Kelley O'Hara has signed a multi-year contract with Gotham FC after two seasons with the Spirit. (Lewis Gettier/USA TODAY Sports)

On Tuesday evening, at a Men in Blazers event in New York City, the axis of the NWSL world shifted slightly, forever changed. In announcing the first-ever free-agency signing in the league’s history, U.S. women’s national team defender Kelley O’Hara trailed off, saying “NWSL free agency opened today and…,” before donning a NJ/NY Gotham FC sweatshirt and as a special graphic appeared behind her.

O’Hara didn’t need to say much because the intent was clear: With her destiny in her own hands, she made a splash, signing a multi-year contract with the New Jersey club. In Gotham, she finds both an eager and a familiar partner — she spent some of the prime years of her career on Sky Blue FC’s backline, before moving on to the Utah Royals in 2018.

The rebranded Gotham FC club that O’Hara returns to couldn’t look more different than the Sky Blue team she left, but they similarly need to take steps toward being competitive. In 2021, despite losing head coach Freya Coombe to Angel City FC mid-season, Gotham made the playoffs for the first time since 2013. After a quarterfinal loss, Carli Lloyd retired, and the club made a number of moves last offseason to try to capitalize on the early signs of progress.

The 2022 season, however, didn’t go as planned. Despite picking up Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger, and retaining key parts of a dynamic frontline that features Ifeoma Onumonu and Margaret Purce, Gotham fell to the bottom of the NWSL standings. The club parted ways with head coach Scott Parkinson halfway through the season as the team sputtered to last place with a 4-17-1 record. They finished the season with a minus-30 goal differential, scoring only 16 goals while conceding 46. After Harris’ season ended early due to an injury, the goalkeeper announced her retirement at the USWNT Players’ Ball on Monday.

O’Hara can help solve some of Gotham’s issues right away. She’s a proven winner at both the club and international level, and she brings a level of intensity that NWSL teams rely on to grind out results. She also played some of the best soccer of her club career with the Washington Spirit in 2021, capped by scoring the game-winning goal in that year’s NWSL Championship. If Gotham is looking for a little grit and determination, and a lot of experience, O’Hara is the perfect free-agent signing.

The 34-year-old will also bring stability to the right-back position after 2021 Defender of the Year Caprice Dydasco was traded to the Houston Dash in August. O’Hara adds competition for 20-year-old Brazilian Bruninha, who also plays right back and was brought in as one of Gotham’s players of the future.

Within all of this lies Gotham’s great contradiction: The club’s results indicate a need to rebuild, and yet O’Hara’s signing, among others, suggest they’re a team in win-now mode. In constructing the roster they currently have, Gotham let go of young talent like Brianna Pinto (North Carolina Courage) and Evelyne Viens (Sweden). The club also had the opportunity to give minutes to rookie goalkeeper Hensley Hancuff in the wake of Harris’ injury but chose to play veteran Michelle Betos long after the playoffs fell out of reach.

And while on paper it seems like Gotham’s defense needs to be the main focus of free agency, the ebbs and flow of games in 2022 put the backline under undue amounts of pressure that resulted in goals conceded. The club chose not to retain midfielders Jennifer Cudjoe and Domi Richardson and is still negotiating with McCall Zerboni, after the midfield struggled immensely last season to control matches.

O’Hara’s resurgence in 2021 coincided with excellent seasons from Sam Staab and Emily Sonnett in the Spirit’s central defense. Gotham’s center-back pairing, meanwhile, remains unsettled, with Estelle Johnson’s return to the club up in the air. Allie Long should help shore up the defensive midfield in her return to the team alongside Victoria Pickett, whom Gotham acquired in a trade with the Kansas City Current in exchange for a hefty package (a 2023 first-round draft pick and $200,000 in allocation money). Those changes could have a positive effect on the attack, which spent too many games in 2022 on an island, without the ability to influence games.

Gotham has the No. 1 pick in the 2023 College Draft and new head coach Juan Carlos Amorós signed to a three-year contract. They have developed a recognizable brand that fans and players are drawn to, with the hope that the team will eventually find its identity on the pitch.

What happens in 2023 is too much to place on any one player, even Kelley O’Hara. But the fact that when presented with the most agency she’s ever had in her career, the World Cup and NWSL champion chose Gotham FC as home speaks volumes about her belief in the club’s future.

Notes on the Washington Spirit

  • Mark Krikorian’s early tenure as general manager has the makings of a huge project, shaped in his own vision. He ousted Kris Ward (with player support), brought in assistants who worked with him at Florida State and let one of the team’s leaders walk in free agency. Now, he’s on the hunt for a new head coach.
  • Even in the afterglow of their championship win, the Spirit looked like a group in need of a reset during a challenging 2022 season. Fans’ faith in ownership will continue to be tested, as what was hailed as a potential dynasty appears to be moving in another direction.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.