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Kassouf: The NWSL’s VAR era makes its Hollywood debut

It took nearly the entire first weekend for VAR to debut. But when it did…

LOS ANGELES — The roof was ready to blow off BMO Stadium 15 minutes into Sunday’s Angel City FC opener. In more ways than one, a new era was on display for the National Women’s Soccer League.

Jun Endo just scored what appeared to be another stunning second goal for the home side —following up a golazo from 18-year-old No. 1 draft pick Alyssa Thompson in her NWSL debut — and it appeared that the rout was on for Angel City against quasi-rival NJ/NY Gotham FC, who finished a miserable 2022 season in last place.

Then, over a minute later, after most of the sellout crowd of 22,000 fans waved their pink team flags as Endo, easily identifiable by her pink hair, celebrated her 40-yard chip of an out-of-position goalkeeper, referee Elijio Arreguin jogged over to the video booth to review a potential foul. Arreguin emerged from the screen over a minute later and called off the goal for a what was determined to be a foul prior to the shot.

Six minutes after halftime, video review went against Angel City again, awarding Gotham a soft penalty kick that Margaret “Midge” Purce converted. Prize offseason acquisition Lynn Williams scored 14 minutes later to boost Gotham to a 2-1 victory on opening weekend.

It took until the final of six NWSL opening-weekend games for VAR (video assistant referee) to play a major role in a game result, and when it did, it came down in arguably the most high-profile match of the weekend. It was chaotic and entertaining, an unscripted drama playing out in front of a sellout crowd that continues to raise the standard for the league as it begins its second season.

“It was a crazy movie, that game,” Purce said.

Sunday’s match began with new Gotham captain Ali Krieger exiting the match injured after 10 minutes from a non-contact injury. Jenna Nighswonger, the No. 4 overall pick in this year’s draft, replaced Krieger — who recently announced that this would be her final season of a pro career spanning three decades — in a position that Nighswonger had never played.

Then came a stunning debut goal for the No. 1 draft pick, the VAR decisions, Williams’ game-winner, and the referees getting booed off the field by the home crowd. It was everything the NWSL should hope for in a tentpole game: drama, goals, storylines.

“I think that the NWSL is its own magical beast. It’s like Wild, Wild West out here,” Williams said, acknowledging that she was nervous for her first league game back from injury a year later despite having already returned to action with the United States national team.

The NWSL is back indeed, and VAR adds a new wrinkle to a league already known for chaos. Part of the formation of that identity has been a historical underinvestment in officiating that has led to game-changing calls and endless controversies.

VAR won’t eliminate those debates; Sunday’s game served as evidence that it will only encourage more of them. After the second time video review struck against Angel City, for Gotham’s second-half penalty, three Angel City players received yellow cards for their individual dissent of Arreguin.

“We need to look at our experience of VAR tonight and learn from it,” Angel City head coach Freya Coombe said. “For many players on the team, it was their first exposure to VAR and I think that’s just a learning moment for all of us.”

Neither team played all that well in a game defined by mistakes and refereeing (arguably one in the same still). Angel City was certainly the better team in first half as Gotham absorbed pressure, but the home side never really recovered from the letdown of Endo’s goal being called back. What followed were defensive errors, including captain Ali Riley’s errant backpass that put Angel City in the position to give up the penalty kick.

“I think as far as breakdowns in the second hall, we just didn’t take care of the ball,” said Angel City defender Sarah Gorden, playing her first official game for the team after missing all of 2022 with a torn ACL. “We didn’t have the urgency to go forward and score and honestly, it’s good for that to happen the first game, because now we know exactly where we need to build, where we need to get better. It’s good to be disappointed the first game because we can work on exactly where our breakdowns were.”

Whether either of these two teams will be good over the long-haul of the season remains to be seen. Gotham lost 12 straight games last year en route to a last-place finish, and while there is a new coach in charge and some new additions (Williams the most notable), plenty of work remains.

Angel City is a team with much greater expectations. “Ambition” was the buzzword around the team during preseason. They want to play with ambition in individual moments. They have ambitions of winning trophies in year two.

There is talent there, especially whenever forwards Christen Press and Sydney Leroux return from ACL and ankle injuries respectively (Leroux’s timeline is ahead of Press’, Coombe told The Equalizer last week, but neither has returned to team training yet). Questions remain as to whether it will all come together over the course of the full season in a league that is both unpredictable and unforgiving.

Sunday was a reminder of that. Last season, Gotham would have likely dropped that result given the early-game adversity. VAR helped, but the visitors also managed to regroup and turn around a 1-0 halftime deficit to pick up three points in one of the toughest places to play in the league.

“At the end of the day, it’s football,” Purce said. “Football, you know, the prettiest team doesn’t always win the game and that is what it is. We did a really good job and earned that win, so I’m proud of that.”

The column explained

Call this the editor’s and writer’s note: Each week, I’ll be writing about pressing topics in the NWSL. This column is a mix of reporting and commentary, a deep dive into something important and news nuggets in other sections. It will be exclusively for subscribers of The Equalizer. This is one of dozens of monthly stories that are subscriber-only. Need more details? Here are all of last year’s columns.

I’ll be adding and substituting sections throughout the weeks. Please send me your feedback with some subsections you would like to see, or topics you want covered, at info@equalizersoccer.com.

Starting with two contrasting ones that we will aim to make regular as a way of looking at who is on the rise and who isn’t, without falling into the tired trap of doing power rankings:


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Eye-catchers: Trinity Rodman does it herself

Trinity Rodman had a number of great individual efforts in the Washington Spirit’s 1-0 win over OL Reign on Sunday, and her game-winning goal was the culmination of those efforts. She backed it up with a fun celebration, too. Rodman remains as one of the most talented forwards in the league.

Eyebrow-raisers: Pride get rocked in Portland … again

The Orlando Pride opened the season with a 4-0 loss away to the Portland Thorns, confirming suspicions that this team has a lot of work to do with an underwhelming and relatively inexperienced roster. Yes, opening away to the defending champions is a tough way to start the season, but at some point, you just have to be competitive. In this fixture last year, the Pride lost 6-0. Circumstances were different, sure, but there is a lot of work to be done in Orlando. The good news is, there is time.

Tactical trends to watch

18-year-old San Diego Wave forward Jaedyn Shaw started in a role that head coach Casey Stoney described as a second No. 10 of a box formation. Shaw had previously played as more of a traditional wide forward. She looked good in the role and, more than anything, it indicates just how important she will be to that team. Saturday brought a 3-2 win over the Chicago Red Stars.

Emily Sonnett started in a defensive midfield role for OL Reign in a 1-0 loss to the Washington Spirit. Sonnett’s versatility is more known for her ability to play center back or fullback, although she has previous experience as a No. 6. Reign coach Laura Harvey has talked about this being a way to get Sonnett on the field. Harvey is also a coach who will look out for her players’ international careers, and at the very least, it will be a helpful coincidence if Sonnett can prove capable in a position of need for the United States as she fights for a World Cup roster spot.

Tara McKeown started at center back for the Washington Spirit alongside Sam Staab. It’s a curious move on paper, moving the forward back there, but Spirit head coach Mark Parsons said recently that McKeown has the right qualities for the position. She was part of a Spirit back line that pitched a shutout to start the season.

Surveying stadiums

The three West Coast teams pulled their weight as expected in what was announced beforehand as an opening weekend that would break an attendance record. San Diego started off the weekend with 30,854 fans, just shy of a sellout at 32,000, which is the NWSL record that the team set last year. Angel City followed by announcing a sellout crowd of 22,000 on Sunday.

The crowd of 15,204 in Portland is undeniably solid, although noticeably short of a sellout in a market that used to set the standard. The fallout continues from extensive scandals in Portland. The team is currently for sale. Perhaps new ownership will rejuvenate the fan base.

Crowds like these are not yet the standard across the league, as the league’s first game of the season, in North Carolina, showed on Saturday, with 4,948 in attendance for the North Carolina Courage‘s 1-0 win over the Kansas City Current.

What VAR we talking about?

This column already dedicated plenty of space to the big moments in LA, but it should be noted from the jump this season: The NWSL as a league — a league which loves to promote its own chaos as entertainment (as it should!) — can’t have it both ways with VAR. That is to say: we cannot pretend that the more controversial things did not happen. Jun Endo’s would-be goal is a highlight that should be shared by the league and analyzed at length. And most objective viewers would have a lot of trouble saying there was a “clear and obvious error” in not calling a foul on Dani Weatherholt before Endo got the ball. Let’s celebrate when the refs correct a wrong call and spare the integrity of a game. Let’s also debate when they might have still got it wrong. This is a league that collectively tries to run and hide from any modicum of perceived negative news, but these moments between the lines are part of the game and the product. They cannot be ignored.

They said that

“I think frustrating sums it up.” – Rose Lavelle making a point she repeated on several occasions while discussing the Reign’s 1-0 loss to the Spirit.

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