Every great football club wants to be something more: from legendary clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal and Bayern Munich that inspire legions of fans worldwide, to FC Barcelona, who's motto is literally 'més que un club' (more than a club). It is a poor football club indeed that forgets the community which it is bound to, both locally and globally, and the young club of Angel City FC are endeavouring to prove that taking the time to embed itself within both global football culture and their diverse LA community, will give them and their fans the strength to truly change the womens' game for years to come.
The ambitions of the club are more than clear, with the club’s upcoming HBO documentary that follows all the various movers and shakers in the team all the way back before they even played their inaugural season. It is easy from the get go to see why HBO were happy to get on the ground floor before a single player for Angel City even kicked a ball: with names like Natalie Portman, Abby Wambach, Jennifer Garner and more all as investors of the club, even those uninitiated into the world of football can easily find themselves intrigued as to how a bevy of womens’ soccer legends and Hollywood celebrities might manage and grow a professional football team.
Following the documentary itself is made all the more fascinating when one has had at least one game day experience at the BMO Stadium, the stadium ACFC share with MSL (Major League Soccer) men’s football team Los Angeles FC. The documentary takes viewers behind the scenes as we see Chairman Julie Uhrman and (then) Sporting Director Eni Aluko getting shown around the Banc, while Natalie Portman recounts the attendance numbers that she’s told ACFC are expected to get because they’re a women’s team (hint: it’s not even expected to be half the Banc’s full capacity).
However, attending an ACFC game day today sees the stadium sold out or at the very least, close to full. The atmosphere is a balance of wildly passionate, yet still family friendly, with many groups of families and fans of all ages seated around the stadium and not just in a kids or family section. The in-atmosphere stadium bleeds through from the atmosphere at the fan festival that starts outside the stadium on every game day many hours before the match. In the documentary the players, owners and staff members of the club all make a point to say variations on a theme of wanting the club’s values to represent their values of diversity, inclusion, empowerment and the like. It’s always easy to be sceptical as to how much of this is lip service or just a good marketing ploy to get people to buy into the club before such admirable compassion and empathy eventually gives way to good, old-fashioned “well I guess the old ways are the best for a reason”.
However, whilst it is currently only the club’s second season in the NWSL (National Women's Soccer League), the fan festival truly drives home to any attendee the commitment to inclusivity that is repeated in the documentary. On the opening game of the season, long lines of people were standing by the marquee specially set up for season ticket holders to pick up their special packs, with many people picking up packs for multiple family members. As the day passed you could see members proudly wearing their ACFC supporter’s merch before the game began, and activities were set up for people of all ages: games and social media ops for kids and adults still in touch with their lighter side, as well as a bar and DJ space for people wanting to start the party early.
Many fan elements, such as pre-game meals and meetups organised by fan groups and the fanchants (complete with drumming) are also part of this fan fest experience: they are not merely some nice inclusions in the documentary for the sake of positive narrative about ACFC fan culture. If anything, the sense that the club is truly trying to connect not just to American or women’s football culture, but global football culture, is also something that the documentary perhaps does not quite do justice. Los Angeles is one of the biggest melting pots in the world, and with that also comes many strands of massive football heritage: from the passionate love of the game to be found in Central American, South American and Iberian connections to the sport, to the strong loyalties to famous European and South American teams that have long been found in Asian audiences across the diaspora. Thus, walking through crowds of fans on a game day becomes more than a reflection of the club, but instead a reflection of Los Angeles the city, and the tapestry of cultures that have made it.
Such a statement would perhaps please the founders Natalie Portman, Julie Uhrman, Kara Nortman and Alexis Ohanian. They are a group of people one would potentially never expect to see listed together as owning a multi-million dollar business and yet now do so based on a fundamental concept the documentary endeavours to hammer home via all three of its episodes: the untapped potential in the women’s game. Although much is made of the HBO show being primarily about Angel City FC, something that becomes more and more apparent across the series' three episodes is that the club, in some ways, ends up also being a mirror for the state of the women’s game in the US and, for those in the know, how the women’s game is also growing worldwide.
As of writing, over in Europe FC Barcelona’s women team have just won their eight league title whilst not losing a league match for 62 games (only to be scuppered by a 1-1 draw to Sevilla earlier this week), whilst Manchester United’s women's team stand alongside the men’s team by being in their respective FA Cup finals in the same season for the first time in the illustrious club’s history. So when viewers watch ACFC’s owners sum up through various phrases that the women’s game not just in the US, but in general, is being slept on, they aren’t wrong. At the same time, the documentary highlights issues the young team have to face - such as needing to use the LA Rams training ground for much of their first season, the quality of NWSL broadcasting being well below the standard for men’s sports, or issues around coaches with abusive history working in the league - that swiftly bring back to light the struggles top flight of the women's game has to face that do not exist to the same magnitude when it comes to the top flight of the men's game.
When asked about the documentary, ACFC's number 18 Jun Endo said she hopes more people will be aware of and become fans of Angel City, and that more people will go to the stadium and go watch them play. Her, alongside other players such as Dijana "DiDi" Haračić, Paige Nielsen, Christen Press, Simone Charley, captain Ali Riley and more are emotional anchors for the audience to see what considerations and growing pains these players go through when it comes to joining a brand new team. Each of these players are given space to talk about their family, heritage, injuries, even their faith and personal beliefs. The documentary does not shy away from looking at how the team's LGBTQ+ and POC players engage and reflect upon their identity, and how they navigate being able to play and train whilst dealing with fans and colleagues that may or may not support intrinsic parts of who they are. The kaleidoscope of players featured helps to showcase the levels of diversity that the club sincerely attempts to espouse, and even the linguistic diversity (of which there are flashes) within the team also reflects the many languages that you can also see and hear on a game day.
That the players of ACFC are already well-beloved is in no doubt. The fan end at the BMO Stadium is impressive, with flags waving from start to finish during a game and drum-accompanied chants keeping the atmosphere lively throughout the game. When ACFC’s only Japanese player Jun Endo popped into the club store for a visit on the first match of the season, crowds quickly popped in to take videos and photos of her, and when she scored a goal during the match (which was eventually chalked for being off-side), the atmosphere reached fever pitch.
“That’s what it’s about,” one match-goer mentioned, reflecting on both Jun Endo, as well as teenager Alyssa Thompson, ACFC’s draft pick for this season, who also scored a goal in the same game. With the latter being of Filipino and Peruvian descent, as they stand alongside the plethora of diverse faces in the team, Endo and Thompson are but two of the many shining examples of how ACFC are managing to get fans to fall for the club, and quickly.
“Little girls are seeing Thompson and going, wow. I can be like her, I wanna be like her," said another fan. "She’s young and - if you’re an LA kid it’s likely you’re might have a diverse background, right - diverse like me and I can be like her. And then with Endo, what a player. People love seeing her play. Asian kids are represented, but at the same time, she is just a great player. And that’s only two of them. So people are quickly buying into the club, feeling connected to the club also because of the players on the pitch.”
Time will tell as to how ACFC grows: not just as a club, but as a brand that aspires to put both women’s football and - as their aspirations are made clear in the documentary - help to also put US football, on the map. However, both the documentary, as well as spending time around the club in person also offer fascinating insights into what the future of football, irrespective of gender, might hold. Football tradition is a vitally important, beautiful thing that gives the game so much meaning, that has made it the most popular sport in the world. Yet in the past year alone, a multitude of questions - from the integrity of FIFA and World Cups, to what it means to buy and sell these global sporting entities - have made fans around the world question what it means to support these teams and how to maintain the traditions they love and hold dear in the face of the unstoppable tide of change and big money.
What ACFC attempt with all their might to show in their documentary, as well as display to anyone able to visit, is what should stay core to any sporting club: true conviction and dedication to what such an entity can and should represent to the people that love it, that make it their lives. For ACFC, that is more than just belief in the women’s game; it is belief that there is space for all in football, it is belief that football can keep evolving without sacrificing the community values that are key to every single football club in existence… that football can truly be a mirror to how these owners and fans hope society can be: exciting, expressive, inclusive, with always more space at the table.
Only time will tell how effective moves such as the documentary and regular endorsements of well-known public figures are when it comes down to sporting results and how the coaching staff and players utilise such energy and brand stability week-in, week-out, over multiple seasons. At a minimum, it seems that such publicity will get the club more attention, supporters, and hopefully, more bums on seats every game day. Not bad at all. But the true excitement is in seeing, in the coming years, just how much higher Angel City FC can dare to soar.