May 19, 2024

Savannah McCaskill wears the dark bruise below her left eye like a purple badge of courage.

“I have no idea what happened,” the Angel City midfielder said, more scowl than smile.

Yet there couldn’t be a more appropriate feature for what has become the face of the franchise.

When Angel City debuted last season its roster, like its Hollywood ownership group, was built around stars. Christen Press, a two-time World Cup champion, became the team’s first player after signing one of the most lucrative contracts in NWSL history. When Press got hurt, the team traded for Sydney Leroux, another world champion, to replace her.

McCaskill, meanwhile, has always carried a lunch bucket to work. She is more blue collar than blue ribbon, more guts than glamor. And when the team meets the Portland Thorns on Sunday, needing a win to have a chance at reaching the playoffs for the first time, McCaskill will be the one leading the charge.

Angel City's Savannah McCaskill takes a selfie with fans after a game during the 2023 season.

Angel City’s Savannah McCaskill takes a selfie with fans after a game during the 2023 season.

(Courtesy of Angel City FC)

“She’s the heart of the team,” forward Jasmyne Spencer said. “She drives the standard day in and day out.”

“Sav, more than anything, wants to win,” added midfielder Madison Hammond. “Her intensity is not something you come across often. It’s like an obsession.”

How obsessed? When the team held its annual photo day last month, many of the players milled about their Cal Lutheran training complex trading jokes and touching up their make-up for the cameras. Not McCaskill. She grunted through a solo hour-long workout under a blazing sun.

McCaskill may have been acquired as a complimentary piece to a celebrity roster but she has emerged as the beating heart of the team. She scored the first goal in Angel City history. Her 13 scores in all competition are the most in the franchise’s short history. And she has played more minutes in the first two seasons than anyone else.

But the numbers don’t fully reflect her value to the team.

Consider last weekend’s match in Houston, one Angel City needed to win to keep its playoff hopes alive. With her team trailing by a goal late in the second half, McCaskill’s perfectly weighed through ball split two defenders and launched Alyssa Thompson on a run that ended with the tying goal. McCaskill provided the winner herself in stoppage time, sneaking into the penalty area to score on a right-footed shot from the center of the box.

Of her five goals this season, four have either tied or won games.

“She’s reliable. You can count on her from minute one to 100 to be hustling, chasing after the ball, getting in the box, trying to make things happen,” Spencer said. “I had a coach growing up that always would say ‘big-time players make big-time plays.’ She’s just reminding people week in and week out that she is a big-time player.”

That’s only part of it, McCaskill acknowledges. The other part is she just hates to lose.

“I am an extremely competitive person,” she said. “When I was really young it used to get me in trouble because I was a sore loser. I had no idea how to handle it. My competitiveness just drives me to continue to put myself into situations and positions to help us win games.”

She’s also driven by what can best be described as a lack of respect. Despite being taken with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 NWSL draft, McCaskill shuttled between four teams in two countries before finally finding a home in Los Angeles, where she has either set or matched career single-season highs for goals and assists while missing just one regular-season start in two seasons.

Internationally she was nominated for U.S. Soccer’s Young Female Athlete of the Year award in 2017 and made her senior national team debut a year later, but she’s played just 157 minutes for the U.S. — none since 2018.

“I wasn’t ready for it,” McCaskill, 27, said of her first national team call-ups. “I think I’m in a better position now than I’ve ever been — physically, mentally, how I’m performing on the field — to provide something for the national team if I get the opportunity.

“But at the same time I’ve kind of switched my mentality. I want to do my absolute best for this club in every single game that I play in and hopefully those performances will get me back on the national team.”

For all her focus and competitiveness on the field, when McCaskill changes out of her uniform her attitude changes as well, teammates say.

“When I think of Sav, I think of when, after practice, we’re walking to our cars and she does this thing where she jumps on all the curbs and does a heel click,” Hammond said. “It’s so silly. She’s just being an idiot.

“She was just yelling at people, demanding a high intensity and then she’s out doing heel clicks.”

“She’s a goofball,” Spencer added. “She loves to chill at the beach. She has a super-cute dog [a 2-year-old Labradoodle named Bentley] that she’s always playing with. So she definitely has a good balance on and off the field.”

There will be no room for balance on Sunday. To qualify for the playoffs, Angel City (7-7-7), which has lost just once since Becki Tweed took over as coach in mid-June, needs to vault over at least two teams and into the top six in the 12-team NWSL table. To do that, it needs a win over the league-leading Thorns and favorable results in one of three other games. Goal differential could also come into play and that doesn’t favor Angel City since its minus-3 differential in the worst among playoff contenders.

Angel City FC midfielder Savannah McCaskill, right, celebrates with forward Tyler Lussi.

Angel City FC midfielder Savannah McCaskill, right, celebrates with forward Tyler Lussi (20) after scoring during the 2022 season.

(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

There may be even more on the line for McCaskill since she becomes a free agent at the end of the season, meaning Sunday’s game could be her last in an Angel City uniform.

“I’m going to have to make the decision that’s best for myself and my family,” said McCaskill, who in July announced her engagement on Instagram. “That being said, I really love where I’m at in my career and being able to represent this club.”

Represent it? Her bruised face and bruising style of play have come to define Angel City, a club founded by stars but led by grinders whose season has come down to one game. McCaskill couldn’t have asked for a better scenario.

“It’s everything that you play for as an athlete,” she said. “If you don’t live for those moments, you’re not in the right profession.”

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