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Angel City FC’s small-roster approach is already paying off

ACFC coach Freya Coombe speaks to her team during a practice at Pepperdine University this week. (Stephanie Romero/Angel City FC)

Vanessa Gilles feels like she’s known Cari Roccaro for years, even though they just met two weeks ago. The Angel City FC teammates’ bond was evident as they bantered back and forth during their call with the media on Thursday.

​​Gilles, an Olympic gold medalist with Canada, will leave Los Angeles for a couple of weeks to participate in national team camp ahead of the Arnold Clark Cup that runs from Feb. 17-23. With Angel City already such a tight-knit team, she knows they’ll stay in constant communication while she’s gone.

“Hopefully they don’t forget about me, which I don’t think they will,” Gilles said, before turning to Roccaro. “Do you agree, Cari?”


“OK, thank you.”

“I will not forget about you,” Roccaro added. “But don’t go bothering me when you’re at camp.”

Ali Riley and Did Haračić showed a similar bond during ACFC’s media call last week. The comfort Angel City players feel with each other is evident just two weeks into the NWSL preseason and the club’s on-field existence, and it appears to be a direct result of Freya Coombe’s small-roster philosophy.

The coach named 25 players to the preseason squad, fewer than almost every other NWSL team this year. For context, San Diego Wave FC, Angel City’s expansion club counterpart, invited 34 players to camp, while the reigning champion Washington Spirit brought in 38.

“We want players that are here to feel secure, and with us being a new team, we wanted to provide a really strong environment for them where it wasn’t a case of we’ve got 40 people and then we’re whittling down that group,” Coombe said last week.

“I wanted them to come in, start to form relationships with each other, start to get to know each other and really help harness the strength of that group and that unit to be able to move on and play through this season. So, that was our rationale for having less players.”

If the team needs a change halfway through the year, the former NJ/NY Gotham coach is open to adding new talent, but current players have been promised they won’t get traded away. Providing players with that sense of security has been a tenant of Angel City’s philosophy from the beginning.

Coombe has been in a similarly high-stakes position before, having turned NJ/NY Gotham FC from an NWSL bottom dweller into 2021 Challenge Cup runners-up as head coach. Now, she faces the task of building a team from scratch.

Coombe’s small-roster approach has raised questions from fans about potential injuries and a lack of competitiveness in training camp. The NWSL, after all, is a business and arguably the most talented women’s soccer league in the world. But Gilles, who joined Angel City after four years at Bordeaux to develop her game under high pressure, has found that she’s been consistently challenged in camp.

For Roccaro, the small-team environment is “lovely.” The defender, formerly with the Houston Dash and North Carolina Courage, has experienced preseasons with rosters that were double the size of Angel City’s. In 2018, she made it through an entire preseason with Houston before getting cut.

“I think the feelings you get of, ‘Am I going to make the team, are they going to cut me tomorrow, are they gonna trade me tomorrow?’ That can really affect how you play,” Roccaro said.

With the expansion team, there aren’t players who had starting positions with the group last year or coaches already familiar with players’ roles. Roccaro, 27, describes a collective feeling of nerves among the players, both on the field and off of it as they create new lives in Los Angeles. Having a tight-knit team and the security of being part of a small roster helps ease the transition.

Gilles, 25, especially appreciates Angel City’s atmosphere. Playing in her first NWSL season, she’s never been in a situation where it’s possible to get cut during preseason.

“When you’re secure in your position, you obviously play with more confidence and you trust your teammates more and you want to get to bond with your teammates more, so I think the small roster that we’ve had during this preseason has been great,” Gilles said.

On the field, Roccaro and Gilles have appreciated Coombe’s calm, detail-oriented coaching style. She’s been suggesting small technical and tactical changes to their individual games that neither of the defenders had thought about before.

“She is an amazing person,” said Roccaro. “She totally fits the mold of what the first Angel City coach should be, and I mean that wholeheartedly. I think she’s the perfect fit on the field, off the field, her goals, who she is as a person, how she’s going to push us, how she’s going to hold the standard high. I think it’s going to be really, really fun to play for her.”

Angel City’s first test comes in their Challenge Cup opener against San Diego on March 19.

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