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Looking back on Freya Coombe’s 2022 season with Angel City FC

Evaluating the manager in guiding an expansion team through a debut campaign.

Nikita Taparia

Angel City FC had the second-best inaugural season on the field by a true NWSL expansion team in league history in 2022. That can’t be taken away from them, and in taking the league much further forward in terms of marketing, outreach, community work, fanbase and sheer spectacle, it was a very good year for the club.

Freya Coombe was the head coach to lead Angel City FC, and in assessing what we know from the 2022 season, there was definitely some adversity along the way, but the English manager put in a credible performance in leading the team.

After a rocky NWSL Challenge Cup to start the campaign, in which Angel City’s group opponents all made the playoffs this year, and posting a rousing 1-1 draw against San Diego Wave FC to open both teams’ history, they finished the Challenge Cup with a 1W-1L-4D record, the real highlight coming from the final two games, when Angel City narrowly missed a credible road draw at OL Reign, before beating the Portland Thorns 1-0 to enter the regular season on a positive note with their first-ever win.

Taking lumps in the Challenge Cup proved to be a blessing in disguise, because Angel City never repeated the mark of losing four games in a row in the regular season — in fact, they never had a true losing streak at all in 2022, never losing three times in a row in the season. The positive trends of the season were three wins in their first four regular season games, and a five-game unbeaten streak as summer wound down to keep Angel City alive in the playoff race until the final weekend.

Credit to Coombe for fielding a competitive squad every game, the team losing by three goals just once each in the Challenge Cup and regular season. This came in spite of two COVID outbreaks at the club, projected starting center back Sarah Gorden never playing after suffering a torn ACL in preseason, season-ending injuries to Christen Press and Sydney Leroux, Paige Nielsen missing significant time, Vanessa Gilles missing most of the season, and Jasmyne Spencer missing major time along the way.

Coombe should also get credit for her decisions to shore up the defense in a pinch. Megan Reid went from being pure cover to being thrust in a starting role out of desperation, and the NWSL debutant went on to have a terrific season, in which she played every minute in central defense.

In addition, platooning Spencer and Tyler Lussi as Angel City’s starting right back was a stroke of genius by Coombe. Forwards who had limited (Spencer) to no (Lussi) experience in defense, both were starting caliber and arguably played the best soccer of their careers in a new role.

Additionally, Coombe handing the captain’s armband to Ali Riley was a success. The veteran, returning to her hometown, turned out to be what you want to see out of a captain — hard-nosed, passionate, productive, a leader and willing and able to handle the media obligations that come with being the team leader. Riley embraced the role and having her be the first player to kiss the badge has to be one of the best moments from the season.

I think there’s two main critiques of Coombe’s performance. The main one is something that didn’t really change over the course of the season, and she seemed pretty locked in on a set starting XI and didn’t seem comfortable rotating the squad beyond enforced changes. As a result, 11 players got at least 10 starts in a 22-game season, which is extremely non-rotational. That meant that a handful of players, most notably international players Allyson Swaby and Stefany Ferrer Van Ginkel, barely got playing time at all. In seeing Ferrer ball out in the friendly against her old team, Tigres, the fact she was a total bit player for Angel City was even more puzzling.

I will say that while it seems like Angel City relied on a core group of players more than pretty much any team, some of the roster limitations were, again, down to a high volume of injuries and illnesses. Still, for the players’ fitness and to keep the roster engaged and fresh, it would be nice to see a larger group of players getting real playing time moving forward.

The other main critique is also related to the injuries that beset the squad, but while the defense managed to figure things out over and over again during the season, the attack sputtered badly at times. When Press was healthy, she was the focal point of the attack, as she should be. But the system didn’t quite work. She’s a playmaking forward, so she can create her own shot off the dribble, and she can set up teammates. But there was often no one to set up for — Simone Charley was hurt, Leroux and Claire Emslie were not yet on the team at all, and so chances often went begging.

In theory, Angel City’s attack made sense, with Press, Jun Endo and Savannah McCaskill all rotating around in attacking spots, splitting time between playmaking and being a scoring option, and trying to get chances in a lot of ways. But the team clearly got in a habit of getting the ball to Press and looking for her to make magic, which she often did. When she tore her ACL, that avenue was cut off, and it took a couple months for the attack to get back on track again.

The arrivals of Leroux and Emslie helped, and Charley’s return to fitness showed how her speed could have been used more along the way. But McCaskill’s role changing from a midfield playmaker to a late runner into the box, along with Emslie and rather surprisingly, Cari Roccaro hitting scoring form, gave ACFC’s attack new legs. Ultimately, Angel City tied for third-fewest goals scored in the 2022 season, and that ended their playoff hopes, as their goals-against number was fourth best in the league.

I think the overall takeaway from the attacking struggles was that Coombe and her staff did come up with a plan b, but it took awhile to really pay off. And even if Press had stayed healthy all season, the reliance on their star to carry the attack seemed untenable, as opposing defenses got in the habit of double-teaming her when she picked up the ball in midfield and bodying her off for a quick interception.

But ultimately Angel City weathered all the injuries and illnesses, the cross-country travel, the marathon of a regular season, and came just four points short of a playoff berth in their debut season. I felt like it was possible that quest could end far sooner, and worried at times that Coombe wouldn’t be able to keep them alive in the playoff race and ACFC would fade down the stretch. If anything, they got stronger, and that’s a credit to Coombe as well as the players.

From the outside, the Angel City squad was engaged and pushing in the same direction all season, no matter the ups and downs of the campaign. Much of the credit in getting through that should go to Coombe, for putting together an impressive expansion season. Assuming she comes back for the 2023 campaign, we’ll see how she can build on that for bigger things with Angel City FC.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.