May 29, 2024

An Angel City season that appeared to be over in June officially came to a close Friday, 11 days before Halloween, in a 1-0 NWSL quarterfinal playoff loss to the OL Reign on a chilly night on the banks of Puget Sound.

The game’s only goal came on a header from Veronica Latsko that deflected in off goalkeeper Angelina Anderson’s right hand with less than three minutes left in regulation. Angel City’s Paige Nielsen and M.A. Vignola appeared to have Phoebe McClernon’s long cross from the left wing defended well, but Latsko skied over both of them to nod home her fifth of the season.

For Angel City, given up for dead before spring turned to summer, it was a painful learning moment in what was an otherwise magical season.

“The piece that we have to live and learn from is these games in the playoffs are won in one moment,” interim coach Becki Tweed said. “We weren’t able to create that moment and, unfortunately, they did late in the game. We can be really proud of our performance. It leaves us with space to grow, and a taste of the playoffs.

“We can only use this to get better as individuals, as a group, as a team, as a club. So much that we’ve learned from this.”

The loss was just the second in 15 games for Angel City under Tweed, who four months ago took over a team mired at the bottom of the league table and got it to the playoffs. It was a furious dash, one that challenged credulity as well as the players’ strength and character — until the team ran out of gas in the final seconds of its fourth game in 18 days.

“There’s so many things that we have to keep overcoming and have to keep overcoming,” a dejected Nielsen said. “And we come to fight every single day. Someone has to win, someone has to lose. That’s what happened.”

Angel City forward Claire Emslie moves the ball against OL Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock and defender Emily Sonnett.

Angel City forward Claire Emslie moves the ball against OL Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock, left, and defender Emily Sonnett during the first half Friday.

(Lindsey Wasson / Associated Press)

Asked if that seemed like a fitting end for Angel City, Nielsen forced a pained smile.

“There’s no fair play in soccer,” she said.

The teams were meeting for the fifth time this season and Angel City probably got the better of a cautiously played first half that produced just one shot on goal coming on a 35-yard try from the Reign’s Jess Fishlock in the 13th minute.

The second 45 minutes opened at a much quicker pace, with the Reign’s Megan Rapinoe wasting a chance to put her team in front two minutes in when her left-footed shot from inside the box missed an open corner inside the far post. Six minutes later another Rapinoe shot was pushed wide by Anderson and in between, Nielsen stepped in front of a shot from Fishlock that got by the keeper and cleared it off the line to keep the game even.

Angel City goalkeeper Angelina Anderson makes a save over OL Reign forwards Veronica Latsko and Jordyn Huitema.

Angel City goalkeeper Angelina Anderson makes a save over OL Reign forwards Veronica Latsko, back center, and Jordyn Huitema (9) during the first half.

(Lindsey Wasson / Associated Press)

Second-half sub Rose Lavelle nearly scored a goal in the 85th minute with a sneaky, left-footed shot from outside the box that would have dipped below the bar had a leaping Anderson not gotten a hand on it. But that only made Latsko’s winner more dramatic.

“It was the one moment and that cost us ultimately, but I think performance-wise, if we were to look at it, we just missed that one moment in the final third,” Tweed said.

Angel City never tested Reign keeper Claudia Dickey, who posted her seventh shutout in 10 games across all competition. Her defense helped immensely by keeping a tight, compact shape that frustrated Angel City all night.

“We didn’t execute like we did last week,” midfielder Savannah McCaskill said. “They defended us well. We have to problem-solve on the field and I don’t think we problem-solved quickly enough.”

For Rapinoe, the Reign’s victory extended her stellar career at least a couple of weeks. Rapinoe, 38, a two-time World Cup champion and former FIFA world player of the year, announced in July this would be her final season. She’ll have at least one more encore when the Reign face the top-seeded San Diego Wave in the semifinals Nov. 5.

OL Reign forward Veronica Latsko, top right, celebrates with teammates after scoring against Angel City.

OL Reign forward Veronica Latsko, top right, celebrates with teammates after scoring in the 87th minute against Angel City on Friday.

(Lindsey Wasson / Associated Press)

To Nielsen, the loss didn’t end anything for Angel City — it marked the beginning of something bigger.

“The second half of the league, we had the best record out of any team. And we went through a coaching change. We went through a lot of injuries. It took us a little longer to get there,” she said. “We’re still getting there, we’re still not playing to our highest potential.

“We have to stop saying that at some point. And that’s going to be soon.”

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