Angel City FC: Eni Aluko on working for the Los Angeles franchise

By Alex BysouthBBC Sport
Eni Aluko
Eni Aluko won 102 caps for England and scored 33 goals

"Natalie Portman is my boss," says Eni Aluko, who has become accustomed to a star-studded workforce since relocating to Los Angeles as sporting director of Angel City FC.

Hollywood actress Portman is part of a majority female ownership group boasting a plethora of A-list investors who have founded the new National Women's Soccer League side, with the club set to make their debut in the competition this month.

Among the extensive high-profile backers are tennis icons Serena Williams and Billie Jean King, Winter Olympic gold medallist Lindsey Vonn, actresses Eva Longoria and Jennifer Garner, TV host James Corden, former US soccer stars Abby Wambach and Mia Hamm and a number of entrepreneurs, YouTubers, pop stars and other former sports professionals.

It made for a daunting Zoom interview for Aluko after she was approached to take on the role of sporting director, though the former England striker proved a hit with the all-star panel.

"I remember thinking, 'don't look at them - look at you notes and the presentation and try to deliver as best you can what you would do'. And they loved it," Aluko tells BBC Sport.

After finishing her professional career at Juventus, Aluko was working as the director for women's football at Aston Villa when the opportunity arose to join the franchise in California, though it was not a straightforward decision.

"You are moving to the other side of the world," she explains. "The whole point of retiring and moving back home was to spend more time with my family and friends, claw back time I missed playing professional football, so it wasn't a no-brainer at all.

"It was more a case of if I don't do this, don't take this unique opportunity to build a club from scratch, I am probably never going to get that opportunity again."

It helped, of course, that she was struck by the names already entwined in the Angel City project and that is something that has caught the imagination of the Los Angeles locals too, with the club already selling 14,000 season tickets.

"Meeting them was surreal," says Aluko. "I remember meeting Mia Hamm in Los Angeles for the first time and I was just like 'wow, it's Mia Hamm, this is ridiculous'.

"I watched Julie Foudy win the World Cup, Abby Wambach win the World Cup - and now they are my colleagues.

"Natalie Portman is my boss. I have met her several times, spoken to her kids about football and what training session we are doing - it is a privilege to be given the responsibility to try to build something that is the idea of all these amazing people."

Angel City vice-president Angela Hucles Mangano, player Christen Press, sporting director Eni Aluko and president Julie Uhrman
Angel City vice-president Angela Hucles Mangano, player Christen Press, sporting director Eni Aluko and president Julie Uhrman

One of Aluko's first tasks was to appoint a coach, and after whittling down a shortlist that included male and female applicants she opted for English boss Freya Coombe.

"I am keen on gender balance, I think it is healthy," explains Aluko. "But for Angel City we are very intentional about female leadership, female ownership, female empowerment.

"So Freya was the candidate who best fitted all of that, but her gender was not the leading requirement - she is a competent coach.

"We are very careful as women not to patronise ourselves. If you are the best, competent candidate then you can go up against anyone. We need to back ourselves that whatever the competition we are confident enough and do not create comfort zones.

"Because when you get out into the world of football you don't get to control who you are up against."

'Now we want to see action on the pitch'

Aluko explains her role as sitting "between the board and the football side of the club", setting the tactical and technical strategies, as well as looking after recruitment and managing the budget of the team.

"There is a separation from the coach having to do all that," says Aluko. "I manage transfers, relationships between clubs both internationally and locally, manage relationships with the league.

"There is a tonne of stuff that traditionally coaches and managers did. Now there is a separation of responsibility between coaches just coaching and all the administrative work that comes with that."

It is Aluko's job to think mid- to long-term, while the coach concentrates on winning a football match on any given day.

"We know the turnover of coaches is very high," adds the 35-year-old. "So if you are giving them full responsibility to recruit all the players, what happens if that coach leaves within a year?

"It is a strategy that is too risky for just being specific for one coach."

Aluko is also keen to manage expectations - despite the pedigree of the club's owners and competitive squad she has put together, the sporting director knows it may take time for Angel City to find their feet in the NWSL this season.

"We have to be careful to have a balance between being ambitious and understanding how difficult it is to come in and win straight away," she says.

"For us, it is about saying 'can we be the most successful expansion team in the NWSL?'

"There has been lots of talk and now we want to see the action on the pitch. We want to see goals, we want to see defending, great assists, the team really gelling together on the pitch. That is why we are doing this."

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