Angel City rolls out the red carpet and a win in franchise's memorable debut

Angel City rolls out the red carpet and a win in franchise’s memorable debut

Angel City’s Vanessa Gilles (4) celebrates with teammates after scoring the first regular-season goal in franchise history during a 2-1 win over the North Carolina Courage on Friday at Banc of California Stadium. (Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)

As openers go, Angel City’s first regular-season NWSL game Friday was more red carpet than green grass.

There were fireworks, singers and a marching band. A cast of nearly 100 team owners and investors took the field before the players for cheers, hugs and a photo op while Julie Foudy, a two-time World Cup and Olympic champion, served as a cheerleader.

For league commissioner Jessica Berman, it felt more like a movie premiere than a women’s soccer match.

“Which is maybe not surprising,” she said “for L.A.”

Nor for a team that counts Oscar-winning actresses Natalie Portman and Jessica Chastain and three-time Emmy winner Uzo Aduba among its owner/investors. And if the pregame ceremony was all Hollywood, things didn’t change much after the curtain went up, with Angel City riding a first-half goal and assist from Jun Endo to a 2-1 victory over the North Carolina Courage before a festive Banc of California Stadium crowd announced at 22,000.

It was an opening night that couldn’t have been scripted any better.

“It’s overwhelming to see how excited people are about your game, but women’s sports in general,” Mia Hamm, an Angel City investor and a former two-time world player of the year, said before the game. “I think we’re just at a stage in the world and in the country where our kids don’t know any differently. They’re like ‘yeah, this is what I want to do, this is what I want to be and I’m going to go after it.”

Southern California had been without a women’s professional soccer team since the L.A. Sol folded after its only season in 2009. Hamm politicked for years to bring an NWSL team to the area, a hotbed for girls’ and women’s soccer, and that work finally paid off 22 months ago when an ownership group led by Portman, tech entrepreneur Julie Uhrman and venture capitalist Kara Nortman secured the rights to the expansion franchise that kicked off Friday.

That was the easy part. Building out the franchise was far more difficult.

“It does feel like it’s been a long time,” said Uhrman, the team’s president. “Every month we thought it would slow down and every month we did something more. So the culmination being the game, it’s such a welcome reward for all the hard work this team has put in.”

And Angel City was boffo box office long before opening night, selling a league-record 15,400 season tickets and $35 million in contracted sponsorships.

“There’s a pent-up demand in the marketplace right,” Berman said. “They’re all wanting to get in the game.”

Angel City’s first game came on the fifth anniversary of Banc of California’s debut, a 1-0 LAFC win over the Seattle Sounders. Angel City doubled that goal total in the first 13 minutes with Jun, a 21-year-old Japanese making her NWSL debut, setting up Vanessa Giles for the first regular-season goal in franchise history in the third minute, then scoring one of her own 10 minutes later.

The sequence on the first goal started with a corner kick that North Carolina defender Kaleigh Kurtz deflected out the right side of the penalty area, where it was run down by Endo. She then made a nifty move to escape North Carolina’s Denise O’Sullivan before delivering a low cross to the front of the goal for Giles, who nodded it in.

Endo, who communicates with her teammates off the field through Google translate, got the second goal herself at the end of the breakaway. After catching up to a long bouncing pass from Savannah McCaskill approaching the 18-yard box, Jun took three touches as she entered the penalty area, then pulled up to send a left-footed foot shot just inside the far post.

North Carolina, which out-passed and out-possessed Angel City, halved the deficit six minutes into the second on a glancing header from Brazilian national team star Debinha. But the Courage could get no closer.

On this opening night, there would be no plot twist to spoil the story.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.