Building a team from scratch with Eniola Aluko
Eniola Aluko named first sporting director of NWSL expansion club Angel City
She will be tasked with assembling club’s first-ever squad
Read FIFA.com's exclusive interview with the former England international
Many football fans have spent countless hours assembling fantasy teams, managing clubs up the football pyramid on computer games. What would you do if you faced this prospect in reality?
It would, of course, be an entirely different proposition and involve expertise in several different sectors. Few are afforded such an opportunity. However, that is just the kind of challenge Eniola Aluko is taking on. The former England international, Chelsea striker and Team GB Olympian was recently announced as the first-ever sporting director for National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) expansion side Angel City.
She not only brings a wealth of playing experience and knowledge from the professional game, but is coming off a successful spell as Director of Women’s Football at Aston Villa, having guided the club through their first season in England's top division. Trained as a lawyer and with a published book in 2019, Aluko turned 34 just this year.
What exactly is a sporting director? Let Aluko explain.
“It’s someone who sees beyond tomorrow but can manage today. It’s someone who sits on the executive side of the club that is able to set a long-term vision for the technical team and the footballing performance of the team. It’s someone who builds the team from the players, staff, builds culture within that team, understands performance and what that looks like, understands the tactical side of the game and works very closely with the head coach on how to implement tactics to win, sets the long-term vision—do we want to win the NWSL in one, two or three years? What does that look like? How are we going to get there? One of the most attractive things about being a sporting director is that you work with so many different elements of the club: marketing, finance, technical team, CEO, ownership. You can tap into so many different areas because the job pulls you in those different directions. It’s not purely football. It’s multi-dimensional but ultimately you sit a bit removed from the grass and you’re able to set the short and long-term vision of the club."
Renowned as someone who proactively gets out of her comfort zone and constantly looks for new challenges, Aluko spoke to FIFA.com to tell us about her latest, unique adventure.
“When I was younger, women’s football was not really a career path,” she said. “I had this passion, gift and talent but it didn’t allow me to stay in that lane. From a young age, I constantly had to think, ‘I’ve got football and I’ve got something else, my studies’. I’ve always had to balance two things and I think it gave me a drive that made active.
"When football did become a career path, I was still keen to have other things going on. I’m a curious person and always want to try and test myself. The best way to develop is to put yourself in situations where you’re just going to learn and grow.”
Aluko has sought and found an ambitious new project, where she will be tasked with hiring the club’s first-ever coach and assembling its first squad. Angel City will begin play in the NWSL next season and are backed by a star-studded, female-led and founded ownership and investment group that includes globally-known names such as Serena Williams, Natalie Portman, Eva Longoria, Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach among many others.
Aluko won’t be working alone, however. She will be joined by two-time Olympic gold medallist and former USA midfielder Angela Hucles Mangano who was announced as the club’s vice president of player development and operations.
“Right now my fundamental priority is to recruit players," said Aluko, "but whilst I’m recruiting now I’ve got to think about how in two years’ time are those players going to still be able to help us win? That’s quite challenging. Planning’s important but you’ve got to be able to adapt and pivot as well.”
She had to do plenty of adapting and pivoting while at Villa, where she helped guide the club during the pandemic.
“As tough as that experience was, I literally feel like I can deal with anything now. Not in a way that I’m going to know how to deal with everything, but I feel like nothing will surprise me. It’s really made me feel ready for this role at Angel City.”
Her background and work as a lawyer has informed her work and path towards sporting directorship. She will also be managing the budget of the team.
“Angel City is unique because it’s founded by venture capitalists that understand how to launch businesses and brands,” Aluko said. “You apply football and women’s sport to that; understanding that context is important because it informs your decisions.
"I know that signing players that will draw fans into the stadium will please everyone. If the fans are pleased, more tickets will be sold and the owners will be happy. You have to make strategic decisions that factor in all of those different things.”
Importantly, Aluko will never be making any decisions in isolation. She will have data analysts, head coach and assistant coaches, performance coaches and sports scientists helping to inform the big decisions.
“The more you build a relationship and structured communications with those teams, the better decisions you can make,” she said. “One of the big lessons I took from Villa from a recruitment standpoint is that I want to be much more objective. At the top level there’s a lot of good players, so how do you separate good ones from great ones? Great ones from players that will only do it ten games a season versus ones that will do it all season?
"As a sporting director it’s really important to have a multi-disciplinary team that informs you and allows you to make really good decisions. If you don’t have that you’re likely to make worse decisions. You have to accept that you don’t always get it right either.”
She is currently in the midst of making several vital decisions that will shape the trajectory of a club eager for success, but that has yet to kick a ball. It’s a challenge she relishes.
“I don’t know how many opportunities anyone can have to build a team from scratch. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Cultures and structures exist in football, so you’re usually coming into pre-existing structures that are difficult to change. Football is a very traditional sport. Things are done the way they’re done and it takes time to change it.
“When you have a blank canvas like Angel City you’re able to really influence it from the start. That was a big draw for me and an unmissable opportunity for me as a sporting director. It’s a double-edged sword because a lot of players may see it as a risk because they don’t know how good the team will be; there’s no reference point. A lot of players may not sign until someone else signs. It’s about knowing strategically who that player is that will create that domino effect. There’s an element of unknown to this project but what helps is that the ownership group is so incredible.”
Aluko has been in football for over 20 years and she is bringing her successful experiences to Los Angeles. One of her missions will be to ensure the team is diverse.
Aluko was hesitant to proclaim that Angel City will win the league in year one, but she emphasised the importance of playing an exciting brand of football that creates an environment where that’s possible. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Aluko described the job as being an “opportunity to shape the future of women’s sport in a different way.”
“Many women’s teams around the world are owned by parent men’s teams and have owners who are aware of the women’s team but it’s not their priority, so what you have is women’s teams kind of in the shadow of men’s teams," Aluko told FIFA.com. "Yes they’re supported and have the resources but it’s not a priority. With Angel City you have a standalone women’s sports team that is owned by women. That is a brand in and of itself. That’s setting a trail for others to follow.
“Something I noticed straightaway from Angel City was that they want purpose and capital to co-exist. They’re saying ‘We’re going to make money. We’re going to be a commercial entity, but we’re going to repurpose that within the community and actually help the community grow and engage with it in an authentic way.’ I don’t see many teams doing that consistently from the jump and making it part of their brand.”
By the time Angel City do kick their first ball, they will already have a dedicated following and supporter-base.
“Players come and go. Sporting directors come and go. Coaches come and go. What doesn’t change is the club and the community.”