The history of expansion teams in the NWSL is, to be diplomatic, unfortunate. In their inaugural seasons, Orlando Pride and Racing Louisville each finished ninth in a then-ten team league. In fact, for Racing, many of the players selected through their expansion draft are no longer with them just one (1) season later.
However, with a combined 5-0-2 record and 10 goals scored to four conceded, newbies Angel City FC & San Diego Wave don’t know anything about that life. Here’s why:
Neither California team relied heavily on the expansion draft.
In fact, in one round of the expansion draft, San Diego passed. Expansion drafts are weird vibes all around, a player’s current club has limited “protections” they can assign, leaving multiple players with uncertainty about where they’ll be playing the following season. Even if a player is interested in the new location, it’s unsettling to sit on your couch and not know whether you’ll soon be packing your things to cross state lines.
Both teams signed highly respected coaches who have navigated complex team building.
Casey Stoney, a former player who built Manchester United’s women’s team from the ground up, took the reins at San Diego. In 2019, Angel City manager Freya Coombe stepped into a horrid situation as interim manager with then-Sky Blue FC (now NJ/NY Gotham FC) and earned the job full-time as she pushed for internal improvements and revamped the squad.
They signed stars right away.
Christen Press (Angel City) and Abby Dahlkemper & Alex Morgan (San Diego) were signed early enough to generate excitement among the fanbase, and also among players around the league – and even the world.
Players did interviews and openly discussed their respective different and exciting ownership groups, coaches and decision-makers. It was very effective. Not only did it add to the energy and excitement around both teams, players elsewhere were listening too, and getting excited about the project.
They created a culture.
Compared to international markers, rules in American sports limit a player’s control over their careers, and can be a massive barrier when competing in a global market. It’s a sign of the player-first culture created within the clubs that they can boast international talent from Mexico to Japan to Canada to Sweden to Australia and more (and are also featuring heavily in #SillySeason, the opening of European transfer windows).
While Angel City existed as an idea and lifestyle brand for, seemingly, ever, they built a structure to get their soccer decisions right, including hiring an NWSL-first Director of Scouting and Analytics. San Diego is less-defined on who they want to be for their community, but luring Casey Stoney was a massive win. Her experience with Manchester United cannot be overstated.
It’s early, but Angel City and San Diego are already reversing the recent trend of NWSL expansion teams, and providing blueprints for teams to come. (Of course, beyond cloning Casey Stoney, Angel City’s analytical and investment approach may prove to be the easier plan to follow since sci-fi movies teach us that scientists can’t be trusted.)