SAN DIEGO — After lifting the 2023 NWSL trophy on Saturday, no one registered more giddy surprise over their accomplishment than NJ/NY Gotham FC’s players. The club had just put the final stamp on their “worst to first” narrative, a term that retiring legend Ali Krieger said began almost as a joke before becoming the team’s reality.
“In preseason, we were like, ‘We have to go worst to first,’” she told the media after Gotham’s 2-1 win over OL Reign. “And we were kind of laughing at first, because we’re like, oh my god, we’re really going to do it.”
The NWSL playoffs are an American construct of modern soccer, infusing the chaos of knockout soccer into a system that historically rewards steady consistency over the excitement of a few moments of brilliance.
After finishing 2022 in the basement of the NWSL standings, Gotham proved to be stunningly resilient in the 2023 playoffs. They held clean sheets when they could, scored goals when they had to, and saved some of their best collective play for the game that mattered the most.
No one would accuse Gotham of crashing the party, but contending for an NWSL Championship used to be something of a perennial experience. Before the playoffs were expanded in 2021, Portland, Seattle, North Carolina and the Chicago Red Stars tended to duke it out in the postseason, sometimes flanked by the old FC Kansas City teams or North Carolina’s predecessors, the Western New York Flash.
More often than not, North Carolina/Western New York and Portland made it the farthest, swapping title wins from 2016-19. The winner of the playoffs didn’t always reflect the strongest regular season squad (the “Shield Curse” legend didn’t grow out of nowhere), but fans became used to familiar faces taking part in the trophy lift even as the league’s parity shined in other areas.
While teams from that era still loom large over the playoff picture, the suspended 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic ultimately proved to be the end of that dynasty era. It was followed by a season of turmoil due to investigations in widespread abuse, forcing front office turnover and, in some cases, club sales.
The 2021 season also launched the six-team playoff structure, giving quarterfinalists a chance to build true momentum through the postseason. The Washington Spirit felt like the first of a new class of champions in 2021, who came together at just the right time after an up-and-down regular season.
If the Spirit nudged the door open, then Gotham FC kicked it off its hinges with their 2023 championship win. The team colloquially known as “the Bats” is the first No. 6 seed to win an NWSL Championship.
“We squeaked into playoffs and made it all the way,” Championship MVP Midge Purce said after the game, summing up Gotham’s Cinderella story.
But now that the confetti has been swept up, and the free agency cycle is once again in full swing, two questions linger: Can Gotham replicate their success next year, and can the playbook for their turnaround be replicated by other teams?
To answer both questions, it’s necessary to look at how the Bats achieved one of the most impressive season comebacks in league history. That process started with the hiring of Juan Carlos Amorós, who communicated his style of play to the team’s leaders from Day 1 and received full-team buy-in in return.
Gotham general manager Yael Averbuch then oversaw an excellent 2023 draft week, during which the club traded for U.S. women’s national team forward Lynn Williams and 2022 NWSL champion Yazmeen Ryan, as well as selected future Rookie of the Year Jenna Nighswonger. The team also did well in free agency, signing 2021 NWSL champion Kelley O’Hara and 2022 champion Abby Smith.
With the additions of Williams, O’Hara, Ryan and Smith, Gotham suddenly had a lot of championship experience in their starting XI. The club didn’t sit idle during the midseason transfer window either, signing Spanish players Esther González and Maitane López, both of whom started in the 2023 title game. They also signed Katie Stengel, first on loan and then by permanent transfer. The forward came in off the bench in the semifinal to score a rocket and lead Gotham to their first championship game.
That much change in one year was warranted after the team’s 2022 results, but there was no guarantee of immediate success with that many new personalities in the locker room. Gotham’s players, however, found ways to connect quickly, relying on shared histories and a desire to win.
“I think the thing is, a lot of us have known each other for years,” Purce said during NWSL Championship week.
“I did U-17s with Ify [Onumonu] and Mandy [Freeman], I lived with Ify for a while. I’ve known Delaney [Sheehan] for a long time. Ali Krieger gave me my high school award. Allie Long was one of the first people to ever talk to me at national team camp,” she continued. “So I think there’s a lot of crossover through a lot of the age groups, and then we have a lot of veterans. I think we have a really strong leadership core that knows how to win, and I think that’s been really indispensable.”
González and Williams, proven winners, scored the two goals to earn Gotham the title, but it was Purce who facilitated the team’s biggest moments by notching both assists. For one brilliant 90-minute period, the team’s past and present formed an unbeatable force. Longtime Gotham backup keeper Amanda Haught once again stood strong against an onslaught from OL Reign, and Krieger played some of the best soccer of her life in the final matches of her career.
On another level today. 🤯Take a bow, @100Purcent. pic.twitter.com/oJ9sPq1FHy— NJ/NY Gotham FC (@GothamFC) November 12, 2023
On another level today. 🤯Take a bow, @100Purcent. pic.twitter.com/oJ9sPq1FHy
Other teams will have to be similarly aggressive and good judges of player character to replicate Gotham’s accomplishments. It’s not always easy to handpick the personalities that will be entering your locker room, or know how players with greater seniority will process sweeping changes.
The Bats got that mix exactly right this year, but as is the case in sports, they will be presented with similar decisions to make for 2024. Many players considered important leaders for the team, including goalkeeper Michelle Betos and midfielder McCall Zerboni, are closer to the ends of their careers than the beginning. They also have former starters now coming off the bench, like Onumonu, who might be searching for starting opportunities elsewhere.
The club will also be dealing with one of the best problems they could have — becoming a well-regarded destination. This year’s free agency period holds top talent, including three-time NWSL champions Crystal Dunn and Becky Sauerbrunn. If Gotham wants to replenish their roster with even more winning talent, they’ll have the opportunity.
But if Gotham followed in the footsteps of the 2021 Washington Spirit by catching fire at exactly the right time to launch themselves to unprecedented success, they’ll want to avoid coming back down. The Spirit have yet to return to the playoffs since their championship win, despite consistent investment in growing their front-office infrastructure.
Getting to the top is hard, but staying there is harder. Averbuch and Amorós will have to stay vigilant to keep their club from being remembered as a one-hit wonder.
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.