It’s difficult to imagine a single NWSL game between two expansion sides having more hype than the first-ever match between the San Diego Wave and Los Angeles’ Angel City FC last season.
But as Angel City midfielder Savannah McCaskill remembers it, the SoCal rivalry didn’t actually begin until their first game had been played. The first match in the organizations’ history — a Challenge Cup group stage game in March 2022 — felt a bit like preseason, with neither team yet settled into their current home stadiums.
“Going into it, it didn’t feel as much of a rivalry game,” McCaskill said. That is, until the result on the field had both teams walking away ready for round two.
Angel City thought they had the match won after McCaskill’s header found the back of the net in the 49th minute, the first goal in club history. But a late equalizer by Wave defender Kaleigh Riehl produced a 1-1 draw that felt to Angel City more like a loss.
“How that game unfolded, with us scoring first and then them getting the tying goal, they left us feeling like we really wanted to beat them,” McCaskill said.
Kaleigh Riehl levels for San Diego 🌟Scores her first-ever #NWSL goal and the first goal in club history ✨ pic.twitter.com/kQHR3sYfkW— Attacking Third (@AttackingThird) March 20, 2022
Kaleigh Riehl levels for San Diego 🌟Scores her first-ever #NWSL goal and the first goal in club history ✨ pic.twitter.com/kQHR3sYfkW
The teams have now met five times in front of raucous crowds — San Diego has won three of those games, including the most recent two, while L.A. has earned one win and one draw. Angel City has a shot at redemption against their rivals on Saturday in San Diego, after falling at home in their first matchup this season, 2-0.
For McCaskill, the wins make all the difference. Growing up in South Carolina and staying in-state to play four years at the University of South Carolina, she hails from a region known for some of the most deep-seated rivalries in American sports.
“If you go to USC or you’re a South Carolina fan, you hate Clemson. I guess it’s in your DNA,” she said. “Didn’t matter if they were good that year, bad that year, didn’t matter. It was always a very heated rivalry game full of emotion, full of craziness, every single time we played them.”
After joining the NWSL in 2018, McCaskill had fewer chances to develop rivalry experiences. Drafted by the Boston Breakers — who then promptly folded — the 26-year-old played for Sky Blue (now Gotham) FC, the Chicago Red Stars and Racing Louisville before joining Angel City’s inaugural expansion roster.
McCaskill’s journey through the league before finding a home in L.A. allowed her to form a tight-knit yet widespread group of friends. Now, she’s used to facing former teammates on the other side of the pitch, which can make the intensity of a match a bit more personal.
“There’s something about beating your friends, it’s kind of fun,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t know if that’s mean, but it’s kind of fun to be able to play against your friends and have that banter back and forth.”
While they take care of business on the field, Angel City’s players want to leave the naming of the SoCal derby up to the fans, who have quickly taken ownership of the rivalry. With regional proximity still an NWSL rarity, supporters take advantage of the quick trip out of town to show up in droves. Angel City is expecting hundreds of supporters to make the drive to San Diego’s Snapdragon Stadium on Saturday.
The fan support has never wavered, but Angel City has struggled on the pitch this season, managing only two wins in 11 regular season matches. The Wave have forged a different path so far, rising to the top of the NWSL standings after becoming the first expansion side to make the playoffs in their inaugural season in 2022.
“I think we have got to show up, we have to do the dirty work well, we have to compete, we have to want to get into tackles,” McCaskill said, describing a gritty ability to close out games that became a team ethos in 2022 but has eluded Angel City in recent weeks.
The squad has no choice but to look at the derby as a step toward turning their season around. But they also understand what getting a win over a close rival would mean to Angel City’s fans.
“They really build on the huge rivalry piece and bring so much emotion and honor to us as players,” McCaskill said. “Why we’re competing and why the game really means so much is because it means so much to our supporters and the city of Los Angeles.”
The NWSL veteran says putting up a fight will go a long way toward achieving the ultimate goal, regardless of the result. And for McCaskill personally, winning would erase a piece of recent history that still haunts her.
“It’s no secret, I missed my (penalty) the last time we were down there this last year,” she said, referring to goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan’s diving save on her 74th-minute penalty kick in a 1-0 loss last September. “So, I would love to be able to score in that stadium and get that monkey off my back.”
Like any good playmaker, McCaskill can remember both the goals scored and the chances missed. In a match of this magnitude, she’s hoping for more memories that will help build a passionate rivalry for years to come.
“I’m all for a goal that makes the crowd go crazy,” she said. “And even better, to take it a step further, if your team scores a goal and the other team’s supporters have to clap for you because it was that good — that’s a crazy moment.”
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.