They play the same sport under the same rules. But teams in the U.S.-based NWSL play a very different game than their sisters in Mexico’s Liga MX Femenil.
“The NWSL is more physical compared to Liga MX,” said Angel City’s Stefany Ferrer Van Ginkel, who has played in both leagues.
“Mexico uses more of their soccer IQ, their technical abilities because they don’t have necessarily the speed and the height of an American player.”
Those differences should have made Wednesday’s Angel City-Tigres exhibition at a half-empty Banc of California Stadium — a game that ended in a 1-0 Angel City win — a showcase of competing styles. Instead, it was a largely cautious, uncreative affair aside from the performances of Van Ginkel, a Brazilian by way of Spain, and teammate Jun Endo of Japan, a second-half substitute.
Van Ginkel, whose dribbling turned Tigres’ defenders around all night, played more than twice as many minutes in the first half alone as she did in Angel City’s first 13 NWSL games combined. But the only score of the night came 10 minutes after she left the field, with a sliding Savannah McCaskill deflecting in a Tyler Lussi cross in the 79th minute.
For both teams, the game was far more important than the final score.
For Angel City, a first-year NWSL team, a friendly with Mexico’s winningest club offered a chance to test itself on the field while raising its profile off it.
“As we were building the club, we wanted to challenge them early to play incredible teams,” said Julie Uhrman, the team’s president and a co-founder.
It also made sense for Angel City, which is still building its fan base, to bring a Liga MX team into the heart of Southern California, home to about 6 million Mexicans and Mexican Americans.
For Tigres, who have played in seven of the nine championship games in Liga MX history, winning four, facing teams from the older, deeper and more-established NWSL gives the team — and the league — added respectability. Tigres played the NWSL’s Houston Dash in 2019 and 2021, splitting the two games, and will host Angel City next year in Monterrey.
“There is no actual way to know the levels between the leagues. You can only speculate until you play tournaments,” said Tigres coach Carmelina Moscato, who played three seasons in NWSL. “This is a meaningless match, but it’s meaningful for all the other reasons; fan bases coming together, players stretching each other, different styles of play.”
In some ways, the NWSL can take credit for inspiring the Liga MX Femenil, Mexico’s first foray into a top-flight women’s professional league.
When the NWSL rose from the ashes of the WPS in 2012, it was with the support of the U.S., Canada and Mexico soccer federations, which agreed to pay the salaries of its top players who signed with the league. But by 2015, after a season in which no Mexican national team member played a minute in the NWSL, the Mexican federation pulled its support and launched a league of its own in 2017.
Since then, Canada and the U.S., led by NWSL players, have combined to win two Olympic medals and a World Cup title while Mexico failed to qualify for either tournament.
But the Mexican league has grown tremendously in its six years, drawing substantial TV audiences, frequent crowds of 30,000 or more and attracting foreign players such as Uchenna Kanu of Nigeria, Jenni Hermoso of Spain and Fishel, the first big-name American to turn down an NWSL contract in favor of one in Liga MX.
“We don’t have enough matches to compare those levels,” Moscato, who played in three World Cups and earned an Olympic bronze medal for Canada, said of the two leagues.
“But I do know both are growing at an exponential rate.”
Growing so fast the style of play, not the quality, might soon be the only thing separating them.