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‘Finally, we have a women’s team’: LA rallies around Angel City in debut

Angel City celebrates Jun Endo's goal in the first half of their 2-1 win over North Carolina. (Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — For the first time since 2009, Los Angeles fans watched a women’s professional soccer team play a regular-season match, as Angel City FC defeated the North Carolina Courage 2-1 on Friday night. ACFC announced its NWSL entrance in July 2020, but as the team took the field in front of a sellout crowd of 22,000 at Banc of California Stadium for its home opener, after the anticipation and the build-up of the past year, it all started to feel real.

Thousands of fans arrived as much as four hours before kickoff to revel in the historic moment together, playing games, dancing to a live DJ and chanting “Dalé, Dalé, ACFC” with drumming accompaniment. The on-field pregame festivities included pyrotechnics and a live musical performance replete with a 40-piece marching band.

ACFC defender Vanessa Gilles kept the good times rolling, sending the crowd into a frenzy in the third minute when she headed in a precise centering pass from Jun Endo on the right flank for the first goal in regular-season franchise history. As the fans cheered their team’s 1-0 lead, Gilles’ teammates wrapped her in a swaying group embrace before the Canadian jogged back to midfield, raising her arms triumphantly.

Arturo Gutierrez, his wife and two sons (ages 9 and 11), decked out in matching ACFC scarves and kits, were four of the 22,000 who lost their minds on the Gilles goal. The family from nearby Lynwood has season tickets in the supporters’ section, where Arturo’s son, 11-year-old Arturo Jr., plays the drums.

“We’re super excited,” Arturo Sr. said. “It’s nice being able to see him happy. It makes me happy.”

Arturo Sr. said he and his wife speak to their sons “all the time” about the importance of supporting women.

“I’m a real soccer fan,” he said, “and it’s important to support the women. They need that from us. Not having a women’s team is not right. We finally got one, and we’re here to make history, bro.”

Ten minutes after Gilles made history with the franchise’s first goal, ACFC struck again. Receiving a pass from Savannah McCaskill, Endo met the ball with her left foot and directed it across her body and into the bottom right corner of the goal.

In Endo’s first 13-plus minutes of NWSL regular-season play, the 21-year-old — who before tonight had never played for a team outside of Japan — factored in both goals to give ACFC a 2-0 advantage. Meanwhile, in the stands behind the opposite goal, an ACFC supporter waved Endo’s native flag of Japan.

Twelve-year-old Farrah Pulido of El Monte soaked in every moment of the match with her mom, Ivette, who received two tickets from her boss, a season-ticket holder who could not attend Friday’s match.

“We’re both big soccer fans,” Ivette said. “I grew up watching it, and now so does Farrah, and it’s always been all about the men. Finally, we have a women’s team.”

Farrah, who is a goalkeeper for the SC Blues club soccer team based in Irvine, naturally loves watching fellow goalies.

In the 38th minute, she witnessed ACFC goalkeeper DiDi Haracic dive to her left and deflect a dangerous shot out of play.

“DiDi’s save was absolutely world-class,” ACFC head coach Freya Coombe said after the match. “I’d like to say that we’ve never seen that before, but I think that we all had in the Portland Challenge Cup final where she did exactly the same thing. DiDi’s proven herself in those big moments.”

Haracic saved three of the four shots on goal she faced Friday night.

The Courage dominated possession in the second half but only capitalized on one opportunity. Brazilian national team star Debinha’s score in the 51st minute marked her fifth straight game with a goal.

In the final 10 minutes of the match, the stadium rocked with “Let’s go, City” chants until ACFC officially secured its first regular-season victory, persevering through several Courage rushes, especially during the six minutes of stoppage play.

“The crowd was unreal tonight,” Coombe said. “It was the best environment I’ve ever coached in.” The ACFC manager said she noticed “something special” about the fan support when the players came out for warm-ups.

“The support from the fans has been unwavering,” said Coombe, “It’s definitely having an impact on the players on the field. They’re living off that energy …We’re really grateful to have the number of fans we do, but also the passion and intensity of the fans.”

“I’ve never played in front of a crowd this big. Not on my side,” ACFC midfielder Dani Weatherholt said. “It was an unreal feeling to have all those people backing us … This community loves soccer. It’s very evident.”

Chris Weyant-Forbes and her partner, Al Weyant-Forbes, were among the ACFC backers in the stadium, wearing matching shirts that read, “#EQUALITY IN WOMEN’S SPORTS” on the front, and “WE DESERVE TO BE HERE” on the back. Al works at Riverside City College, where the women’s basketball team has had trouble getting access to the weight room and other college facilities. The women were regularly getting bumped in favor of the men’s teams, which led players on the team and the coach to speak out and later sue the college.

“The coach had these shirts made up, and we are wearing them,” Chris said, “because that’s bulls—t!”

Chris and Al discovered ACFC through a Los Angeles Times article, prompting them to attend their first game last Sunday, a Challenge Cup match in Fullerton. They had such a good time that they decided to come to opening night all the way from their Riverside home, a nearly two-hour drive from the stadium without traffic.

“I think it’s really cool that the team is predominantly women-owned and -operated,” Al said. “I love that they’re doing programs for girls to get into sports, and I’ve read that they do programming for women who retire from professional sports and give them career development so they can still work in sports. I just think it’s rad what Angel City Football Club is doing.”

ACFC captain and L.A. native Ali Riley feels just as strongly about the team’s mission as the fans.

“I saw a lot of families,” Riley said. “I saw a lot of men, women. The point is that women’s soccer belongs, and it belongs in this city. And I think for this club to do it is perfect, because it’s not just about inspiring young girls. It’s also about impacting the community and helping underserved communities. That’s really a big part of what motivates this team. For us to get that win tonight, with 22,000 people, I hope we really sent a message.”

Message received.

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.