Angel City strikes first and defeats San Diego Wave in budding NWSL rivalry
The best rivalries take years, if not centuries, to mature into something special.
Red Sox-Yankees, Coke and Pepsi, even Will Smith vs. Chris Rock didn’t happen overnight. They were all built on history, emotion and, sometimes, bad blood.
Compare those with the battle brewing between Angel City and the San Diego Wave, Southern California’s two NWSL expansion franchises. Both teams played their first games just five months ago. And they didn’t meet in a regular-season match until Saturday.
Is that enough to build a rivalry on? Maybe not.
But it’s a start.
Angel City FC traded for fiery forward Sydney Leroux, a UCLA alum who was an inspiration for Gigi Bryant and was mentored by Kobe Bryant.
“When Ali and Frazier first went at it, people were like ‘wow.’ And it grew into this amazing rivalry,” said former U.S. women’s coach Jill Ellis, the Wave’s president. “I don’t think it matters that it’s not 100 years old. There’s nothing bigger than when you play the team that’s just up the street.
“These rivalries, they’ve got to start somewhere.”
This one started with a hard-fought, 2-1 Angel City victory before an announced crowd of 22,000 at Banc of California Stadium. The deciding goal came from Claire Emslie, newly arrived from Everton of England’s Women’s Super League, two minutes after Tyler Lussi’s second yellow card left the team short-handed.
Ali Riley had the other goal, her first in NWSL play, for Angel City (5-4-2) in the ninth minute. Kristen McNabb matched for league-leading San Diego (6-3-3) early in the second half.
Although Saturday’s game marked the first time the teams faced off in league play, they met twice in the preseason NWSL Challenge Cup, with San Diego winning once and the other game ending in a draw. But the front offices of the two fledgling franchises have been battling each other to sign players and recruit staff for more than a year.
“We’ve lost players to San Diego,” said Julie Uhrman, Angel City’s co-founder and president. “If you were a player and you want to play in Southern California, you now have two choices. So it’s definitely a rivalry.
“We have a lot of the same ingredients, but it’s the differences that are going to attract people.”
Indeed, the teams have more in common than they have differences. Both are ambitious, first-year franchises that together have planted the NWSL flag in California’s fertile soccer soil, ground the league has long ignored. Both have respected, well-funded owners, billionaire Ronald Burkle in San Diego and a sprawling group of more than 100 in Los Angeles, one led by a glittering bevy of Hollywood A-listers, World Cup-winning soccer players and deep-pocketed venture capitalists.
And both front offices are seen as progressive and forward-thinking, interested in changing the sometimes-staid NWSL while being a force for social change in their communities. That’s led the rivals to work together off the field more often than they’ve competed on it.
“We’ve actually been pretty transparent with each other; what’s working, what’s not working,” Uhrman said. “We’ve shared financial models, we’ve shared strategies because we want them to be successful.”
But that cooperation ends when the whistle blows.
“I absolutely want to win,” Uhrman said. “We want to be the best in Southern California. We want to be the best in the league. So yeah, we look at this as a rivalry.
“I’m a competitive person. We’re a competitive club.”
Sophia Smith scored twice and the USWNT clinched a spot in the 2023 World Cup after a 5-0 victory over Jamaica and Mexico’s 3-0 loss to Haiti on Thursday in the CONCACAF W Championship.
And competition thrives, like rivalries do, when the two sides care about more than just the final score.
“I haven’t been in California that long but I’m already starting to pick up on the vibe around L.A. versus San Diego. This is a rivalry that does exist,” said Angel City coach Freya Coombe, who grew up outside London.
Ellis is convinced Saturday was the start of something special — and Emslie made sure it was a memorable start, coming off the bench to score 36 minutes into her NWSL debut.
“The reality is this is going to grow and grow and grow,” Ellis said. “This will just intensify over time.”