Christen Press believes that the NWSL is one of the most entertaining leagues in the world.

On the latest episode of The RE-CAP Show, Press discusses the action in the NWSL Championship with co-host Tobin Heath. Gotham FC held off OL Reign 2-1 on Nov. 11 to win their first championship and send Ali Krieger off into retirement on a high note.

“I asked for this match to showcase the NWSL at its best,” said Press, a two-time World Cup champion with the U.S. women’s national team. “And say what you will about the NWSL, the style of play, transition, yada yada — I think it’s the most entertaining league in the world.

“It’s open, it’s energetic, and there’s tons of goals, and I think we got the NWSL at its best during this final match.”

This comes as debate has gone on about which is better: European leagues or the NWSL. Gotham FC forward and World Cup champion Esther González of Spain praised the NWSL for its level of play.

“One of the biggest differences with the Spanish League, which is a great league, is that here all the games, absolutely all of them, are like a Champions League game, at the highest level,” she said after the championship game. “In Spain, there are some games that you can win four or five to zero, that your physical wear and tear is normal, that you have everything under control.

“Here, every game is like playing against Barça, which is the best team in the Spanish League: Your level has to be the maximum, your physical demand is the maximum, and that happens weekend after weekend.”

But others, like USWNT star Lindsey Horan, have opted for Europe and the Champions League. USWNT teammates Mia Fishel and Catarina Macario are also overseas, playing for Chelsea, whose coach Emma Hayes was just announced as the next manager of the USWNT.

And Horan would like to see more USWNT players head overseas to get acquainted with different styles of play.

“I’ve heard of [American] players wanting to [move to Europe],” Horan told Pro Soccer Wire. “Obviously, it’s comfortable in the NWSL and I won’t take anything away from the league, but for me, [playing abroad] has always been a growing point in my career. When I went to PSG, it was massive for me and then coming back to Lyon was even a bigger jump. I get to play with some of the best international players in the world.”

“It’s not a knock on the NWSL, but you’re just not going and playing in the Champions League,” she continued. “That’s something that I missed out on when I was at Portland because it’s just insane.”

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?

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Lynn Williams scored a goal in the final after Gotham traded for her in the offseason. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

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.

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.

Esther González always dreamt of playing in the United States. Now, she’s not only made that dream come true, but she’s also a NWSL champion.

González signed with Gotham FC after winning the 2023 World Cup with Spain. And since then, the 30-year-old forward has helped the team to its first NWSL championship, scoring the title-winning goal on a header in Saturday’s final.

She predicted the goal to Spanish outlet AS ahead of the championship game.

“Yes always,” she said in Spanish when asked if she saw herself scoring in the final. “In my head, I only want to score goals, whatever the match, in training. Of course I see myself scoring in the final. I know I’m going to have a chance, I just have to make it.”

González has settled in well to the NWSL, becoming just the second player since 2015 to score a brace in one of her first two league appearances.

She also knows that she is in a league “where I can bring out my maximum potential,” and following the game she told Marta Griñan of AS that the level of competition in the NWSL is much higher than in La Liga.

“One of the biggest differences with the Spanish league, which is a great league, is that here (in the NWSL) all the games, absolutely all of them, are like a Champions League game at the highest level,” she said. “In Spain, there are some games that you can win four or five to zero, that your physical wear and tear is normal, that you have everything under control.

“Here every game is like playing against Barça, which is the best team in the Spanish League: Your level has to be the maximum, your physical demand is the maximum, and that happens weekend after weekend.”

Gotham FC’s Midge Purce juked one OL Reign defender by the sideline and another by the goal box. She charged into the box with the ball on her foot and with her team outnumbered by the cage.

As Purce looked up to pass, Lynn Williams sprinted into the box just in front of the net. Williams tapped the ball from Purce into the net to open the scoring in the NWSL Championship, becoming the second player in NWSL history to contribute a goal in three different championship matches.

The early scoring didn’t stop there, as Gotham carried a 2-1 lead over OL Reign into halftime at Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego. And despite a frantic end to the match, that would stand as the final score, giving the Gotham its first title in franchise history.

Four minutes after Williams’ opening tally, OL Reign midfielder Rose Lavelle broke through a line of white-clad defenders and booted a breakaway goal for the equalizer.

Purce, though, did not let her team go to the locker room tied. In the second minute of first-half stoppage time, the Gotham FC forward loosed a corner kick high into the goal box. The ball curved toward the front of the net in the air and Esther González jumped to meet it. The 2023 World Cup winner headed the ball into the netting to give New York the advantage at the half.

World Cup stars came up big for their respective squads in the NWSL Championship — at least one national team player cashed in on each goal, with Williams and Lavelle from the U.S. women’s national team and González from Spain.

And while Purce missed out on the World Cup with a quad tear, the USWNT forward put her name in the NWSL history books with her two first-half assists. She is just the second player to record multiple assists in an NWSL final, joining Lauren Holiday, who did so for 2014 champion FC Kansas City. She won the NWSL Championship MVP award for her performance.

The buzz leading into the game centered around the retiring stars, Megan Rapinoe for OL Reign and Ali Krieger for Gotham FC, but the next wave of international stars stepped into the spotlight during the NWSL Championship.

Gotham FC could go from worst to first in the NWSL, an astonishing transformation witnessed firsthand by Ifeoma Onumonu.

The 29-year-old forward joined Gotham FC in 2020, and she has played for four different head coaches in her time with the club. Freya Coombe left for Angel City in 2021, then Scott Parkinson was fired following a 4-0-8 (W-D-L) start to the 2022 season. Hue Menzies took over as interim head coach through the end of that season, and Juan Carlos Amorós took the reigns ahead of the 2023.

Under Amorós, the club has gone from a league-worst 4-1-17 record last season to 8-6-6 season. With 30 points, Gotham FC is in third place with two matches left to play, and a chance to surpass the San Diego Wave and Portland Thorns for the NWSL Shield.

“I feel like I’m on a different team every year because every year I’ve been here, it’s been a different coach,” Onumonu said on the latest episode of Just Women’s Sports‘ “Snacks” podcast. “And I think that has been sort of the key is the coaching and the staff in general. I think this is the most staff we’ve ever had. I think obviously the players that we’ve brought in this year is a change too. But I think in culmination with all those things, that’s what’s led to the season that we’ve had as compared to last year.”

From Onumonu’s perspective, 2022 was “just a mess” and was “really hard.” She doesn’t feel like the team was set up for success.

This season, though, the team entered with a clear plan and expectations.

“There’s not this mentality, that underdog mentality, because Gotham/Sky Blue has always been that team that it’s like, ‘Ooh, at the bottom of the table.’ It’s not a secret,” she said. “Like, even before I got here, it was like, very much up and down, up and down, mostly down. … I think the club has grown so much. I think that’s part of the reason why we are where we are now.”

“Snacks” co-host Lynn Williams served as a key offseason addition, and the midseason signing of World Cup champion Esther González provided an additional boost. And the buy-in from all the players is something Williams has noticed in her first year with the club.

“It just seemed like everybody who was here last year said, ‘No, we’re just gonna buy into this, and we want to do better,’” she said. “Because you have not had the success you wanted in prior years. So I don’t know, I just like being on this team.”

Esther González knows how to put on a show.

In her home debut for Gotham FC, Gonzalez, captain of the Spain national team, scored two goals in the team’s 2-0 win over the Washington Spirit on Saturday.

“I’ve spent a lot of time imagining this moment — getting here, getting to know the city, getting to know my new teammates,” González told the Philadelphia Inquirer earlier in the week. “In Spain, there’s a different playing style that I’m used to, and I’m here to show a new version of myself, get something extra to my game.

“If you’re in a new place with good feelings, everything is easier. I’ve chosen wisely, and this is the place where I can be the best I can.”

Those words proved to be prescient. González’s first goal came in the 65th minute, when she scored with her right foot from the center of the box on a run. But she was not done.

Five minutes later she scored again, this time with her left foot, on an assist from Lynn Williams. She celebrated with her teammates, a wide smile on her face, as the home fans celebrated.

Gonzalez officially debuted for the team on the road, against North Carolina on Sept. 2. She arrived in the NWSL on the heels of Spain’s victory in the World Cup, which has been overshadowed by the controversy surrounding Luis Rubiales, former president of the Spanish Soccer Federation. Rubiales resigned last week stemming from outcry surrounding his unsolicited kiss of star Jenni Hermoso during the medal ceremony.

A champion has arrived at Gotham FC.

On Thursday night, Gotham formally introduced Esther González, captain of the World Cup-winning Spain national team, as its newest addition at a Manhattan restaurant.

After a decorated career that has included stops at Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid, González’s arrival in the NWSL will represent a unique challenge.

“There are some leagues and some countries where I think players have been somewhat reluctant to come to this league,” Gotham general manager Yael Averbuch West told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “From the very beginning, we realized Esther has the personality necessary to come here and succeed. She’s up for an adventure and really intense in a way that — you can just tell when you talk to someone if they’re going to be up for this.”

González joins a Gotham (7-5-6, 27 points) team clinging to one of six playoff spots. The striker actually played her first game for the club Sept. 2 at North Carolina, but her first home game will be Saturday against the Washington Spirit.

Her arrival marks just the second time in NWSL history a reigning World Cup champion from a country other than the United States has joined a team. Spain’s victory has been overshadowed by scandal; Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish Soccer Federation, resigned last week after uproar stemming from his unsolicited kiss of Jenni Hermoso during the team’s medal celebration.

González will look to add to her legacy in New York, after scoring 30 goals in 54 games for Real.

“The U.S. is a powerhouse, especially the national team, and as a team they were always the best and a reference for all of us, including me,” she said. “Now having the chance to play in this league, face those players that I’ve idolized — I never thought I’d make it.”

World Cup champion and Spanish national teamer Esther González made her NWSL debut on Saturday with Gotham FC, just a few days after she joined the team from the World Cup final.

Gotham played to a 3-3 draw with the North Carolina Courage in her debut, where she was subbed on in the 65th minute. She made an immediate impact, with Gotham scoring two of its goals after she came on. She even had a chance of her own that hit the post but didn’t go in.

“She’s a winner,” head coach Juan Carlos Amoros said. “I think she showed already what she can bring. She isn’t just a finisher in the box — she took her chances really well — but she holds up play, she reads the game, she understands the pressure. She’s a winner, she’s confident.”

At times when the game was particularly hectic, Amoros says that González was instrumental in holding up play and remaining composed. Already, he says, she trusts her teammates — one of the big reasons why she was subbed on.

And when North Carolina scored to go up 3-1, Amoros says “she really helped the team going forward.”

“[We’re] very happy now to have her on the team to help her teammates. She’s been fantastic around the changing room,” he continued. He also noted that when González was on the pitch alongside Midge Purce and Lynn Williams “it was frightening” but also “exciting to watch.”

While González didn’t play much the last two weeks following the World Cup, she still came in ready to go.

“She’s the ultimate level of professionalism,” Amoros said, noting that González has been “really good at training.” “I had zero doubt that she was going to come in the best shape possible. She takes care of every detail as you need to do, and I knew she was going to come in good shape.

“I’m very excited for what she can bring to the team in the near future, in the next few games, but also for the future of who Gotham wants to be. This is the caliber of player that we want to bring from abroad.”