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Angel City FC 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup preview

Time for first impressions for expansion team.

Courtesy of Angel City FC

Angel City FC will kick off their 2022 campaign on Saturday, when they host fellow NWSL expansion side San Diego Wave FC for both teams’ first-ever competitive game, in the Challenge Cup at Titan Stadium in Fullerton.

Ahead of the tournament kickoff, let’s run the rule over the new team in Los Angeles.

The team

Head coach: Freya Coombe

Roster:

  • Forwards: Simone Charley, Jun Endo (INT), Tyler Lussi, Christen Press, Jasmyne Spencer
  • Midfielders: Hope Breslin, Katie Cousins, Stefany Ferrer Van Ginkel (INT), Savannah McCaskill, Lily Nabet, Cari Roccaro, Miri Taylor (INT, NYR), Dani Weatherholt
  • Defenders: Vanessa Gilles (INT), Sarah Gorden, Madison Hammond, Paige Nielsen, Ali Riley, Allyson Swaby, M.A. Vignola, Megan Reid
  • Goalkeepers: DiDi Haračić, Brittany Isenhour, Maia Perez

Coombe has said that every player under contract will play in the Challenge Cup. Whether she means literally everyone healthy, meaning even third-string GK Maia Perez will get some minutes, remains to be seen, but it does appear that most, if not all of the players available, will see time in the Challenge Cup.

The Challenge Cup format

The 12 teams in the NWSL have been placed into three regional groups. Angel City, unsurprisingly, is based in the Western group, alongside San Diego Wave FC, Portland Thorns and OL Reign. Teams will play their groupmates home and away in the group stage. The group winner will move on to the knockout round, along with the best finisher among the second-place teams in the three groups. In other words, it’s win or (probably) bust for teams looking to advance in the tournament.

Angel City’s group schedule

  • Saturday, Mar. 19: ACFC vs. San Diego Wave FC (6 pm PT)
  • Saturday, Mar. 26: ACFC vs. OL Reign (1 pm PT)
  • Wednesday. Mar. 30: ACFC at Portland Thorns (7 pm PT)
  • Saturday, Apr. 2: ACFC at San Diego Wave FC (1 pm PT)
  • Sunday, Apr. 17: ACFC at OL Reign (3 pm PT)
  • Sunday, Apr. 24: ACFC vs. Portland Thorns (6 pm PT)

Where will Angel City’s home games be during the Challenge Cup?

While the club unveiled Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles as their main stadium, in fact for the Challenge Cup, their home games will all be played at Titan Stadium in Fullerton. The contrast between the venues is considerable, but Titan Stadium has a lot of history for being a pre-MLS era soccer stadium, and while the amenities there are considerably more spartan, it’s a nice enough spot to take in a soccer game.

How else can I watch these games?

All of the Challenge Cup group games are on the CBS family of networks in the United States, with five of six available on Paramount+, the same streaming service that currently carries the UEFA Men’s Champions League, among many, many other soccer competitions and other non-soccer content. Games on Paramount+ will also be available to watch later on demand.

The Apr. 2 game at San Diego will be simulcast on main CBS, while the Apr. 17 game at OL Reign will air on CBS Sports Network only.

Ok, the details are out of the way. How good are Angel City FC?

Great question! If I knew it with certainty I’d probably be doing something else right now. And obviously, we’ve never seen this team play a game. Accurately predicting how a team will do, even in (or especially in?) a mere six games is a fool’s errand.

I will say this: There’s been a ton of turnover in the NWSL within the last year. Every team except for the Houston Dash have hired a new coach in that time. In the offseason, there has been massive roster churn, not only because of the arrival of the expansion teams, but because of the coaching turnover and a hell of a lot of players asked to go somewhere new. As a result, I think there’s going to be more parity than usual in the NWSL this year than even in the past, and generally speaking the league has a lot of parity. So that gives the expansion teams a big opportunity.

On paper, Angel City is projected to be the stronger team overall between the expansion sides, but again, we just don’t know at this point. ACFC’s squad seems to make a lot of sense, with some actual depth and promising youngsters around a strong leading cast, but injuries plaguing the defense (Sarah Gorden is out an indefinite period of time with a knee injury, and Paige Nielsen has been rumored to be dealing with injury, too) means the tentative projections may not line up with reality.

So should I write in Angel City as reaching the Challenge Cup knockouts now?

I am not prepared to do that. The main reason is ACFC got a tough group. Yes, San Diego is an expansion team, too, but they also have a better opportunity to make waves (heh) this year, same as Angel City. More than that, it’s the other two teams. The Thorns won last year’s Challenge Cup, and while they lost several key contributors, they may have enough knowhow as a perennial power in this league, even under a new head coach this season, to be a contender in each competition they enter.

And then there’s OL Reign. Laura Harvey returned to the team she led for so many years in the middle of the 2021 season, and while several loanees from Lyon are no longer at the club for the Challenge Cup, they may be the deepest and most balanced team in the league coming into 2022. Getting past both OL Reign and the Thorns sounds like a really tall order for Angel City.

Having said that, Harvey has said publicly she plans to use the Challenge Cup to gear up for the regular season, and I guess if she rotates her lineups enough, it could leave the door open for another team to come on in. So I think Angel City have a very tough, but not impossible, task of topping the group.

Player to watch

It’s gotta be Christen Press. The last time she was in the NWSL for an extended run, she was playing at an NWSL MVP level. She skipped the 2020 season for personal reasons and then went to Manchester United for a season, before taking another extended break the last nine months. She may be 33 years old, but she is the most accomplished player and the best on the roster, the face of the club, and will be expected to carry the team in ways big and small in 2022. Given the time off, her legs should be fresh and for all of her talent, she’s never really been able to lead a decent team herself in NWSL on her own terms. This is the year she can do that, and if she does play at an NWSL MVP level, it could be a very good season for Angel City.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.