The NWSL Season has had an exciting run, with only six points separating the first-place and sixth-place teams in the regular season standings. It was fitting the playoffs followed suit with the excitement as NJ/NY Gotham FC ended the postseason with a stunning 2-1 victory against OL Reign to lift the NWSL Championship Trophy for the first time.
Going into this match, there were many narratives that defined the importance of this final. Both teams both had a star player that wanted to end their career with one last trophy. In the case of Gotham, it was U.S. national Ali Krieger, and for OL Reign, it was another U.S. national, Megan Rapinoe. Both players have achieved much in their careers, both winning the 2015 and 2019 World Cup. However, one trophy missing in their respective collections of awards was the NWSL Playoffs.
The history of both teams also had much to fuel the importance of this match. After their relocation in 2019, Seattle Reign FC changed to OL Reign. Alongside the change in venue and managerial structure, the team entered a new era. But more change came with Gotham. Originally known as Sky Blue FC, the team completely rebranded itself in hopes of expanding its fan base to New York, not just New Jersey, as was the case for the previous version of the program. While OL Reign has had much success, earning multiple first-place finishes in the regular season in the past, Gotham has not been so fortunate. Last season, they finished last, which caused the firing of their head coach and the subsequent hiring of Juan Carlos Amorós. Soon after, the team’s fate changed.
The match officially kicked off with a crowd of over 25,000 set to watch a historic final. Drama struck, however, when Rapinoe suffered an injury that resulted in her having to exit the match in the sixth minute. This was a major blow to not just Rapinoe but to the Reign team, as they lost a key figure from their starting lineup. The Hollywood ending for Rapinoe was already in jeopardy. Trouble continued for the Reign side as Gotham constantly tested their defense through attempted shots. All of Gotham’s efforts soon saw results when Midge Purce dribbled the ball past OL’s defense. After passing the ball to Lynn Williams, Williams took advantage of being left unmarked and put the Gotham side in the lead. The lead was short-lived, when a play was set up that left Rose Lavelle and Gotham goalkeeper Mandy Haught in a one-on-one duel. But it was no trouble for Lavelle, as her left-footed kick equalized the game in the 29th minute. After an exchange of shots from both sides, Gotham was able to break the stalemate through a stoppage time header from Esther González.
The second half was do-or-die for the Reign. Their attacks in the opening minutes put Gotham’s defense on alert. The 50th minute saw a shot by Reign’s Bethany Balcer, but it was too wide. Later on in the half, another close call by Gotham came with a shot by Veronica Latsko, but Haught blocked it. Reign was desperate for an equalizer, but their chances at one started slipping away with Gotham taking control of the game. With the contest in stoppage time, drama ensued when Haught grabbed the ball outside the penalty area, resulting in her being sent off from the match. That left OL Reign with one final opportunity to equalize through a free kick. Lavelle stepped up, with hopes to tie it and send the game to extra time. However, the Gotham defense deflected the ball and ensured their victory as the 2023 Champions of the NWSL Playoffs.
Gotham entered this tournament as the lowest-seeded team. With a late-season push, they narrowly made the playoffs. However, this was a team that always fought and had real hope they could win it all, evidently with good reason. The team’s new head coach was able to produce great improvement since the last season. Gotham also saw the signing of Spain International and 2023 World Cup winner Esther González. No matter the circumstances, the team always believed in itself and relied on each other to accomplish the improbable, and that was enough to win it all.
While Rapinoe did not end her professional career with one last trophy, there is no question of how accomplished she is, along with the impact she has left behind for girls around the world who seek to play soccer. Rapinoe ends her run with multiple Olympic Gold Medals, World Cup trophies, many awards and honors with her clubs, Ballon d’Or and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Gotham celebrates their win, rightfully so. However, another winner from this game is the fight for equal rights for the sport. This season saw attendance records being broken multiple times, which resulted in NWSL seeking to expand to new markets around the country. With the Women’s World Cup potentially coming to the States in 2027, this truly is just the start of the rise for women in soccer.