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By Fred Altieri
Sports Reporter 

Angel City FC Debut is Box-Office Smash

Historic 2-1 Victory Over North Carolina Opens NWSL Season


Spectacular! Angel City Football Club's inaugural 2-1 victory over the North Carolina Courage rivaled the best of professional sports debuts in Los Angeles. From the packed pre-match festivities until the celebrated final whistle, Friday afternoon into the evening transformed like the definitive Hollywood script. Angel City struck early, then withstood a heavy onslaught to christen their victory before a spellbound sold-out audience at Banc of California Stadium.

"The crowd was unreal tonight. Their energy, enthusiasm, and support for the players and for the coaching staff was felt throughout the night. It's the best environment that I've ever coached in," said ACFC Head Coach Freya Coombe. With only three months of training and six pre-season Challenge Cup matches, Angel City parried every Courage strike with timely precision, clever clearances, and goal-denying saves in a tense second-half pitched battle.

"I know it was just Game One, but I think it's a moment I will never forget," expressed captain and defender Ali Riley with emotion. "And no matter what happens this season, no one can ever take tonight away from us and this crowd. To feel that was unbelievable. I will never forget this," said the native of scenic Pacific Palisades.

Midfielder Dani Weatherholt reiterated: "My teammates were screaming and crying tears of joy and it meant the world to me. So many young girls and boys in this community look up to us and it's truly special."

Looking in the stands and seeing my family just meant the world to me, they only come to one game a year and today was truly special. I think the organization is just more than a sport and I think that's the moment when it felt so much bigger than the game."

North Carolina was a physical test, dominated possession and constantly pressured ACFC's formation. But the Pink & Gray were equal in creating opportunities during transitions... combined with a determined defense, still in the very early stages of developing chemistry. ACFC's four shots on goal matched the Courage, and statistically indicated greater effort with more duels and tackles won, a few that prevented highly probable goal opportunities.

"I believe the more we understand each other and get to know each other, it's going to get better and slowly we'll all start to develop those strong relationships," said Weatherholt, a SoCal native from San Clemente. "We had our hands full tonight, and Debinha (Courage midfielder) is one of the best players in the world. So, I think that was one of our tasks. We are just going to continue to get better every game."

The NWSL Season Opener saw Angel City pounce to an unexpected 1-0 lead in the third minute. Defender Vanessa Gilles took a laser pass mere yards point blank center delivered from forward Jun Endo maneuvering the goal line. Gilles headed the team's first official league goal with authority into the lower left corner past Courage goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland to stun the 22,000 fans, followed by instant pandemonium.

Ten minutes later midfielder Savanah McCaskill, who scored ACFC very first goal ever last month in the Challengers Cup, launched a perfectly deep pass to Endo who tracked it down at the corner of the 18-yard box. Endo, voted Player of the Match, pushed placed a rolling left-footer into the far back right of the goal between an on-charging Rowland and two retreating defenders for a dreamlike 2-0 lead in the 13th minute.

ACFC forward and Los Angeles native Christen Press just missed adding another insurance goal two minutes into the second half with a blast hooking inches right of the far post. Four minutes later North Carolina capitalized on a defensive lapse that left Angel City goalkeeper Didi Haracic at their mercy. Debinha slipped past the left of back line to nail a show-stopping diving header from a well-placed cross by midfielder Emily Gra. Remarkably, it was the only ball to pass Angel City goalkeeper Didi Haracic for the next 45 minutes including stoppage time.

"We did a really good job in the first half in managing their pressure. We knew they were going to come out the second half strong. They put us under a lot of pressure," stated Coombe. "I want to credit our staff for working hard to keep up the fitness levels of our players. Our players adjusted to how North Carolina was rotating, especially in midfield. We were able to organize ourselves to deal with it."

Haracic came up with critical saves in both half's that kept ACFC's confidence up and lead intact. She smothered a direct hard from the right in the 28th minute. Ten minutes later she made the save of the match, a quick-reacting horizontal dive to her left to deflect a close range blast by Gray inches around the right post.

"DiDi's save was absolutely world-class," said Coombe. "DiDi has proven herself in these big moments to overcome triumphs. She understood the assignment in terms of managing the momentum of the game. She did a fantastic job for us and contributed to our win in a massive way."

Riley summed up the moment for Los Angeles newest sports franchise with a fervent fanbase that can boast over 15,400 season tickets sold, unprecedented numbers by any standard: "So now for us to be here and for those little girls to see that, just that kind of visibility and how we are in the field with all different skin colors, all different experiences, all different backgrounds, such a diverse and inclusive group; I think that's really important and that's what the club stands for as well."


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