San Diego Loyal and Angel City usher in a “vital” new NWSL era on Saturday

Jill Ellis’s theory is that you can’t have too much of a good thing. For her, the expansion of the National Women’s Soccer League in Southern California may be overdue, but it’s not being overstated.

“You want to feel like this is a national league. So I think being represented in Southern California was a positive step, a necessary step,” said Ellis, who coached the women’s national team to back-to-back World Cup titles. “That’s a great statement.”

Ellis is a bit biased as she is president of the San Diego Wave, which will join Angel City in the NWSL this season and grow the league to 12 teams. The Wave and Angel City make their debuts Saturday, going head-to-head in the pool game of the NWSL Challenge Cup at Cal State Fullerton.

However, Ellis’ bias is well founded. During her six years as the USA women’s coach, Ellis spoke consistently of the importance of a competitive league in building the national team. Now that she’s inside, that view hasn’t changed.

“It was absolutely critical that we had an environment where they could continue to stay sharp and hone their skills,” said Ellis, the most accomplished coach in US soccer history. “I don’t think a team without a strong domestic league wins a World Cup. It is actually the basis for national teams to be competitive.”

And the NWSL, entering their 10thth season, is both stronger and more fragile than ever.

Stronger because expansion has grown the league to a dozen teams, added vibrant markets in San Diego and Southern California, and added wealthy celebrity owners. Billionaire businessman Ron Burkle, who spurned MLS for the women’s league, is the money behind the Wave, and Angel City’s sprawling investor group is a who’s who of sports and entertainment figures, including Natalie Portman, Alexis Ohanian, Billie Jean King, Serena Williams, Eva Longoria and Christina Aguilera.

The league also has a broadcasting deal with CBS, sponsorship deals with Fortune 500 companies like Delta, Mastercard Verizon and Nationwide, its first collective bargaining agreement with its players’ union, and a new commissioner in Jessica Berman, who announced last week to replace the interim CEO became Marla Brass.

But the NWSL is also fragile, having been rocked by a widespread scandal last season in which several coaches were accused of either being involved in, or trying to cover up, sexual harassment, name-calling, racism and misogyny for years . For a time it was uncertain whether the League would survive. Although the union and the NWSL were able to agree on an employment contract under Messing’s leadership, distrust among the players remains.

Ellis says the current climate offers the league an opportunity to move forward.

“Certainly the last year has been a point of reflection and the need for change,” she said. “Our sport needed strong women to speak out and speak out for the welfare and treatment of players.

“By bringing this to the forefront, by finally having these conversations and these discussions, [the] If we push for standards and investigations, we will make it clear to every other league around the world that we must hold ourselves to those high standards.”

The change is already evident. After last season’s start with a female coach, this season five of the 12 teams will have female coaches. Nine teams also have women in the front office.

“More female leadership in the league was important,” Ellis said.

But it’s also important for the NWSL to regain their leadership on the pitch.

Three previous attempts to create a professional women’s soccer league failed before the NWSL was launched in 2013 with the generous support of US Soccer and quickly became the best league in the world. Now that supremacy is under threat.

However, Ellis dismissed many of the competing leagues in Europe as top-heavy. In Spain, for example, unbeaten Barcelona (24-0), who beat their opponent 136-6, recently beat second-placed Real Sociedad 9-1. In France, eight of unbeaten Lyon’s first 15 wins have involved four goals or more. That doesn’t happen in the NWSL.

“We’re the most competitive league from top to bottom,” Ellis said.

The rivalry between San Diego and Angel City will only add to that.

Christen Press controls the ball during a game against Portugal in June 2021.

Christen Press (23) controls the ball against Portugal during a game June 10, 2021 in Houston.

(David J Phillip / Associated Press)

Despite being home to some of the best collegiate programs in the country and more than 38,000 competitive youth players, many of whom are girls, Southern California has seen only one season of professional women’s premier soccer. That happened in 2009 when the Los Angeles Sol, playing at Carson, set the best regular season record in the WPS only to lose in the playoffs.

The team folded ahead of the next season, and two years later the league followed suit. Now, two-team women’s professional football is back in this region.

“The game has to be here because it has such a stronghold of youth football in the country,” said Angel City’s Christen Press, the national team’s second-best active scorer behind only Alex Morgan, who plays for the Wave. “So many girls playing soccer in Southern California can now watch the game at the highest level

Julie Foudy, two-time world champion and Olympic gold medalist, agrees. Born in San Diego but raised in Orange County, Foudy starred in one of NWSL’s short-lived predecessors and is now part of the Angel City ownership group.

“I always felt like we should have something here,” she said. “And that it’s finally back and it’s back in this iteration and version is fantastic. Because this is something special.

“Having that rivalry built in with that group in San Diego only adds to that. So the wait was definitely worth it. But I would have preferred to have seen it five years ago.” San Diego Loyal and Angel City usher in a “vital” new NWSL era on Saturday

Andrew Schnitker

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