Angel City FC ready to celebrate its debut regular-season match after bumpy ride

·6 min read

For the last 22 months, Julie Uhrman has been focused on launching a women’s professional soccer team and little else.

“My life is Angel City and my kids,” she said. “Sometimes in that order.”

Then things got complicated.

Earlier this month, Uhrman rushed her mother to the emergency room where she was treated for an aortic dissection, an often-fatal split in the inner and middle layers of the body’s largest artery.

Overnight, soccer took a distant back seat to reality, and Uhrman has spent most of her mornings in an ICU ward ever since.

Her mother, Ellen Morehead, is out of danger now, so Urhman will make the short drive from the Keck Medical Center in East Los Angeles to Banc of California Stadium on Friday, where she’ll join at least 20,000 others to watch Angel City’s regular-season opener, the first NWSL game played in L.A.

“If I can see through my tears,” she said.

Whether those will be tears of happiness or pain even Uhrman can’t be sure. The game with the North Carolina Courage will mark the return of women’s professional soccer to an area that has long been a hotbed of the sport. More girls play the sport here than anywhere in the country — perhaps anywhere in the world. But the area has been without a top-tier team since the L.A. Sol folded after one season in 2009.

“I expect a loud, passionate and boisterous crowd,” said Angel City’s Christen Press, an L.A. native who will be playing a club game at home for the first time in her career.

Angel City's Christen Press looks on during a game against the Portland Thorns
Angel City's Christen Press looks on during a game against the Portland Thorns during the NWSL Challenge Cup at Titan Stadium on April 24 at Cal State Fullerton. (Katharine Lotze / Getty Images)

For Uhrman, the celebration will be muted and the cheers dimmed.

“The timing’s been bad not only because of what she’s been going through,” she said of her mother. “But not being able to share this moment with her, it’s hard. It’s sort of insult to injury.”

This isn’t the way Uhrman, the club’s president, imagined it when she joined actress Natalie Portman and venture capitalist Kara Nortman in the summer of 2020 to announce they were bringing an NWSL team to Southern California. The club’s investors, a glittering cast of Hollywood A-listers and former champion athletes, has grown to nearly 100, making it the largest female-led ownership group in professional sports history.

And they weren’t only interested in sport. They wanted Angel City to be a vehicle for women’s empowerment, for equality, for social justice. This was a movement, not a moment.

“We’re not just building a soccer club,” Uhrman said in those halcyon early days. “We want to build an organization that has impact. We want to set higher expectations for ourselves, for the players, for the league.”

Taking Angel City from concept to conclusion had been a bumpy ride for Uhrman even before her mother’s illness. Last spring, the team had an embarrassing break with co-owner David Dobrik, a YouTube vlogger, after he was linked to rape allegations, calling into question both the sincerity of Angel City’s message of women’s empowerment and its vetting process for investors.

Four months later, the club faced backlash from supporters over reports it was targeting a male, Sean Nahas, then an assistant with the Courage, as its first manager. The team eventually hired a woman, Freya Coombe, as its head coach.

Then last fall, the league fined Angel City twice within a six-week period, first for announcing the signing of Press before the deal was completed and later for violating the NWSL’s tampering policy in pursuit of midfielder Allie Long, who had played for Coombe with Gotham FC. Before the year was out, the team would trade for a player — U.S. international Julie Ertz — who is pregnant and won’t play until next season.

And all that was before the team went 1-4-1 in the preseason NWSL Challenge Cup, giving up a tournament-high 13 goals and posting a tournament-worst -7 goal differential.

Uhrman, formerly a digital-media entrepreneur perhaps best known for her work with entertainment giant Lionsgate, was quick to own up to each mistake.

“The honest truth is, you learn more from the hiccups sometimes than you do from the successes. And I think those made us stronger,” she said.

“It was a reinforcement that we have to walk our talk. Those are examples of opportunities where we could have done better. But we learned so much from it that I don’t wish that they didn’t happen.”

John Thorrington, LAFC’s co-president and general manager, can empathize. Although LAFC had one of the most successful debuts in MLS history, winning the Supporters’ Shield and breaking the league record for points in its second season, the expansion team’s launch wasn’t without its own difficulties.

“You have to understand that there will be stumbles and there will be turbulence. And you have to be prepared for that,” said Thorrington, whose team shares its stadium with Angel City. “The key is to keep your conviction and to have real strategic discipline.

“You have to understand that there may be, as an expansion team, things you face that you’ve never been through before. What you want to avoid is blowing in the wind and second guessing everything you’re doing.”

Angel City FC's Jasmyne Spencer, left, and San Diego Wave FC's Kelsey Turnbow fight for the ball
Angel City FC's Jasmyne Spencer, left, and San Diego Wave FC's Kelsey Turnbow fight for the ball on March 19. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Following that strategy, LAFC preserved, just as Angel City has tried to do. And the payoff for that will finally come Friday.

“It’s going to be a historic moment in this league’s history,” NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman said. “I would argue that they’ve sort of changed the way that people think about sports investment, not just within the NWSL. The idea of celebrity investors and getting former athletes to join ownership turned a lot of heads.

“They set the tone and changed the narrative for sports investment, not just in women’s sports or in soccer. But across all professional sports.”

With that accomplished, Uhrman’s last challenge before kickoff, she said, will be figuring out how to set up her mom’s iPad so she can watch her daughter’s team play its first game from her hospital bed. Morehead’s initial surgery took place about the time Uhrman was scheduled to travel to Seattle for a preseason game with the OL Reign — a trip Uhrman quickly canceled without her mother’s knowledge.

“Once they took the breathing tube out, the first thing she said to me was, 'Did you win?’ ” Uhrman said. “I thought that was amazing.”

What would be more amazing is seeing Morehead at the second game in Angel City history. That one’s on Mother’s Day.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.