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Inside Angel City’s modern approach to building a NWSL contender

Eniola Aluko has been leading Angel City's balance between off-field brand and on-field contender. (Karl Bridgeman/Getty Images for Angel City FC)

When the NWSL announced that both the 2022 Expansion and College Drafts would be held virtually due to concerns surrounding the ongoing pandemic, Angel City FC’s technical staff was ready to adapt.

The Los Angeles club has already been working remotely for months on multiple continents, identifying talent and making deals with other NWSL clubs in an attempt to put together the most exciting expansion side the league has ever seen. Ironically, they began the process by making the expansion draft as irrelevant as possible.

“I’ve had a lot of conviction about the players that I want, the strategy that we’re going with, and … you will have seen that we did pretty much most of our deals before the expansion draft,” Angel City Sporting Director Eniola Aluko told Just Women’s Sports a few days before the drafts.

“I wanted more certainty. I wanted to be able to say, ‘We have the players that we want,’ versus that uncertainty going into the expansion draft of not knowing who was going to be protected and unprotected. I think that way we’ve got a stronger team than we probably would have gotten if we’d waited.”

Like any NWSL expansion team, Angel City has limited assets with which to build a full roster. The team is flush with investor cash and has already sold more than 13,000 season ticket packages. Still, they have to adhere to the restrictive rights distribution and hard salary cap that have upheld the NWSL’s parity since its inception — though not without some friction.

The NWSL has already fined Angel City twice: once for announcing the signing of Christen Press before her contract had been approved, and once for communication with Gotham FC midfielder Allie Long that the league interpreted as tampering. There was a moment in time when one had to wonder if Angel City were building a very successful lifestyle brand with the soccer element yet to actually appear.

As on-field operations begin to take shape, however, the club’s approach has increasingly come into focus. Aluko’s background in European football as both a player and a general manager mixes well with head coach (and former Gotham FC manager) Freya Coombe’s knowledge of the NWSL, which comes with its own nuances.

“Freya has existing relationships in the league, which is one of the things that I thought was going to be really important when hiring a coach,” Aluko says. “I wanted somebody who had existing relationships in the NWSL and had coached and knew [of] the players that I didn’t necessarily know, so that it would make this process easier.”

Coombe shares that sentiment: “What’s great about Eni’s experience of coming from the European model is that she brings that element of, well, this is just football, right? It doesn’t need to be … some of the crazy rules that we have in the league. Her experience with the European game and just her sheer knowledge of players has been really, really helpful when looking to build a roster.”

Coombe has gotten a head start with ACFC after leaving Gotham FC in August. (Howard Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

In practice, Angel City’s approach toward player acquisition meant months of research, phone calls and WhatsApp messages, all powered by many cups of coffee. But how does the highest-profile roster in NWSL history get built? For Aluko and Coombe, it’s all about balance. They evaluated each prospective player based on tactical fit, leadership qualities, talent ceiling and, perhaps most importantly after the year the NWSL has had, their own wishes.

A true free agency period is still a hope for the NWSL’s future, but more than ever, clubs have had good reasons to make sure players are where they want to be. After a watershed season in which multiple coaches were fired for emotional and verbal abuse, the league has progressed toward a long-overdue overhaul of its value systems.

It’s a change Aluko welcomes and hopes will ripple across the sport.

“It’s kind of simple, but intrinsically as a human being, if you want to be somewhere, you will do better, you will perform better,” she says. “If you want to be in a relationship, you will have a really good relationship. Like for me, it’s just kind of obvious. So what’s been nice, honestly, is seeing a change in mindset towards players on both sides.”

Expansion protection has only been a tradable asset since 2020, when the Chicago Red Stars sent Yuki Nagasato and Savannah McCaskill — along with other assets — to Racing Louisville FC in exchange for full roster protection. At the time, the price appeared overly steep, but it also presented a way forward in which teams could put their players’ wishes first.

Coombe, who went through that same expansion draft with Gotham, saw increased interest in those types of deals this year.

“Clubs were interested in getting [trades with Angel City] done to get protection so they didn’t have to divide their squad up in what’s quite a mean way of just being like, ‘OK, we don’t value you.’ I think that’s a little harsh,” she says. “I think there were a few clubs motivated to do that so that they didn’t have to do their lists.”

Consequently, Angel City ended up taking only four players in the expansion draft: midfielder Dani Weatherholt, defender Paige Nielsen, forward Jasmyne Spencer and midfielder Claire Emslie. While not every player might’ve known they were being selected on draft night, Aluko said she got confirmation from agents and general managers that everyone the team pursued was open to a change.

“It is a decision,” Aluko says. “I’ve been offered players and trades that I have no idea whether they want to come to Angel City. Another club will do that trade; I won’t.”

Fortunately for the club, many players have been excited about the prospect of a fresh start in California, to the point where Angel City hasn’t been able to facilitate every request. The team has gone to work picking up players they believe will make an immediate impact. Aluko has leaned into a philosophy that values versatility, with the understanding that a brand new team can evolve very quickly.

“One of the things that I made very clear when we were recruiting coaches was that I don’t necessarily want coaches who are married to a fixed philosophy, because that’s predictable,” Aluko says. “What you want is a coach and players who have a degree of versatility so that the level of risk is lower.”

The vision for Angel City’s final form prioritizes a beautiful, possession-style of soccer with a defensive edge. But, with that versatility in mind, the club has also acquired players who have experience in many different roles. Press can play on either wing or at the No. 9, and she even spent time as the No. 10 for the Red Stars in 2017. Sarah Gorden, another former Red Star, can play center and outside back and has been a part of both a four-back and three-back formation. Recent signing Allyson Swaby brings her own backline versatility, and Nielsen has three-back experience. Spencer, a forward, also held her own at outside back in Houston in 2021, and the list goes on.

“From a playing-style standpoint, we want to be a little bit more unpredictable than probably other NWSL clubs, and we want to be a headache when teams are preparing against us,” Aluko says. “It’s like, ‘Oh my god, who are they going to play? Where are they going to play?’ We want that.”

“There is an element of risk, as well,” Coombe says. “We can pull in two great players, but can they play together? That’s very much a gamble until we start kicking a ball around.”

Angel City has built their roster around Christen Press, the club's first signing on Aug. 23. (Rob Gray/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Angel City has invested in data scouting to ensure their decisions, while risky, are informed. The team’s data analyst, Kim McCauley, has spent months watching tape and pulling stats on players both at home and abroad, providing a modern counterbalance to the more traditional evaluation style of the coaching staff.

One collaborative project was what Aluko described as the “Americans Abroad” list. McCauley would pass along relevant tape and compare the data of players in lower-profile European leagues to their counterparts in NWSL. If the stats and the eye test suggested the player could be competitive, Aluko would then look into offering that player a contract.

That analysis led to the early signings of MA Vignola and Katie Cousins, both former University of Tennessee standouts. It also helped uncover other players abroad like Japanese WNT prospect Jun Endo, whom the club acquired from Nippon TV Tokyo Verdy Beleza of the Japanese WE League. The same process also informed Angel City’s strategy in the college draft, where they only had a few picks in the later rounds.

Angel City’s resources off the field may have made them a desirable location for players, but it’s this extra step in soccer staffing that could make all the difference on the field.

“The combination of experience, knowledge, Freya’s knowledge and Kim’s knowledge together really helps us make informed decisions,” Aluko says. “It also helps us challenge each other. If I say, ‘This player’s amazing,’ and Kim says, ‘Data doesn’t say so,’ that’s the conversation that we have. And then we have to figure out whether it’s a recruitment decision that we make.”

“It’s like, I really like this player,” Coombe adds. “Well, is that what the stats say? And then, OK, do I have a bias towards this player for whatever reason? So I think that part’s always really interesting, and it certainly helped with the legwork of the sheer number of players we needed to look at.”

What Coombe, McCauley and Aluko can’t quite project is whether all the best-made plans will work right away. Their tactical plans seem tricky and building team chemistry is going to take time, but with the eyes of the soccer world firmly on the L.A. expansion club, their goal is to make one of the league’s six playoff spots in 2022.

“I think we all recognize how difficult that is; the NWSL is the most competitive league in the world,” Aluko said in a post-draft press conference. “All we can do is bring in players that are exposed to [NWSL play] and give our best on the field, but there are no guarantees in football.”

With draft week behind them, Angel City’s football operations staff is ready to turn an already successful club into an actual soccer team, and one Aluko hopes the city can take pride in.

“I hope fans will be excited about seeing themselves in the team — a diverse range of people, a diverse group of people, incredible characters, players who really care about the community, players who are from L.A., and exciting football, winning football,” she says. “That’s what we want.”

Says Coombe: “I think what we’d like to do is just continue to work on building a team that’s a great environment for the league. Try and change the narrative around what we’ve seen in the NWSL from this year, and make it an attractive destination to come and play, raise the standard. I think we’re as much responsible for that as we are for [what’s] on the field.”

Claire Watkins is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering soccer and the NWSL. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.