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Angel City FC defense proving solid foundation

As chemistry builds up front, the defense seems to have clicked.

NWSL: Kansas City Current at Angel City FC Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For the second straight week Angel City FC take the pitch at home, this time hosting Gotham FC in an East Coast vs. West Coast NWSL clash. This is the first meeting between the two squads, a phrase ACFC will hear several more times this season. While there is plenty of hype around the game itself, I wanted to take some time to spotlight just how well, and quickly, Angel City’s defense has settled in together and proving to be the foundation needed for the team to build upon.

Shortly after Christen Press was announced as the team’s first-ever signing, the team decided to then grab the centerpiece for the defense they had hoped to build by nabbing one of the league’s best, defender Sarah Gorden. Unfortunately, a preseason injury left Gorden on the sidelines, as she currently begins the road to a return, possibly even before the close of 2022. While the team was left with a pretty big hole to fill in her absence, they had done well to bring in plenty of talent to the team, so not all was lost.

The team made a trade to acquire the New Zealand captain and SoCal native, defender Ali Riley, from Orlando Pride, selected then-forward Jasmyne Spencer in the Expansion Draft, and signed Canadian International and Olympic Gold Medalist defender Vanessa Gilles. Those moves eventually became the foundation of what has been a very impressive Angel City defense to start the NWSL season. To truly appreciate how well this defense has done we first have to go back to the Challenge Cup, where the team took some lumps.

Being an expansion team is tough, and the Challenge Cup proved to be just that for ACFC, a challenge. In fairness, it’s not easy to go from a couple of weeks together in training right into a regional grouping with some of the league's best, and importantly most experienced teams. A three match stretch where the team allowed a combined 10 goals proved to be their roughest stretch of the tournament. Then the trip to Seattle happened. While the team lost 2-1, something was different. Something felt different. The following week, in the last match of the tournament, the team secured a massive win at home, 1-0 against the Portland Thorns. The win also marked the team's first shutout, but far from the last.

The team come into Sunday sitting in second place with two-straight shutouts in their rearview. While still only four games into the season, the team are currently tied with fellow expansion side San Diego Wave FC and Houston Dash for fewest goals allowed (2). On the surface, not much changed by way of tactics or roster shifts. Interestingly, as the team experimented with formations early on, it was the 4-2-3-1 that featured in two of the three matches where the team allowed all those goals. While the midfield is often considered just as important in defending as the back four, in theory, keeping two extra midfielders in the back should help prevent goals, but not in this case. The team quickly shifted back to their 4-3-3 formation that we currently see them play for the most part.

As you can see, the team still uses four at the back, and as for lineup changes, not much there either. Riley, Gilles, and Spencer — who is seemingly making the change from forward to fullback, though still given the freedom to play forward — have all played throughout, when healthy. One of the few changes that has proven to be significant has been the insertion of defender Megan Reid at center back, partnering with Gilles. The defender wasn't even playing soccer professionally last season, yet since being put into the starting XI the team has only given up four goals in six matches.

The biggest benefit to having a defense pull a complete 180, it allows the attack time to find chemistry of their own, without facing too much pressure. Individually, Christen Press, Jun Endo, Tyler Lussi and Simone Charley are great players. Able to create space and find goal-scoring opportunities, but they are from from the ceiling of what this attack can be. They’ve yet to really blow a team away, something they are very capable of doing. Yet, despite not scoring a lot of goals, with the defensive effort they've enjoyed to start the season, the team only needs one to secure three points.

It takes a bit of a sixth sense for an attack to truly unlock. The ability to know where your fellow forwards will be in any given moment, knowing their tendencies, where they want a ball on a run, how far they can be led. All of that takes time to develop for any team, let alone one who's only been together a few short months. Having a defense that doesn't force their forwards into feeling forced to score or ‘make something happen’, is invaluable. It doesn't hurt when they can also lead by example.

I’ll be honest with you, there is no deeply profound reason for this story. We here at Angels on Parade just wanted to shed the spotlight on the job this defense has done over the last month. Partly because, how often do you see a team flip the switch the way they did? No major tactical changes that we can tell, no major lineup shake-up, but this team went from ten goals allowed in just three matches, to shutting down the defending champions of the NWSL, on their pitch! Which brings up the mostly part. This team as a whole is only getting better, but this defense has taken it up to an even higher level the last couple of matches.

Holding an attack with 2021 Rookie of the Year Trinity Rodman, Ashley Hatch and Ashley Sancechez scoreless is no small feat. Following it up with another 1-0 shutout at home was a declaration. While the team as a whole still needs time to come together, its comforting to know the defense has begun to take their steps towards being one of the toughest to break down. It’s like they say, defense wins championships, and if this one keeps playing at this level, they may be testing that theory sooner rather than later.

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