NJ/NY Gotham FC Claims Their First NWSL Championship
In a championship match that saw two legends say goodbye to the game, NJ/NY Gotham FC proved victorious, winning 2-1 over the OL Reign. Esther González scored the game-winning goal in a chaotic, back-and-forth game. Midge Purce took home the 2023 NWSL Championship MVP award, after assisting both goals for Gotham.
From the moment we knew the two teams in the final, the storyline was set. Megan Rapinoe versus Ali Krieger in their final game of each of their careers, battling it out for the one trophy that both players had yet to claim in their elusive list of accolades. Unfortunately, the game ended sooner than anyone would’ve liked to see for Rapinoe when she went down in the fourth minute with an off-the-ball, non-contact injury, which she said post-game may be a torn Achilles. Rapinoe was subbed off and replaced with Bethany Balcer who filled the role quite well, but the early substitution seemed to throw off Reign's strategy. Throughout the season, Balcer had been utilized as a late-time sub in order to provide energy in the final 15 minutes.
It was 20 minutes later when Gotham struck first. With a winding run down the right flank and pinpoint cross into the box from Midge Purce, Lynn Williams fired Gotham ahead in the 24th minute. This goal set the tone for the remainder of the half, as up until this point, both teams had momentum but were not able to settle into a good rhythm.
Gotham didn’t hold the lead for long as the Reign equalized five minutes later through a crafty finish from Rose Lavelle. Balcer showed why she was the first option off the bench with a ball played through Gotham’s high backline to a striding Lavelle, who was left one-on-one with Mandy Haught in goal. Haught stood no chance as Lavelle showed complete composure to tie the game at one-all.
The following minutes were end-to-end, with both teams getting strong chances on goal. Gotham had a chance in the 37th minute when Purce hit the post and Delanie Sheehan’s follow-up hit the crossbar. Only five minutes later, the Reign moved downfield and scored a goal that was ruled offside, but showed how wide-open the game still was. Lavelle was one of the key factors for the Reign, continuously turning in tight spaces to help advance the Reign into the attacking third.
Gotham scored the game-winning goal halfway through stoppage time in the first, with a perfectly placed Purce corner kick that González finished with a clinical header. The Reign failed to mark González, allowing her free space for the header. Gotham was able to finish out the half and take the one-goal lead into halftime.
The second half started largely in the Reign’s favor with multiple chances that were near misses, including a Balcer volley that zipped just wide of the post. This was followed up by calls for a penalty from the Reign bench as Veronica Latsko looked to have been taken down by Jenna Nighswonger in the box. While referee Ekaterina Kosolova was not seen going to the monitor, VAR ruled that it was not a clear and obvious error.
Slightly later, in the 60th minute, the Reign nearly found their second goal as Lavelle played a ball through Gotham’s high line, giving Latsko a free opportunity on goal. Latsko was denied by Haught who stood strong for a big save.
A good portion of the second half consisted of the Reign pushing forward — but ineffectively. They were over-reliant on long balls into the box, which were continuously shut down by a solid Gotham defense. More patience in the attack would have helped the Reign have more success in the attacking third.
“This one’s gonna sting a little bit because you have to make big decisions in big moments, and they definitely didn’t go our way,” said Head Coach Laura Harvey in the post-match press conference.
In the last minutes of stoppage time, the Reign had a major chance on goal. Elyse Bennett faced up with Haught in goal, forcing a quick decision on leaving the box. Haught reached outside the box to deny the goal-scoring opportunity, resulting in a red card after a short VAR check.
Gotham was left without any sub-windows, which led to Nealy Martin replacing Haught in goal. It marked her second stint as a goalkeeper this season, also taking on the role in Gotham’s 2-1 loss to San Diego on August 19 due to an injury to Abby Smith. The Reign were denied on the resulting free-kick outside the box and moments later, Gotham FC were crowned the 2023 NWSL Champions.
Gotham was the sixth seed heading into playoffs after finishing the regular season 8-7-7, with 31 points. Last season, Gotham finished the regular season last in the NWSL, with a mere 13 points and a 4-1-13 record.
The complete turnaround to achieve an NWSL championship this season is one that will be forever engrained in the NWSL record books, alongside the added bonus of sending off team captain Ali Krieger in the best way possible.
“They have supported me through, they wanted to win for me, they wanted to support me day in and day out and everything even my personal life and that’s something that I will cherish and nurture and be grateful for forever,” said Ali Krieger when asked about this Gotham FC squad in the post-match press conference.