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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.