A new dawn breaks: Angel City wins first NWSL regular-season game against North Carolina Courage
The energy at the Banc of California Stadium on Friday, April 29, 2022, was high as Angel City (ACFC) and the North Carolina Courage (NC Courage) faced off in the first game of the NWSL regular season in its 10th year. This game marked an abundance of important events: while being the inaugural home opener of ACFC’s new home stadium it was also the first time in the Courage’s NWSL run in which they had not won their first game of the regular season. The weight this game held was reflected in the high energy of the fans that reverberated around the stadium throughout the entire match.
The game saw an exciting starting lineup from the Courage with rookie Emily Gray’s first start both with the Courage and in her professional career. Another notable rookie that was starting on Courage’s lineup was defender Malia Berkley. ACFC saw no major changes in their starting lineup from their Challenge Cup run, partly due to many players out on injury. However, the rest of their team’s unavailability did not prevent them from leaving their first-ever regular-season game as a club with a 2-1 win.
The first 30 seconds of the match saw some intense pressure from the Courage onto ACFC by Debinha but that sequence was quickly turned over by a run from Christen Press. Off a series of corners by Savannah McCaskill for ACFC, the third minute saw Jun Endo crossing the ball from the far side to Vanessa Gilles. This service allowed her to who head it in and gave ACFC their first goal of the match. This was the first regular-season goal for the new expansion team ACFC and also Gilles’ first official goal in the NWSL after her goal on April 24, 2022, was called offside.
The next ten minutes following the initial goal saw some attempts from both sides. A connection from Press to Endo in the 5th minute almost found its way to the back of the net along with a shot from Endo off of a cross from Jasmyne Spencer in the 6th minute that was saved by Katelyn Rowland. North Carolina’s first corner kick in the 8th minute was swiftly punched out by Didi Haraĉić and the Courage’s subsequent attempt on goal in the 11th minute by Debinha found itself over the net.
The 13th minute began with an assist from McCaskill off a set piece that found its way to Endo on the left side that she expertly shot in bringing ACFC up to a 2-0 lead with their two goals within 10 minutes of each other. This first half was defined by dominance from ACFC and an inability from Courage’s defense to communicate and clear the ball in time allowing for the first half to give ACFC an abundance of shots on goal. The 16th minute was proof of this when a cross from Press found its way to Tyler Lussi but was called the office before she could complete the sequence.
The Courage showed some brief dominance in the first half with an impressive performance from Gray and Kerolin in the 18th minute. Gray was able to drive the ball to Kerolin who took a half turn before shooting on goal, unfortunately for the Courage reaching the crossbar. This was a valiant effort by the Courage though in a first half dominated by ACFC.
Another impressive performance in this match was from ACFC’s Spencer who began to play defensively as an outside back for this club to compensate for the players out on injury. Her ability to read the ball and act as a reliable defender along the sides was displayed throughout the game, but she also took some time to try an attacking position in the 22nd minute. Unfortunately, her shot was over the net. ACFC’s defense was an aspect we’ve seen falter in their Challenge Cup performances but steadily improved since their last win against the Portland Thorns, Spencer, Ali Riley, and Megan Reid being key players in that game as well as this one.
The next five minutes of play saw some attempts on goal by Debinha and Merritt Mathias but were swiftly saved by Haraĉić who demonstrated a solid performance in today’s game as well.
The first yellow card of the match was doled out to the Courage in the 32nd minute with a foul from Gray onto Riley. While ACFC’s pressure had been consistently keeping the Courage out from any substantial shots on goal, Taylor Smith showed an exemplary performance as she continued to place herself in the penalty box and create plays. However, what the Courage suffered from the most this half was their inability to take individual performances and create cohesive finishes in the box.
In the 37th minute, Gray took a great shot on goal off a set piece that was again saved by Haraĉić. Two minutes of added stoppage time to the first half found ACFC attempting a late goal in the 46th minute off a corner but was swiftly saved by Rowland.
Going into halftime with a 2-0 lead was unprecedented for ACFC and largely credited to Endo who secured a goal and an assist in that first half. ACFC also saw a cohesive and communicative midfield that was able to control and anticipate the Courage’s box midfield very well.
The second half began immediately with a shot on goal from Press in the 47th minute that unfortunately found the post instead of the back of the net. As anticipation rose and the Courage came into this half more aggressively, a goal from them was inevitable and found itself happening in the 51st minute off some amazing service from Gray and a header from Debinha. This marked Gray’s first NWSL assist, both a momentous single accomplishment and game for the rookie.
The 54th and 56th minutes saw shots on goal from Spencer and Debinha that were respectively saved and cleared by the opposing team's defense. Without much excitement following that Courage goal, the next notable moment was in the 73rd minute with a cross from McCaskill finding Endo and an attempted shot on goal that hit the post.
In the 83rd minute, Lussi was subbed out after sustaining an injury and Madison Hammond was put on the pitch. The combination between Hammond and Reid playing defensively saw some impressive work from ACFC’s backline as they tried to hold onto that lead near the end of the game. The Courage then subbed on Jorian Baucom who, despite entering the match late, played an impressive game and added a lot of much-needed depth to the Courage’s attacking third.
After multiple attempts to equalize in those last 6 minutes of stoppage time, the game ended and ACFC secured their first win of the NWSL regular season with an impressive performance. While their Challenge Cup performance raised some doubts, this team is coming into the regular season with three points and an impressive drive as well as massive improvement. Winning their last two games against very established NWSL teams, PTFC and the Courage, ACFC is demonstrating the raw talent that exists in their roster and the consequences of underestimating them.
The match ended with a Courage loss but granted rookie Emily Gray the title of Player of the Match, a breakout moment for the young player's first start in professional soccer.
The Courage will continue on to the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup while ACFC focuses ahead on their next game in the regular season on Sunday, May 8th, 2022 against the Orlando Pride. The energy in the stadium of this game was intense and the tension between the two games accumulated along with the multiple yellow cards during the game; future matchups between these two teams will foreseeably be highly anticipated.