. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

One of the NWSL’s highest-profile clubs is getting the Hollywood treatment this week, as the new three-part HBO documentary “Angel City” airs for the first time. The film covers the Los Angeles club from its inception, when a high-profile group led by team president Julie Uhrman, her business partner Kara Nortman and Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman brought their idea for a new kind of ownership model to life.

The film documents in great detail the building blocks to creating a team in the still-young NWSL, as Uhrman leads the charge in turning a dream into a very successful reality. It then follows the highs and lows of the club’s inaugural season as an expansion side, during which Angel City battles to make the 2022 NWSL playoffs.

“Angel City” portrays a strong proof of concept — that women’s sports can and should be treated as legitimate business — while also telling a classic sports story.

The film both serves as an entry point for casual fans to women’s soccer and provides diehard fans with an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at the club. Footage of NWSL teams has been compiled in the past (the likely never-to-be-seen documentary on Paul Riley’s North Carolina Courage being perhaps the most notable), but no club has ever been the subject of quite so deep a dive.

Portman’s production company not only created the documentary, but the Oscar winner also pitched the players on the idea of filming their season, starting from the very first team meeting. Players suddenly had to balance their jobs on the field with their appearances on camera.

“Natalie came in and really sat down with us and said her vision and why she wanted to do it,” says Angel City captain Ali Riley. “And it made everyone feel so much more comfortable with it.”

Director Arlene Nelson immersed herself in the world of women’s soccer and also took a trust-building approach, giving players her phone number early on, with an open offer to share any concerns.

“I think you see some of these reality shows, and you just get worried about how you’re going to be presented and what kind of drama they’re going to be looking for,” Riley says, noting that players were assured no one was looking to create a villain in order to make the documentary compelling.

“It was a real dance to build trust,” Nelson agrees. “To show up, and at the same time to give them their space.”

Sports documentaries have increasingly become effective ways to grow fandom, as seen in the wildly successful Netflix Formula 1 series “Drive to Survive,” HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” and Amazon Prime’s extensive “All or Nothing” series. The goal with these films has been to explain the ins and outs of a team or league to newcomers, while also not shying away from the conflicts that arise from high-performance environments in professional sports.

The makers of “Angel City” took a very similar approach.

Players got a chance to share their backstories as they embarked on one of the more unique journeys in their NWSL careers, playing for sold-out crowds and in front of A-listers like Jennifer Garner and Serena Williams. The scenes of triumph are epic, but a documentary free of tension won’t inspire fans to engage in the same way, and “Angel City” draws viewers in enough to feel the stakes.

“I think that it’s important to show that it all doesn’t come easy, and that there is friction, and that is where the trust comes in,” Nelson says.

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Angel City led the NWSL in attendance in its first year, averaging over 19,000 fans at home games. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The film offers a glimpse into many conversations between Angel City head coach Freya Coombe and general manager Eni Aluko, whose management styles clashed at times, leading to Aluko leaving the club before the end of the 2022 season. The team’s Challenge Cup campaign isn’t sugar-coated either, with Coombe calling the defensive performance “not even professional level” in a postgame exchange with Uhrman and season-long challenges presented by the team’s no-trade clause.

“Everyone’s worried about looking like an asshole on HBO,” Riley jokes. “But then you’re like, we don’t want this to be like everything is perfect.”

Angel City dealt with more than a few bumps in the road during their first year: It took them time to find a settled training facility, their head coaching hire came under intense scrutiny, and the NWSL fined the club for tampering before the season even began.

The film also doesn’t shy away from midfielder Katie Cousins’ controversial Instagram story about wearing Pride jerseys, her teammate’s reactions and the club’s internal response. And even as the team racked up accomplishments off the field — in both sponsorships and ticket sales — they weathered a series of serious injuries that greatly affected the course of their season. The setbacks at the center of the docuseries are the season-ending ACL tear forward Christen Press suffered halfway through the season and the limited availability of Sydney Leroux, whom ACFC acquired in a midseason trade with the Orlando Pride to aid the attack.

“I feel emotional just talking about it,” Riley says. “Because it’s hard to live it once, let alone to see it again in slow motion. The optimism of how the season was starting, and then with Christen getting injured and then having Syd [be injured], it’s just this rollercoaster. But that was so real.”

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Christen Press, ACFC's first signing in 2021, is still recovering from a torn ACL. (Harry How/Getty Images)

In one scene, defender Paige Nielsen expresses her disappointment at missing the team’s regular season home opener due to an injury, while simultaneously contemplating the risk of moving her wife across the country to join her in Los Angeles.

“I just feel a lot of pressure sometimes,” Nielsen says quietly to a trainer before trailing off.

“We’re not being paid millions of dollars to do this,” Riley says. “We make a lot of sacrifices to do what we love. You see the passion. The injuries are such a real part of sport.”

The other part of the sport that “Angel City” prioritizes is the game footage, which is immaculate. Nelson brought up to six camera operators to Angel City home matches, capturing close-up and expansive footage that gives the viewer a sense of what it’s like to be on the ground level of an NWSL match.

“We wanted you to feel the sweat dripping off their brows and the clashing of these gladiator-like warriors, we wanted you to feel like you were immersed in the game,” Nelson says. “It was just as important to us as an intimate single camera interview.”

As fans of women’s soccer know well, those details matter because they represent a level of equity the NWSL is still pushing toward in its 10th season. No one in the film was more adamant for growth in NWSL broadcasts than Portman, who lightly grills commissioner Jessica Berman on the league’s TV presentation in one “Angel City” scene.

“We’ve talked so much about the quantity of coverage and women’s sports, but it’s also about the quality,” Riley says. “There’s studies even showing that women players, athletes, are sexualized in how they’re documented, or just the camera angles, and we struggle with it sometimes in NWSL.”

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Kara Nortman, Natalie Portman and Julie Uhrman pose at the "Angel City" L.A. premiere on May 4. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images

In the pursuit of attracting new fans, the film embodies the concept that you have to educate as well as entertain.

“Sometimes you have to tell people what is cool and what to support. They don’t know what they don’t know,” Riley says.

Taking a page from the club it documents, “Angel City” is a story packed with ideas, successes and adversity, painting the picture of a club making incredible strides off the field while the team strives to join the upper echelon of the league.

“It’s something that I want every player to experience, especially women, to have the kind of attendance numbers we have, to be part of a club that has these strong values, that really wants to extend beyond ourselves,” Riley says. “What we have in Angel City is this huge platform and so many eyes on us, and I think the players are doing such an amazing job of taking advantage of that.”

“Angel City” premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

Other former players contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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