SEATTLE — Angel City faced heartbreak in their first-ever playoff match, losing to OL Reign 1-0. But the team is already looking towards 2024.
Angel City grew as 2023 progressed, improving from the bottom of the standings to playing in the playoffs. They hit their stride late and did not look back (playing arguably their best game on Sunday, beating the Portland Thorns 5-1). But defender Paige Nielsen believes they are not at their best, which showed during Friday’s loss to the Reign.
“We went through a coaching change plus a lot of injuries last season,” Nielsen said. “It took us a little longer to get there, and we’re still getting there. We’re still not playing to our highest potential. We have to stop saying that at some point, though, and it’s going to be soon.”
Angel City struggled to create many chances in the final third against the Reign, finishing with no shots on goal despite a dominant first half and control of possession. They had a couple of dangerous moments around the goal but failed to challenge Reign goalkeeper Claudia Dickey with them.
“I think it was the one moment and that cost us ultimately… We just missed that one moment in the final third, and if it would have come, I think we would have been fine,” said interim head coach Becki Tweed.
Defensively, Angel City was tough to break down, countering multiple adjustments from the Reign.
Nielsen stood out for Angel City, shutting down multiple of the Reign’s attacks. She made a clearance 35 minutes into the match to shut down a set piece from a dangerous position. Later, 52 minutes into the match, Nielsen cleared a shot from Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock off the goal line.
She played the entire game, ending with 94 touches, eight defensive actions, seven passes into the final third, two tackles won, five clearances, two accurate long balls, and one block, according to FotMob.
Backing Nielsen up was goalkeeper Angelina Anderson, who shined in her playoff debut. She was the first rookie goalkeeper to play in the playoffs since 2013 and was excellent in goal, making three saves, and winning player of the match for Angel City.
One of Anderson’s most crucial moments came 53 minutes into the match when she saved a shot from Reign forward Megan Rapinoe, tipping it just wide. 85 minutes into the match, Anderson saved a shot from outside the box by Reign forward Rose Lavelle heading towards the top corner.
Anderson’s strong performance kept the scoreline tied for 87 minutes before Reign forward Veronica Latsko scored a header that deflected off Anderson’s right hand before finding the back of the net. Still, Tweed praised her play; she only played in three matches during the regular season, but she became a regular starter late in the season and took full advantage of the opportunity.
Anderson’s outstanding outings could put her in line to be Angel City’s primary goalkeeper for next season. She stood out in her rookie season, and Tweed believes she has a bright future.
“She’s special,” Tweed said. “Again, 22 [years old]. Mind-blowing, what a talent. To see Ang[elina Anderson] play tonight with no care in the world, with no pressure on the shoulders. She played like she was a goalkeeper that has been in this league for years and years, and I think she is a special talent for the future for sure.”
Midfielder Amandine Henry also played well, looking poised in a double-pivot with Madison Hammond. She passed with remarkable consistency and looked to move the ball forward when the chance presented itself.
Henry’s talents and experience could be pivotal (as it was down the stretch in 2023) next season. She ended with 66 touches, 44 of 54 passes completed, 12 recoveries, ten passes into the final third, and four clearances.
Midfielder Savannah McCaskill will take in the loss but is already looking towards 2024. She knows Angel City could have more talent then, as forward Christen Press and defender Merritt Mathias did not play in 2023, and forward Simone Charley was injured for most of the season.
McCaskill hopes Angel City can build on their momentum from 2023 and make use of it as they move into 2024 with a potentially more available team.
“The biggest takeaway is that when this group is healthy, and we’re not even fully healthy yet, we’re going to be a full-fledged wrecking force in this league,” McCaskill said. “Once our mentality as a group got where it needed to be, as far as competing in training every single day and competing in games for every single minute, we showed ourselves and everyone else what we can do and what we’re capable of.”
Tweed hopes to use the loss as fuel for 2024. She will reflect on areas she can improve as a coach and hopes her team will do the same.
“I think for the young players, it’s about using this as fuel and using the offseason to grow and get better,” Tweed said. “The offseason is now a space that we can come back in January and start to move on and move forward again. Look at where we’ve come from, be really proud, and use this to get better.”
The team will release their emotions for a while, but some players are already looking towards 2024. While making the playoffs will be the minimum, according to Tweed, they want more.