Preview the 2023 NWSL Championship by tuning into the Just Women’s Sports Super Show Presented by State Farm, featuring surprise guest appearances by NWSL stars. Watch here.

As Gotham FC prepares to play in their first NWSL championship game, they represent not only a turnaround from a last-place finish in 2022 but also from a struggle that’s spanned nearly a decade. Once Sky Blue FC, a club known for negative headlines more than positive ones, Gotham of 2023 is more of a phoenix rising from the ashes than a Cinderella story.

The club’s journey toward the top of the league has had its fair share of twists and turns, which makes it the only fitting ending for captain Ali Krieger, who is set to retire after this season alongside OL Reign star and championship opponent Megan Rapinoe.

Krieger has been playing professional soccer since before the NWSL’s inception, traveling across the globe in pursuit of opportunities while never losing sight of home. In many ways, she was a trendsetter, following a path that resembles more what a modern women’s professional soccer player might take before the world was quite ready for that reality.

During her college career at Penn State, she spent time training and playing with the W-league version of her home team, the Washington Freedom. After graduation, she made the leap to Europe and played for FC Frankfurt for a number of years, even after WPS was established.

In those early years of the fledgling business of women’s soccer, Krieger was known to be playing either an ocean away or right at home. She won the original UEFA Champions League (known at the time as the UEFA Women’s Cup) with Frankfurt, before returning to play with the Freedom in WPS. Kreiger played almost year-round at the time, going back to Europe at the end of the WPS season (and eventually the end of the league itself) to continue to compete.

So when the NWSL launched in 2013, it was only natural that Krieger became one of the inaugural U.S. women’s national team allocated players for the team in her home city: the Washington Spirit. Krieger became synonymous with the early era of the Spirit, playing a pivotal role that led to consistent time with the USWNT defense and eventually two World Cup wins.

At the league level, Krieger’s highest-profile moment with the Spirit came in defeat. In 2016, Washington reached the NWSL Championship for the first time after a semifinal win over the Chicago Red Stars. In the final, the Spirit were seconds away from the club’s first title before a miracle equalizer from Lynn Williams, Krieger’s current club teammate, sent the game to penalties. Krieger, known for her poise on the ball, missed her penalty kick and the Western New York Flash claimed the trophy.

Krieger spent the early years of her pro career bouncing between Washington and foreign clubs, including the Spirit. (Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Despite a history of NWSL heartbreak, it’s a testament to Krieger’s longevity and her ability to connect with those around her that she’s played with fellow titans of the game throughout her career. She was a part of the famed 2013 Tyresö FF roster in Sweden that included Christen Press, Meghan Klingenberg, Whitney Engen and Ashlyn Harris. The 2016 Spirit team that fell just short of a title featured both Gotham’s semifinal opponent, Crystal Dunn, and their eventual goal-scoring hero, Katie Stengel.

Krieger had an outsized impression on Dunn in particular, even before the two became club teammates.

“In my first (USWNT) camp, we had to run the beep test,” Dunn told Just Women’s Sports in 2021. “And I was like, ‘Great, I’m about to get cut before I even kick a soccer ball.’ And (Krieger) ran the beep test right next to me and was cheering me on, encouraging me to do one more sprint, make it to one more round.

“I was like, ‘You don’t even know me, and you’re literally so sweet and so nice.’”

Krieger’s steady performances as an outside back made her a valuable asset when the NWSL expanded to Orlando in 2016 and she moved into a new unknown with the Pride. Once again, she found herself surrounded by legendary talent like Harris, Alex Morgan, Marta, Steph Catley and Alanna Kennedy. For a time, the top-heavy roster-building strategy worked, with the team making it to the NWSL playoffs in 2017 before falling to eventual champions Portland Thorns.

But after the promise of those early years, the Orlando project never really got off the ground. The Pride finished seventh in 2018 and ninth out of nine teams in 2019. Their struggles nearly cost Krieger a roster spot for the 2019 World Cup. Former USWNT manager Jill Ellis kept her at arm’s length for two years before bringing her back into the team right before the World Cup roster was named. After the team’s iconic win at the tournament, Krieger’s time with the U.S. faded, and she earned her final national team cap in early 2021.

After 2020, Krieger’s next evolution began. She started spending more time as a center-back, which came with growing pains but also likely elongated the 39-year-old’s career. The position change allowed her to use her experience in reading the game over getting into a footrace with speedy, young attackers.

Krieger has also been very open about using the time after her national team career to start a family, a decision that ultimately led her to Gotham in 2022. With the Spirit, Krieger faced what she described as homophobia from Washington team leadership. In Orlando, she ultimately felt that Florida state leadership wasn’t creating an environment that was safe for her two adopted children. So, her family opted to make one final journey.

Her ties aren’t as strong to the New Jersey area, but Krieger immediately ingratiated herself with a group that is now determined to win her a long sought-after NWSL Championship. Her bend-but-don’t-break style of defense has become the ethos the entire team has embodied under first-year coach Juan Carlos Amorós. Gotham’s commitment to doing whatever it takes to keep the ball out of the back of their own net is hard-earned, after the club conceded the most goals in the league in 2022.

Krieger will be playing for her first NWSL Championship with Gotham on Saturday. (Ira L. Black/Getty Images)

With the wisdom of a player used to many different locker room environments, in 2023 Krieger has not missed a beat with new center-back partner Maitane López, nor with two young outside-backs in rookie Jenna Nighswonger and 21-year-old Bruninha. In the past, Krieger’s sense of calm hasn’t always been enough to carry a defense, but the 2023 Gotham backline is locked in with support in front of them. All together, it’s led to some of the best performances in Krieger’s career.

Saturday’s championship game in San Diego will be the last stop on Krieger’s world soccer tour. It seems fitting that she will have the opportunity to dictate her goodbye, as one of the game’s true warriors finally walks into the sunset.

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

Preview the 2023 NWSL Championship by tuning into the Just Women’s Sports Super Show Presented by State Farm, featuring surprise guest appearances by NWSL stars. Watch here.

When OL Reign contend for their first-ever NWSL championship on Saturday, they’ll be looking to close out an iconic era of the team’s existence on top.

As one of the NWSL’s founding clubs in 2013, the Reign have always been an outward example of stability. They’ve won three NWSL Shields, reached the championship game three times and made the playoffs six times. They’ve been coached by some of the most well-known names in the women’s game, including former USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski and current coach Laura Harvey. They’ve produced World Cup winners, attracted some of the best European talent available and become a home for a number of women’s soccer legends.

Going into Saturday’s matchup against Gotham FC, the Reign are lucky enough to have their entire ethos personified in one figure: Megan Rapinoe.

Rapinoe has played for the Reign since the team’s founding, first as a U.S. allocated player and then as a fully contracted player. She’s seen the team grow from humble beginnings, face multiple leadership changes, falter at times and win many games.

But she and the Reign have never won the NWSL Championship, and she’ll have one last chance to chase the trophy that has eluded her in her final professional game. She’s joined by fellow original Reign players Jess Fishlock and Lauren Barnes (both of whom are contracted to return in 2024) and Harvey, the team’s original manager. That Rapinoe, Fishlock and Barnes are all likely to start in the game is a testament to their competitive longevity and the team’s unfailing trust in their leaders.

Rapinoe is known worldwide for her international heroics, of which there are almost too many to mention.

There’s the famous cross to Abby Wambach in the semifinals of the 2011 World Cup, her Olimpico in the 2012 Olympic semifinal, her Golden Boot-winning World Cup campaign in 2019 and other small achievements that surround the iconic wins. Rapinoe became a lightning rod of attention, synonymous with the team’s successes, failures and off-field legacy. Her illustrious career with the USWNT ended with a sendoff game in September, following a muted final year for one of the most impactful players to ever grace the four-time World Cup champions’ roster.

But if Megan Rapinoe, international superstar, casts a larger-than-life figure over the game of women’s soccer, Rapinoe, Seattle Reign original, is a player firmly down to Earth.

The early days of the NWSL necessitated humility, as salaries and facilities in 2013 were a far cry from the consistent high-level support seen now. Rapinoe, alongside Harvey, Fishlock and Barnes, was known as a part of a Reign group that turned Memorial Stadium — the old, declining high school football venue — into a fortress, losing very few games at home during the team’s dominant run in 2014 and 2015.

And while the Reign changed over the years, in many ways for the better, Rapinoe remained. When Seattle Reign turned into Reign FC in 2019 and began playing games on a converted baseball field in the city of Tacoma, there was Rapinoe taking corner kicks near the outfield dirt. And when OL Reign made their triumphant return to the city of Seattle proper under the ownership of OL Groupe, playing under the bright lights of Lumen Field, Rapinoe was there. At that point, she could finally begin to collect her flowers from a fanbase that was at times disconnected from the team through their many moves.

“You cannot have this conversation without talking about Lu and Fish and Pinoe, and the players, the Steph Coxs, the Elli Reeds, and Keelin [Winters]. Like the backbone of who these people were that this club was built on, is also what makes it special,” OL Reign general manager Lesle Gallimore told Just Women’s Sports in June.

As the USWNT developed their run of international dominance in the late 2010s, with Rapinoe winning the Ballon d’Or in 2019, fans could make the trek to Reign games to see her up close in person. Her energy as a creative trickster with a rocket for a foot translated beautifully to the club game. She was known for taking quick throw-ins to gain an advantage, using her positioning to win fouls and turning every corner kick into a threat for the opposition. She reveled in the Reign’s fierce rivalry with the Portland Thorns and played every match with an authority and passion that earned the love and ire alike of NWSL fans.

Rapinoe bid her final farewell to Reign fans this season in front of an NWSL-record crowd. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The Megan Rapinoe of 2023 isn’t quite the firecracker that could take over a match in her heyday, but that player still comes out in flashes. After the team’s final regular season match against Chicago, she joked with Red Stars interim manager Ella Masar that she was ready to retire at halftime after a slow first half. Then she rattled off two quick goals right after the second-half whistle to seal the win and launch the Reign into fourth place. On one goal, she found an angle from the left wing that Harvey noted many players wouldn’t even try.

“She’s a joke,” Harvey said after that game. “Big players come up big in big moments, and she’s done it all of her career.”

Rapinoe also brought her off-field advocacy to the NWSL with the same authority. She supported good friend Ali Krieger (who will also play her last game Saturday with Gotham) when she and her family left the Washington Spirit after experiencing homophobia from the club, Krieger acknowledged years later. The first time Rapinoe knelt for the national anthem, an act she will likely always be remembered for, she wasn’t wearing a U.S. jersey; instead, she did so in front of a few thousand fans in Chicago before a Reign game.

Rapinoe will also be remembered as one of the players who won equal pay for the USWNT, but her track record of pushing for progress in the NWSL will leave a lasting legacy on the women’s game at home.

“I think I would always say the three amigos have been huge in creating that culture, and living that culture, and holding whoever sits in [leadership] seats accountable for that culture, to make sure that this place continues to be somewhere where people want to play,” Harvey said in June.

Lauren Barnes, Jess Fishlock and Rapinoe (L-R) have been with the Reign since the NWSL's inception in 2013. (Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Harvey’s impression of the “three amigos” — Rapinoe, Fishlock and Barnes — is that they have held onto their roster spots not just for personal reasons, but also to make sure the club is ready for what comes after they leave. As 2023 comes to a close, the Reign are again for sale, moving on from their time under OL Groupe’s stewardship. Harvey is likely staying for the long term, after reportedly missing out on the USWNT head coaching position for the second straight cycle.

Despite some uncertainty around what the future holds, the Reign as they have been known aren’t going anywhere.

For Rapinoe, Saturday’s game serves as the last chapter of a one-of-a-kind career, with a title on the line. The legend didn’t get her perfect ending with the USWNT, but perhaps she was always meant to turn her final shining moment into one last opportunity for eyes to turn to Seattle.

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