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NWSL preview: Gotham FC seeks new identity in 2023

Midge Purce signed a two-year contract extension with Gotham FC this week. (Amber Searls/USA TODAY Sports)

To say Gotham FC’s 2022 season didn’t go as planned would be an understatement. Despite signing a number of high-profile players to the roster before the season, the New Jersey club finished last in the NWSL standings after scoring the fewest goals and conceding the most.

The team’s response in the 2023 offseason was not to completely commit to a rebuild, but rather to move with ambition. Gotham was involved in trading both the No. 1 and the No. 2 picks in the NWSL draft, while picking up a few key signings through the league’s first free-agency period.

Gotham’s offseason moves show a deep commitment to improving upon their 2022 results, but as the dust settles, let’s take a look at a team still searching for its identity.

2022 Year in Review: A rough season in the rearview

Results in soccer don’t always tell the full picture. Some teams simply have bad luck, and their underlying stats outperform their real-life results. Usually, the response to that is to trust the process and let the results start to reflect the positive play.

But Gotham’s stats in 2022 didn’t really indicate that this would be the right way forward. The New Jersey club finished last in the NWSL with a goal differential of minus-30. The advanced stats weren’t much kinder: Gotham finished last in American Soccer Analysis’ g+ estimation, which computes collective positive actions that lead to goal-scoring chances. They were also last in the league in xG, which computes the quality of goal-scoring chances, and xPass, which computes likelihood of successful passing.

In short, Gotham struggled to progress the ball and turn progression into quality chances. Loss of possession led to pressure on the backline, and they had a hard time getting back into games after conceding goals.

“We absolutely are very unhappy with where we ended last season. We’re all really competitive people, we’re in freakin’ New Jersey, New York. We don’t lose, like that’s not okay there,” general manager Yael Averbuch West said at the 2023 NWSL draft.

Star striker Midge Purce also didn’t mince words when speaking to reporters during Gotham media day this week: “Last year is not something that was enjoyable for me. Not scoring goals, it makes me sick. And this year, I want to score goals on both the national team and for club. I want to be a top player in both settings.”

At the draft in January, Averbuch West reflected on a team in search of its identity. Heading into the 2023 season, Gotham is prioritizing attitude and team fit as much as soccer qualities.

“It’s not just looking at soccer players, it’s looking at people who are going to help us continue to build and elevate our culture through that — the way they view their craft, their footballing minds and just who they are as professionals,” she said.

Gotham made a blockbuster trade for USWNT forward Lynn Williams in the offseason. (Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Offseason moves: Pulling off a strategic rebuild

Faced with the team’s lack of scoring in 2022, Gotham made intentional moves to bolster very specific areas of the pitch. The club acquired Yazmeen Ryan from Portland in exchange for the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft. In Ryan, Gotham gets a player who is as comfortable on the frontline as she is in the attacking midfield and who was arguably one of the best players on the pitch during the 2022 NWSL championship game.

They also leveled up in the attack, bringing in USWNT forward Lynn Williams to round out the front three with Purce and Ifeoma Onumonu. Williams is a prolific NWSL goal-scorer who has looked like her old self with the USWNT after coming off of a long-term hamstring injury. Gotham will likely lose at least one forward during the 2023 World Cup, and will possibly be without all three starters, but the addition of Williams will create new problems for opposing defenses to solve.

Williams also provides a good example of how new head coach Juan Carlos Amorós wants his team to play.

“We want to be a team that dominates all the six moments of the game,” he said at the draft. “I am a big fan of the counter-press. We’re trying to regain the ball as high as possible, trying to create chances out of those situations.”

Dominating all moments of the game include plans for when the team is controlling possession, losing possession and regaining possession. To set a new defensive tone, Amorós’ Gotham could shift to a high-risk, high-reward defensive press that will attempt to pounce on unwitting NWSL backlines.

In that regard, Williams is the perfect player for the system. For a team that looked a step off in defensive transition in 2022, the change will be noticeable.

“[She brings] the right dose of standards on the defensive side,” Amorós said of Williams. “So everyone is committed.”

When asked about her approach to off-the-ball defending, Williams said in an introductory press conference, “I don’t think it’s a secret that I am like a very defensive hard working forward. I think that if you can win the ball higher up the field, then you don’t have to run back as far, so why not do that? I think that I can bring an intensity to the game that’s just, the quicker we win [the ball] back, the quicker we can be in control of the game, and the quicker we can score goals.”

While Purce wouldn’t divulge particular tactical shifts during media day, she expressed confidence in the team’s new approach.

“[Amorós is] very good at making sure everyone knows that we’re on the same page,” she said. “So tactically, technically, in every way, we all know what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Gotham hired head coach Juan Carlos Amorós away from Houston in November. (Courtesy of Gotham FC)

2023 outlook: Risk and reward

While Gotham boosted their attacking depth in the offseason, their season might live or die at the hands of their defense. Gotham shored up the right-back position with the free-agency signing of Kelley O’Hara, who is functionally replacing former NWSL Defender of the Year Caprice Dydasco. The team also signed former Portland backup goalkeeper Abby Smith, who has NWSL starting experience and should take over full time.

But so much of the team’s 2023 success will depend on what happens when Gotham’s counter-press breaks down and the team has to adjust to quick shifts in play. The club has a number of options for center-back pairings, including Ali Krieger, Mandy Freeman and Kristen Edmonds. But they don’t necessarily have any one player who can keep up with the pace of speedy opposing forwards, so they’ll have to be prepared for counter-attacks when their energy dips.

The team is also relying heavily on the return of Allie Long in the defensive midfield to control the pace of games. During her career, Long has steadily worked her way backward in position, having developed into a hyper-accurate possessor and passer before taking a season off due to pregnancy. The 35-year-old could be the key to making sure the defense doesn’t suffer from quick switches in play in moments when Gotham has to save their legs and wants to possess.

Gotham might be able to score goals at will in 2023, but their success will depend on what they do without the ball.

“We want people to drive a standard, the winning mentality,” said Amorós.

That might be exactly the identity that Gotham is looking for.

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

2023 MVP Breanna Stewart Drops 31 Points in Liberty’s Huge Win Over Fever

breanna stewart and jonquel jones of the new york liberty celebrate win over indiana fever
Stewie and the Liberty dominated the court throughout Thursday's Fever home opener. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty dominated Indiana on Thursday night, winning by a whopping 36 points in the Fever's home opener. 

A sold-out crowd of 17,274 was in attendance to watch as star rookie Caitlin Clark finished the 102-66 defeat with nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists. It’s the first time since January 2021 — her freshman season at Iowa — that Clark's been held to single-digit scoring. 

"The physicality is definitely up there... I'm easily pushed off screens," she told reporters after the loss. "The game seems a little fast for me right now. The more I play and the more comfortable I get, it's going to slow down a little bit. It will be easier for me to make reads, see things develop."

The Fever were outscored by a combined margin of 57 points in their first two games — the largest two-game point deficit in WNBA season-opening history, according to @ESPNStatsInfo.

"We've got to get to a level of toughness," Fever coach Christie Sides in her own postgame remarks. "When things are going south on us, we're not stopping the bleeding."

"I have great perspective on everything that happens," Clark added. "It was the same in my college career. There were some moments that were absolutely amazing. And there were some moments I was not happy with how I played and how my team performed. That's just life, that's just basketball."

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, who herself experienced a rocky rookie season following a much-hyped college career, offered up some insight on the matter.

"In this league, there are tough defenses all centered around not letting you get the ball, trapping, not letting you score," Ionescu said. "There were many factors that played into what was a tough first season for me in the league, but it helps you be able to figure it out. You have to have those experiences."

But it was reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart that truly stole the show, racking up 31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks on the night.

"In general, I just wanted to come out more aggressive coming off of last game," Stewart said after putting up the 24th 30-point game in her career.

Stewart she also commended the fans inside Indianapolis's packed Gainbridge Fieldhouse, noting that she hopes that level of support to continue across the WNBA.

"This is how you want every game to be and when it's a sell-out crowd, it gives you a similar playoff atmosphere feel," she said. "People want to be a part of this and the thing now is to continue to sustain it, continue to take the momentum that we have and turn it into something more."

WNBA Commissioner Admits to ‘Faulty’ Charter Rollout

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert at 2024 wnba draft
Cathy Engelbert at the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York. (Cora Veltman/Sportico via Getty Images)

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert admitted to a "faulty rollout" of the new charter travel initiative on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Ahead of Tuesday's season opener, it was announced that the only teams flying private this week would be Indiana and Minnesota. The announcement came mere days after the league made a new charter flight program for all WNBA teams public. At the time, they said it would be implemented "as soon as we have the planes."

But as two teams out of 12 chartered to their first games of the season, others like the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky were forced to fly commercial.

A town hall meeting between Engelbert and the players was held in response to the confusion. Everything from the league's new media rights deal to private travel was covered in the meeting, with players submitting their questions ahead of time. Sky center Elizabeth Williams told Sun-Times reporter Annie Costabile afterwards that cross-country flights were prioritized.

"Flights that are across the country like [the Lynx] going to Seattle, crossing multiple time zones, or flights that usually require a connection, those were the priorities," Williams said. "That’s why New York didn’t go to DC with a charter, but Minny goes to Seattle."

What’s unclear under that metric is that the Atlanta Dream played the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday, which could technically be classified as a cross-country flight. 

On Tuesday, rookie forward Angel Reese shared a photo on her Instagram story lamenting the league's use of commercial flights.

"Just praying that this is one of the last commercial flights the Sky has to fly," Reese posted. The team still has at least three commercial flights awaiting them in the near future.

"Obviously, I think all teams should be able to get chartered," Reese told the Sun-Times. "But I know moving forward... going in the right direction, being able to have some teams [chartering] is cool. Within the next weeks, everybody will be flying charter, which will be really good."

On Thursday, Lindsay Schnell of USAToday Sports confirmed that the league intends to have all teams on charter flights by May 21st.

Brazil Wins Bid for 2027 Women’s World Cup Host

fifa womens world cup trophy on display
The FIFA Women's World Cup trophy on display in Bangkok after Brazil was announced as the 2027 host country. (Thananuwat Srirasant - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Brazil has been named the host for the 2027 Women’s World Cup, with FIFA announced early Friday. 

The decision came after a vote at the 74th FIFA Congress in Bangkok, with Brazil earning 119 votes to the joint European bid’s 78. 

This will be Brazil’s first time hosting the Women’s World Cup, with the country having hosted the men’s World Cup twice before in 1950 and 2014. It will also be the first Women’s World Cup held in South America. The tournament will follow the same 32-team format as the 2023 WWC in Australia and New Zealand.

Brazil winning the bid was not entirely surprising after FIFA issued a report just last week, stating that the Brazilian bid had pulled ahead as host following technical inspection. After evaluation, Brazil was given a score of 4.0 out of 5, compared to the 3.7 awarded to the Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Brazil ranked higher in a number of key areas, including stadiums, accommodations, fan zones, and transport infrastructure. Though considered to be a frontrunner, the US and Mexico withdrew their joint bid prior to the technical inspection period, saying they would instead focus their efforts on 2031.

On Friday, Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ednaldo Rodrigues called it a "victory." 

"We knew we would be celebrating a victory for South American women's soccer and for women," he told reporters. "You can be sure, with no vanity, we will accomplish the best World Cup for women."

"We are working on a transformation, not only for the country but for the continent," added bid team operational manager Valesca Araujo.

Brazil intends to use 10 of the venues utilized at the 2014 men’s World Cup, including holding the final in Rio de Janeiro on July 25th. The CBF's proposal outlines that the 2027 tournament run from June 24th through the end of July. Last summer’s World Cup began at the end of July and concluded on August 19th.

Another notable element of Brazil's newly unveiled plan to grow of the women’s game is that "all [men’s] clubs wishing to take part in high-level national and continental competitions must now provide a structure for a women’s team." While the definition of "structure" was not specifically identified, the country has set targets with CONMEBOL to help increase the number of women’s club teams in the country.

In last week's inspection findings, FIFA noted that selecting Brazil as the next WWC host could "have a tremendous impact on women's football in the region."

Chelsea Eyes Weekend Finale With WSL Title in Sight

chelsea players celebrate win against tottenham in the wsl
Chelsea beat Tottenham on Wednesday, moving to the top of the table in an effort to win departing coach Emma Hayes some silverware. (John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Chelsea did what they needed to do on Wednesday in order to make Saturday's slate of season-ending WSL fixtures interesting: Beat Tottenham.

The Blues are now number one in the league, with an edge over Manchester City on goal differential thanks to an eight-goal outing against Bristol City last week. 

Yesterday's result tees up a league finale for the books as Chelsea looks to send coach Emma Hayes off with another trophy to add to her cabinet. The Blues will play FA Cup winner Manchester City at Old Trafford on Saturday, while City is away at Aston Villa.

"We will be leaving nothing on the pitch, we will be giving everything and no matter what the result is," Chelsea midfielder Erin Cuthbert said after Wednesday's win. "At least we can look each other in the eye and say we gave everything."

It makes for a thrilling end to Chelsea's Emma Hayes era, as the decorated WSL coach will take over the USWNT in June. And it comes after Hayes all but conceded the title race early this month after Chelsea fell to Liverpool 4-3.

"I think the title is done," Hayes said at the time. "Of course, mathematically, it's not, but I think the title is done. Our job between now and the end of the season is to keep pushing until the end, but I think it will be very difficult.

"We will never give up. But the title is far from us; it's not in our hands. I think City are deserving, their consistency has put them in that position. Of course, we will go to the end, but I don't think the title will be going to us this year."

Be it mind games or Hayes truly thinking her team was that far off, her words lit something in Chelsea. Their following two performances showed the team’s determination to have a shot at some silverware.

As for Saturday's schedule, Hayes believes her team is facing the "tougher of the two games."

"It's a fitting finale for me, being my final game," she told BBC Sport. "As I said to the players if someone gives you a second chance in life, make sure you don't need a third one. We're in the position we want to be in, and we'll give it everything on Saturday no matter what."

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