Gotham FC's Estelle Johnson (Lewis Gettier/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

NJ/NY Gotham FC has seen it all.

The original NWSL club used to consistently be among the bottom teams in the league. This year, they’re projected as one of its strongest squads. After nearly winning the Challenge Cup final last year and finishing fifth in the 2021 regular season standings, Gotham has retooled its roster to make a run at a title (or two) this season.

What stands out to defender Estelle Johnson about the club’s journey is their relationship with the players.

“I think we’re finally starting to put all the pieces together, and it’s showing just with how we’re treated more professionally now,” said Johnson, who joined the team in 2019.

Gotham now shares the RBNY Training Facility with the New York Red Bulls. But before 2020, under owners Phil and Tammy Murphy and Steven Temares, the club (then known as Sky Blue FC) came under fire over reports of inadequate housing and training conditions. They even lost top draft picks because players opted to go overseas instead of join the embattled club.

In 2021, Gotham made their debut at Red Bull Arena after playing for a decade at Rutgers’ Yurcak Field, a 5,000-seat university stadium. In their first season at the new facility, they improved from the worst attendance in the league to the fourth-best, with a 5,150 average. They have also made numerous changes to their coaching and front office staff.

“Oh my gosh, it’s been a lot,” Johnson said.

In a turning point last season, the rebranded team finished second in the Challenge Cup and reached the NWSL postseason for the first time since 2013. This year they added U.S. women’s national team players Kristie Mewis, Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris, and Japanese national team player Kumi Yokoyama. New to the ownership group are Kristin Bernert and Karen Bryant, co-founders of KB2 Sports, a consulting firm focused on driving investment and innovation in women’s sports.

“We’re finally stepping up in competing with the best clubs in the league, so it’s exciting and I foresee that it’s just going to continue getting better,” said Johnson.

Former Gotham coach Freya Coombe (2019-21) now leads Angel City FC, one of two 2022 expansion teams that have emphasized player treatment and female leadership.

The changes Coombe started implementing in New York before leaving for the ACFC job have inevitably helped with their on-field performances. While watching San Diego Wave FC and Angel City make their NWSL debuts against each other on Saturday, Johnson was “blown away” by the formations and game plans they were able to put together in such a short time.

Johnson is one of several Gotham players — including Caprice Dydasco, Imani Dorsey and Paige Monaghan — who have been with Gotham FC through the turnover of the past few years. In 2021, the defender made 19 starts and recorded an 87.4 percent passing success rate. Former Gotham goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, now with San Diego, recently referred to Johnson as one of the two best defenders she’s ever played with.

“Estelle’s been there, done it,” said head coach Scott Parkinson. “She’s actually fabulous.”

Gotham fell 2-0 to North Carolina Courage in their opening game of the 2022 Challenge Cup, but with Mewis and Ifeoma Onumonu expected to return from injuries, they’re officially ready to turn the page Friday against the reigning NWSL champion Washington Spirit.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.