LOS ANGELES — Halfway through the season, playoffs seemed like they were out of the cards for Angel City. They were near the bottom of the table and were struggling to replicate moments of brilliance to make them complete performances. A team with second-year playoff aspirations was on the verge of missing the playoffs again.
Then, Angel City fired head coach Freya Coombe, replacing her with interim head coach Becki Tweed in mid-June. And Tweed revived their season.
“It was a group that were just crying out to be heard and seen by everybody,” Tweed said. “I think people wrote us off, and that kind of can be a little more motivating than anything.”
Following the coaching change, Angel City went unbeaten in 10 of their final 11 games, finishing with an all-important win against the Portland Thorns, 5-1, to make the playoffs.
Tweed understood how to motivate her players to bring the best out of them. She also instilled a level of grit and toughness to come back in games and hold leads they did not have before.
“It’s [Tweed’s] exactly what we needed to switch everything around. We needed someone to push us. We needed to have someone that we knew or knew how to pull out of us what we knew we could do. We knew that we just as players and individuals, and Becki [Tweed] has that little grit to her that knows kind of how much we can take and how much we can handle,” said defender M.A. Vignola.
Vignola’s growth under Tweed has been tremendous. She has evolved from a player with little experience to an impact maker on the left side, and her developments led to her first United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) appearance in Sept.
Vignola showed her prowess in full force against the Thorns in an all-important game; Angel City entered the final game in eighth place, needing a win to have a shot at the playoffs. The game happened during the league’s first Decision Day, where all teams played simultaneously at 2 p.m. Pacific Standard Time (PST).
Vignola opened scoring for Angel City 36 minutes into the game by firing a shot at the near post past goalkeeper Thorns Bella Bixby.
Moments later, 38 minutes into the game, Claire Emslie crossed the ball to forward Scarlett Camberos at the far post, and Camberos headed it in.
Early in the second half, 47 minutes into the game, forward Claire Emslie backheeled a pass to Vingola, who found midfielder Savannah McCaskill. Then, McCaskill scored with a crafty finish, giving Angel City a three-goal lead.
The goals did not stop, though. And arguably, their goals became more magnificent when Leroux rebounded a loose ball with a bicycle kick to score 51 minutes into the game.
Angel City eventually gave one back to the Thorns as forward Hina Sugita scored 79 minutes into the game. However, forward Jun Endo almost immediately got it back.
The final score was 5-1, and Angel City made the playoffs on goal difference. Endo’s goal helped Angel City secure the fifth seed instead of the sixth seed.
Vignola believes Tweed should be named Coach of the Year for her efforts in flipping Angel City’s season.
“Becki [Tweed] has done an amazing job,” Vignola said. “Just look at what she has done. She knows how we work and how to say things to us. She knows how each player works…. You can even tell at training that she’s very in tune with everyone individually. That helps us as a collective because it enables us to be able to talk to each other in certain ways. We push each other and get through the nitty and gritty. That’s what she does best that was missing.”
One of the main outcomes from Tweed’s time as interim coach is sharpening Angel City’s identity, one that was on display against the Thorns. The team displayed grit and toughness in their victory despite facing the No. 1 team in the NWSL standings (before Angel City beat them).
“That’s like a big staple for our team in general: grittiness,” Vignola said. “Also, Becki [Tweed] has really tried to pull that out of us in training. That she wants, how you how is how you play the game, it’s the small things, from making big-time tackles to just doing your small defensive roles… I think grittiness is a big thing for us.”
Angel City did the “little things” well for the most part with sound defense. Defenders Paige Nielsen, Sarah Gorden, and Ali Riley contributed to those efforts, helping limit the Thorns to one goal. They cleared the ball a combined 11 times and made 22 recoveries.
Gorden also completed an Iron Women season, playing every minute of every game for Angel City after missing a season due to an ACL injury.
“It was definitely an expectation I had for myself coming back from an injury,” Gorden said. “Some injuries are out of your control, and you can’t always control everything that happens. It’s great to be able to lead the team from center back. To be that rock, every game is special.”
Also helping Angel City limit the Thorns’ attack was Angelina Anderson, who started her third straight game as a goalkeeper despite not making a regular-season start beforehand. She made five saves and conceded one goal.
Next, Angel City plays OL Reign on the road in their first playoff game. Vignola and Gorden feel prepared, saying, “we ready” for the game. With Tweed at the helm, the team will look to make a playoff run with the NWSL Championship game a few hours south of Los Angeles in San Diego.
Editors Note: A previous version of this story said Leroux scored Angel City’s second goal. It was Camberos. The error has been corrected.