A Winning Team (2023)

‘A Winning Team’ (2023) is all about love

The Hallmark Channel produces as many as 100 films in a year, and A Winning Team may be its first soccer movie. Like most Hallmark films, it’s also about how love of family plus a little romance pull the lead lady footballer back to a real life.

The Story

In the film, 3-time World Cup winner Emily Chen (Nadia Hatta) is a goal-scoring headache on her Chicago team. After being ejected 3 times in the season, her coach suspends her indefinitely. Emily’s widowed brother invites her to stay with him and his 13 year old daughter Ava (Niki Garcia) in a small town outside Seattle.

Hoping to get called back to her club, Emily works to stay in shape and joins a mens pickup game. But in a brutal tackle, she takes out the guy who was nice enough to invite her onto the pitch. The next day, her brother asks her to fill in on Ava’s team practice because Coach Ian (Kristoffer Polaha) is hurt. Of course, Emily discovers the coach is on crutches because of her mean-spirited foul.

Coach Ian is a tall version of Ted Lasso, encouraging the girls to enjoy the game, as winning is secondary. His forté is team-building exercises but little skills training, while Emily competes at everything and is driven to make the girls succeed. Their romance is about overcoming their differences and learning to work together for the good of the team. In the weeks building up to the championship game, Emily learns to care about more than just soccer, while Ian learns to pick up his small business dream again. When Emily gets called back to Chicago, she realizes what she has learned.

For the interest of kid viewers, with Auntie Em’s support, niece Ava opens her avenues as well, by getting involved in theatre, something she didn’t think her mother would have supported.

Hallmark’s diversity issues

In researching this film, I was surprised to learn that the Hallmark channel suffered quite a bit of controversy around 2019. Hallmark was accused of non-inclusivity and refusal to air an LGBTQ+ ad. CEO Bill Abbott subsequently quit and started a competing company, GAC Films that, like its original name Great American Country implied, is a conservative Christian company. GAC Films has signed away a number of Hallmark actors.

Hallmark tried to address the diversity issues around its heavily all-White content, especially in Christmas movies. While cold but not Christmas, this film aligns with that effort, with a heavily Asian cast and crew (mostly Canadian), including Director Jason Furukawa, and first-feature Writer Ronee Uyeshiro.

Initially I thought I had seen a Hallmark soccer movie before. But it turned out that the disasters I remembered were from the Lifetime Channel, where empowered women threaten other empowered women (Lethal Soccer Mom and Soccer Mom Madam). Hallmark instead seeks to be: “Hallmark, where love happens.” Kristoffer Polaha (Coach Ian) is a long-time popular Hallmark actor, who says:

“Here’s the thing about Hallmark: They’re telling amazing stories and they’re telling ’em in a way that your entire family can sit down and watch. They’re encouraging and really shining a light on positivity and on love and what the positive effects of love in life can do.”

Kristoffer Polaha, TV Insider Mar-15-2020

The Actors

So far, I’ve written about the positives of A Winning Team. It’s biggest value is it gives exposure to Asian cast members. While the acting is generally good, I agree with the Girls Gone Hallmark podcasters that the film is kind of boring. Maybe it is too much everyday small town life that lacks much conflict or interest. Nadia Hatta’s World Cup winner is difficult to like. And while Polaha as Coach Ian feels as comfortable as an old shoe, he’s 46 years old and about as sexy as one. (For me, the turnoff wasn’t the Dad hair, it was all the stubble.)

And I was distracted by the fact that the characters ate food in almost every scene that didn’t take place on the pitch. Is that a Hallmark thing?

Niki Garcia is very cute and accomplished as Ava, but it’s another distraction that she is clearly 17 years old and not a 13 year old playing a Shakespearean role. And kudos to Raugi Yu who plays Emily’s 40ish brother but who is really a 60 year old actor. He is still in his prime, just like Michelle Yeoh.

In Conclusion

The soccer is not very good, but the soccer decorations are great. The fans do a lot of cheering. It’s not really a romance as much as a story of character development for Emily, Coach Ian, and niece Ava. I can’t really recommend this film unless you want to support Asian actors and/or Canadian filmmakers, or you are a fan of Kristoffer Polaha. I don’t know — watch it just so that you can argue with me. There’s a Canadian out there somewhere who sends me nasty comments.

I read that they shot this in 3 weeks, and if that’s true, then Sansei Canadian Director Jason Furukawa is really efficient.

6 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 6