A red card on goalkeeper Mandy Haught in stoppage time nearly spelled disaster, but the Gotham FC held on for a 2-1 win over OL Reign in the NWSL Championship.

Haught reached an arm outside the box to bat the ball away, which earned her a handball violation and an ejection for denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity after the first VAR review in NWSL Championship history. With Gotham out of substitutions, defender Nealy Martin took her place in net, donning an oversized goalkeeper jersey.

The ensuing free kick from Reign midfielder Rose Lavelle bounced off the wall of players between her and the net. The final whistle blew moments later, sealing victory for Gotham.

The action-packed match included goals from Lynn Williams and Esther González for Gotham, both off assists from Championship MVP Midge Purce. Lavelle scored the lone goal for the Reign, who played most of the match without retiring star Megan Rapinoe after she exited with a suspected Achilles injury in the sixth minute.

Just Women’s Sports writer Claire Watkins broke down the action in San Diego.

Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger are set to hang up their cleats at the end of the 2023 NWSL season. But both will have to wait just a little bit longer, as their teams combined to script a storybook ending for the retiring stars.

With victories in Sunday’s semifinals, OL Reign and Gotham FC set up an NWSL Championship meeting between Rapinoe and Krieger as a fitting finale to their illustrious careers. One of the U.S. women’s national team legends is guaranteed to take home the title.

Both Rapinoe and Krieger are two-time World Cup champions, having been teammates on the 2015 and 2019 USWNT squads. Rapinoe, 38, made her final appearance for the national team in September, while Krieger, 39, played her last match with the team in 2021, but they have kept their stories going in the NWSL.

Yet in the waning weeks of the season, they seemed destined for quiet ends. OL Reign and Gotham FC were in danger of missing the playoffs entirely. And even after both teams narrowly clinched postseason berths, history stood against them: The Reign had not won a playoff game since 2015, and Gotham had never won a playoff game in franchise history.

Rapinoe’s and Krieger’s teammates, though, rallied around them. And with the Reign’s 1-0 win over the No. 1 seed San Diego Wave and Gotham’s 1-0 win over the No. 2 seed Portland Thorns, the dueling Cinderella stories reached the league final.

“The fairytale is Pinoe and Kriegs,” OL Reign head coach Laura Harvey said. “It’s a great story.”

USWNT and OL Reign midfielder Rose Lavelle concurred, noting: “It seems a bit poetic that the championship game is ending with Krieger and Pinoe’s last game.”

For the Reign, to cap Rapinoe’s career with her first NWSL title is the goal. For Gotham, to win a first title for Krieger has become a literal rallying cry.

“We all just feel this need to keep Ali Krieger in the game and to keep playing,” Gotham goalkeeper Mandy Haught said. “And it’s just the amazing camaraderie in this group that just like, we’re going to do this for us and we’re gonna do this for Kriegs. We’re not done yet. We’re going to go all the way.”

Portland Thorns star Sophia Smith fought off two Gotham FC defenders and charged down the rain-soaked field toward opposing goalkeeper Mandy Haught. With the scoreless match on her foot, Smith sprinted closer and closer to Haught. But Haught reached her first.

The Gotham netminder threw herself at Smith’s feet and robbed the MVP candidate of the ball, killing the Thorns’ best scoring chance of the game and helping to secure her team’s 1-0 victory over the No. 2 seed Thorns in extra time at Portland’s Providence Park.

“I saw Crystal, I saw Soph, and I was like, ‘OK, let’s make something happen,’” Haught said. “On the pass, I was just ready, I was balanced to go forward. … I wanted to command my box and come out there strong, and that’s exactly what I did.”

With the win, Haught and No. 6 seed Gotham advance to the NWSL Championship at 8 p.m. ET Saturday, Nov. 11, at San Diego’s Snapdragon Stadium. The 2023 final will be the first in franchise history for the New Jersey-based club, which won its first playoff match in the first round over the North Carolina Courage.

Portland spent the majority of the first half on the defensive, with Gotham maintaining possession almost 70% of the time. The Thorns were able to even out the possession through the rest of the match. But, after not playing together for three weeks due to their first-round bye and then the international break, Portland was unable to stall New York’s momentum.

Gotham’s stifling defense limited scoring chances for the Thorns, holding them to three shots on target and six scoring chances total. Each time Portland got the ball into New York’s third, Gotham had an answer.

“We did such an amazing job at regaining the ball in the middle, we doubled down and we had back pressure,” Haught said. “And that was just incredible fight from everyone on the team to press from behind and from the front. And that is really how we were able to stop a lot of their transitions and attacks.”

Haught’s stop of Smith in the 79th minute helped to force extra time.

And in the 107th minute, Katie Stengel netted the game-winning goal for Gotham — a boot through traffic into the top left corner of the cage. But it was Gotham’s scrappy defense that put the reigning NWSL champions away and extended captain Ali Kreiger’s career.

“It literally has taken everyone this year to get to where we are,” Haught said. “It’s just the amazing camaraderie in this group that’s just like, ‘We’re going to do this for us, we’re going to do this for Kriegs, we’re not done yet and we’re going to go all the way.”