Swanson: Angel City FC is teeming with teens, and it’s going to pay off

LOS ANGELES — Imagine being in your 30s, raising a couple young kids at home and working a demanding job, one that requires you to go in every day and deal with a bunch of teenagers.

Shoutout to all the great high school teachers.

And shoutout Sydney Leroux.

Shoutout Leroux and her Angel City FC teammates who can order a drink and rent a car and keep up with kids literally half their age.

It was Leroux’s goal in the 85th minute of Wednesday night’s match that put Angel City over the top, 3-2, against Racing Louisville FC. And it was Kennedy Fuller – 17 years younger than the 34-year-old Leroux – who put the hosts on the right track at BMO Stadium, where 16,735 fans saw the 17-year-old wearing No. 17 score her first professional goal in the 17th minute.

Symmetry in motion and a sign of the times.

The NWSL has 19 players who are 19 or younger on rosters this season, and no team has more of them than Angel City, with four: 19-year-old Alyssa Thompson, their star second-year forward, and rookies Gisele Thompson (18), Fuller (17) and Casey Phair (16).

It’s a recent phenomenon, the influx of teen phenoms into this March-December league.

In 2021, 15-year-old Olivia Moultrie sued her way in, winning her eligibility to play for the Portland Thorns and undoing the rule that barred players under 18 from signing with teams.

That was actually a relatively unique rule in the soccer world; Moultrie could have gone pro by then in Europe or in Major League Soccer if she was a boy. Of course, most of those guys get assigned to a developmental league or academies designed to develop young talent – something the NWSL doesn’t have.

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The rule was not, however, unique in America: The NHL and MLB require most athletes to be at least 18, while the NBA’s minimum age is 19 and the WNBA’s is 22 for American players.

But now Angel City is hiring kids straight out of Harvard-Westlake or, in Fuller’s case, Southlake Carroll High School in Texas.

I had people who know basketball tell me USC’s JuJu Watkins could play in the WNBA already back when she was starring at Sierra Canyon High. Maybe, I thought. But then again, we heard 42-year-old WNBA great Diana Taurasi warn Caitlin Clark’s fans: “Reality is coming. … you look superhuman playing 18-year-olds, but you’re going to come with some grown women that’ve been playing professional basketball for a long time.”

Those sentiments have been echoing in my head as I watched Angel City (4-6-3, 15 points) struggle to regain its form from last season, when it finished strong and made the playoffs. The club went into Wednesday on a five-match winless streak and in 11th place in its 14-team league.

What, I wondered, can anyone expect when you’ve got three of your teenagers figuring pretty prominently into your plan of attack? When you build your offense around a special 19-year-old who is still a 19-year-old, even if Alyssa Thompson – scoreless this season, but with five assists – was the No. 1 overall draft pick last season and is logging the most minutes (1,148 and counting) now.

There are steep learning curves, and then there’s going from hiking Runyon Canyon to scaling K2.

These young women aren’t, of course, making the climb without support, teammates to, as Leroux put it, “carry each other through and to pick each other up” during those pro-stakes teachable moments, as inevitable as Messi.

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Take a play in a 4-2 loss earlier this season to the Washington Spirit, when Thompson got clipped and tried to stay on her feet.

Tobin Heath, the two-time USWNT World Cup champion, mentioned it on a podcast she does with Angel City’s injured star Christen Press: “This is where there’s two right answers and a wrong answer, and unfortunately, (Thompson) chose the wrong answer. You either get clipped and you score, or you get clipped and you take the penalty kick. You get clipped and you … fall. Of course you fall.”

But you can’t teach experience, or prepare someone fully for how many meetings #adulting might require. But you can answer all of their questions.

Fuller said that, as much as anything, is something she’s gleaned from Alyssa: When in doubt, ask.

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“She’s constantly working hard and asking for help. And that’s something that, as a young player, it’s hard to do because you feel a little bit out of place,” Fuller said. “And I’m seeing her be so willing to ask the coaches questions, ask her teammates questions.”

“This is a big jump, and it’s tough, and it’s hard,” Leroux said Wednesday night, seated beside a beaming Fuller at the podium in the post-match news conference. “The games are hard and we have to show up every single day.

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“And,” she said, “our young players do that.”

Show up and get better every day – like Wednesday, when they experienced what it is to win a game for Angel City.

Fuller’s first score was a deftly re-directed ball to the left of Louisville’s goalkeeper, spontaneous execution well beyond her years.

And can we just talk about Alyssa’s ball?! That was 100x better than the goal The vision… the weight. Chefs kiss. She is HER.

— Sydney Leroux (@sydneyleroux) June 20, 2024

And Alyssa Thompson’s pass to set up Leroux’s goal? Sublime. In what was probably Thompson’s best game so far this season, she needed just a touch to slip a pass between three defenders, on the money, to a streaking Leroux.

Talent you can’t teach.

“We always say the league doesn’t care about your age,” Angel City head coach Becki Tweed said. “We always say it to them. … We said it in the team meeting yesterday, the front four is ‘Syd and the kids.’ And they all laughed, but the league doesn’t care about your age. If you’re good enough you’ll play and they’re all good enough. Clearly.”

Shoutout to those kids.

#AngelCityFC’s Sydney Leroux:

“I am so proud of our rookies. I am so proud of Ken[nedy Fuller].”

Fuller scored her first professional goal tonight. pic.twitter.com/SISiDFOksQ

— Kamran Nia (@kamran_nia) June 20, 2024

Classic Sydney Leroux pic.twitter.com/FdCyb7moFw

— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) June 20, 2024

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