Gotham quietly hitting stride – Equalizer Soccer

    Photo Copyright Jonathan Jones for USA TODAY Sports

    The National Women’s Soccer League champions are on the move. Despite a miracle run to the title last fall, NJ/NY Gotham FC decided to retool ahead of the 2024 National Women’s Soccer League season. They attacked the free agent market with ferocity and landed Tierna Davidson, Crystal Dunn, and Rose Lavelle. The early returns were not great. After being shut out in the Challenge Cup, the New Jersey side opened with eight straight regular season matches scoring zero or one goal. Only a stingy defense held their record at 3-2-3.

    Saturday afternoon, in front of the second-largest crowd in club history, Gotham made it three straight games with multiple goals in a 2-1 victory over Angel City FC. They have won all three games—only the fourth time in NWSL they have won as many as three straight—and the focus can now shift to the fact that only one time this season has Gotham conceded two goals. That was a 2-0 loss in Washington on April 20. They are unbeaten in seven games since.

    “I think that the success comes down to the work the players are doing, and the staff trying to prepare them from the first day of preseason,” head coach Juan Carlos Amoros told reporters following Saturday’s win.

    Perhaps more important than the number of goals is where the goals have come from. Ella Stevens, another offseason acquisition meant to add supplementary scoring, found the back of the net four times in the three games prior to Angel City. On Saturday, Dunn scored her first with the club and Lavelle added her 2nd. Dunn, a former league MVP, has not earned a regular starting role and her form has been up and down in 2024.

    “It’s such a collective effort,” Dunn said, downplaying her individual accomplishment. “I’m obviously always happy to score goals but I know it comes from earlier plays that allow me to be in the best position to be successful.”

    Dunn specifically picked out Yazmeen Ryan who found her open on the right side after the play had facilitated on the left. “I think for her to have that vision, to be able to see me, and for me to settle the ball and just take a shot, I think it’s almost “Soccer 101.”

    Amoros acknowledged that the results were not there early in the season but heaped praise on his team for its work ethic and the players’ commitment to tactics.

    “I think everyone that comes to the games can see how the team plays,” the 2023 NWSL Coach of the Year said. “The players go from the first minute to the last, giving it all. They are super disciplined tactically. I think that everyone can feel the freedom that they have on the ball.”

    Mandy Freeman, the club’s longest continuously tenured player, said there is no doubt the team is ready for another run at a title.

    “One of the best things about this club is that we’re always striving for more and better,” Freeman said. “Even though we reached the pinnacle of what a lot of people think is success, we still wanna be able to repeat that. For us, success is being able to show up every game and perform so it’s not just a one-off. We wanna show up and compete and hopefully win every game. We wanna keep that momentum going and keep building. It’s a long season and we just want to keep this momentum going throughout the season because the most important games are gonna come towards the end of the season.”

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    The Wrigley spectacle

    As it was a busy weekend, squeezing soccer around some (rare) social plans, I am deputizing this section to my colleague Kathleen Gier.

    The Chicago Red Stars welcomed a record crowd of 35,038 to Wrigley Field for one of the most unique matches we’ve seen in NWSL history. Of course, other teams have played at baseball stadiums, but nothing as grand as this historic ballpark which usually hosts Mallory Swanson’s husband Dansby and the Chicago Cubs.

    Fittingly, for the league’s first match at an MLB stadium, another history-maker in All-American Girls Professional Baseball League player Maybelle Blair was on hand to bring out the match ball. According to the PA announcer, AAGPBL was the last professional women’s league to play at Wrigley Field.

    “The number speaks for itself,” Chicago defender Hannah Anderson told reporters after the match. “Having that opportunity to say that we’re part of history I think is something that we all need to acknowledge and be proud of.”

    Though the Red Stars ultimately fell to Bay FC 2-1, they were treated to a beautiful green pitch, updated messaging on the manual scoreboard with NWSL standings and a specialty crest wrapped in ivy to commemorate the occasion.

    Around the league

    Louisville 2, Dash 0

    The first half felt like no one told either team the FIFA window had ended, but in the second Louisville scored twice to snag consecutive wins for the first time in over a year. First Savannah DeMelo pounced on a rebound following a Jane Campbell save. On the second, Parker Goins sneaked far post and was right in Campbell’s personal space when she headed in DeMelo’s perfect cross. Katie Lund made 3 saves for her second consecutive shutout and 4th of the season. The Dash have scored 11 goals in 12 matches and 27 goals in 34 matches since the start of 2023.

    Wave 1, Pride 1

    The Pride’s NWSL-record winning streak ended at 8 but the unbeaten run continued with a road draw against the struggling Wave. Barbara Banda assisted on a first-half goal to Julie Doyle and Makenzy Doniak authored a second-half equalizer for the Wave. At 8-0-4 the Pride matched the 2nd-longest unbeaten streak to open an NWSL season. The record is 16 by the 2024 Seattle Reign.

    “Overall I think it’s a good away point,” Pride coach Seb Hines said postgame. “You look at the personnel they have on the field, internationals all over, but I think we stood up to the challenge really well.”

    Ironically, the Pride had won in both previous trips to San Diego. The Wave remain in 9th in what has been an inauspicious encore to their 2023 Shield.

    Gotham 2, Angel City 1

    Gotham’s goals are mentioned above. Angel City got back in the match on a fluke goal early in the 2nd half. Claire Emslie put a cross aimed for Sydney Leroux in the box. Gotham keeper Ann-Katrin Berger shifted her position in anticipation of a Leroux header, but she missed it and the ball ended up inside the far post where Berger had vacated. It was a rare awkward moment for the German keeper who tied Kailen Sheridan’s club record with her seventh consecutive decision without a loss. That covers Berger’s entire Gotham career. She was named May’s goalkeeper on the league’s Team of the Month.

    Red Stars 1, Bay 2

    Lost in the hubbub over the event, Bay FC quietly played their best match of the season and came mere moments from their first shutout since opening day. KiKi Pickett and Dorian Bailey scored and Racheal Kundananji was active though she misfired on a few chances. Unfortunately for the Red Stars, the club’s most prominent match happened as their surprisingly early form is tailing off. They did get Alyssa Naeher back in goal and a fantastic finish from Penelope Hocking which saved a shutout and reminded everyone at home just how loud 35,000 fans can be when given something to cheer about.

    Royals 0, Spirit 1

    For the third straight match, the Royals kept it 1-0 but it was another loss nonetheless, their 6th in a row and 10th straight game since their only win. They have not scored in 279 minutes. Per Opta, the Royals 0.73 xG was actually more than the two previous matches combined (0.49) and was actually slightly higher than the Spirit’s 0.66. The Spirit were the ones that found the goal though. Kate Wiesner got her first NWSL goal when she blasted one in from the top of the 18 after a chance was partially cleared.

    Thorns 1, Courage 0

    Sophia Smith scored from the spot to edge ahead of Barbra Banda in the Golden Boot race but cost herself a match next weekend in Seattle after a foolish red card. On a night when the Courage were often bossing the ball but rarely creating actual chances, the Thorns breakthrough came when Ryan Williams took down Hina Sugita in the box to win the penalty. That was Williams’ second yellow leaving the Courage with 10. Shortly before being subbed off, Smith was booked for time-wasting. Then during stoppage time she grabbed the ball after it had gone out of play and attempted to waste more time by rolling it under the bench. Another yellow was her second and the exit doors plus the requisite suspension.

    The Courage dropped to 0-7-0 on the road this season but are 5-0-0 in North Carolina.

    Current 5, Reign 2

    The Reign opened strong and had some bright spots, leading twice in the 1st half, but a series of defensive lapses did them in as Laura Harvey’s 100th win remains elusive. Jordyn Huitema scored a couple of beauties and it looked like the Reign would take a lead into the break until a Current corner kick came free in stoppage time and Lauren tapped it in for a goal on her NWSL debut. The Current then scored a goal in each of the first two minutes of the 2nd half, one each by Vanessa DiBernardo and Temwa Chawinga. Lo’eau LaBonta added a penalty and Chawinga also opened the scoring.

    The Current matched the Pride with an 8-0-4 start to the season and went to the top of the table on goal difference. Their overall unbeaten run on 14 dating to the end of last season is the 3rd longest streak in NWSL history and only two off the league record set by the Reign in 2014. As for this year’s Reign they have now lost 4 in a row for the second time this season after having not done it since 2013.

    Free kicks

    • Marta played her 100th regular season match for the Pride on Friday. Considering Marta was 31 when she arrived in 2017, and did not play in 2020 (pandemic) or 2022 (torn ACL), hitting the century mark is remarkable. Better news for Marta is that with only one playoff appearance seven years ago, it appears the Pride are finally in a position to make a run at a trophy.
    • Laura Harvey came into the season needing 3 wins to become the first NWSL coach to hit 100. Who would have thought we would be approaching the middle of June and she still wouldn’t have it. The Reign season feels like when a team runs out the wrong lineup or shape for a match and it just doesn’t work. The roster build in the aftermath of some significant departures just seems to have missed.
    • The streaks are alive for Kaleigh Kurtz (6,622 consecutive minutes) and Samantha Staab (102 consecutive starts). Both are NWSL records.
    • Ann-Katrin Burger has been marvelous for Gotham.
    • There seems to be a groundswell of support for Sophia Smith’s red card to be overturned. I don’t see it. It was an easy call and a very foolish card to take.
    • Gotham welcomed back McCall Zerboni on Saturday. The veteran midfielder made her first appearance since August 19 when she tore her ACL. Zerboni’s pro career began with the LA Sol in 2009 when she was teammates with – Marta.
    • The draw, but not the schedule, for the Concacaf W Women’s Champions Cup was made this week. The Wave and Thorns were drawn together in Group B and will face each other plus Club America Feminil (Mexico), Santa Fe FC (Panama), and the winner of a preliminary round between Alianza FC Women (El Salvador) and Vancouver Whitecaps FC Girls Elite (Canada).

      Gotham are in Group A to face Tigres UANL (Mexico), CF Monterey Femenil (Mexico), Alajuelense (Costa Rica), and Frazsiers Whip (Jamaica).

      Group play will be single round robin beginning August 20-22. The top two teams from each group will advance to the semifinals in May 2025. This is the first time the event has been held.

    • Here is some perspective on that Red Stars attendance of 35,038 at Wrigley Field. The team’s WPS existence began playing matches at Benedictine University Sports Complex. The Red Stars hosted 30 games there between 2013 and 2015. Total attendance for the 30 games was 58,929. (h/t to my friend Michael Minnich for this one.)
    • Cool moment here with Penelope Hocking and her father Denny who played 13 seasons of Major League Baseball. Cooler still, Hocking scored the Red Stars’ goal to match the home run her dad hit at Wrigley in 1999. Next up will be catching his career total of 25 home runs. Penelope now has 7 NWSL goals.

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