May 28, 2024

From the outside, NJ/NY Gotham FC‘s mere presence in the National Women’s Soccer League semifinals, where they’ll face the Portland Thorns on Sunday, is a remarkable achievement.

A year ago, Gotham endured one of the worst seasons in league history, losing a record 12 straight games, including five straight by shutout. The team finished last in the league and had a goal difference of minus-30. The offseason brought a coaching change and the acquisition of U.S. women’s national team forward Lynn Williams, among other moves.

Gotham came out flying in 2023, winning four of their first seven games, but they were narrow results — a 1-0 win here, a 2-1 there. There was still skepticism around the team’s early wins, which was understandable given Gotham’s previous struggles.

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Then came a road game in Seattle against defending NWSL Shield winner OL Reign on May 21. Williams and rookie Jenna Nighswonger scored two minutes apart and Gotham led 3-0 at halftime. Gotham executed what has become their signature high press to force the Reign into mistakes.

The rest of the NWSL looked on with slight disbelief, but Gotham players were following their new script. “Not surprised at all. I feel like everybody else is surprised, but we’re not,” Williams said at halftime.

The result sent Gotham to the top of the NWSL table past the one-third mark of the season and confirmed that the team was here to compete this season.

“I’ll never forget that game,” Gotham FC defender and captain Ali Krieger told ESPN this week. “That game was the turning point for us [to say], ‘OK, we really are good enough. We really are putting our stamp on this league right now.'”

Gotham now returns to the Pacific Northwest for an even bigger test against last year’s NWSL champions, the Thorns, and this time its for a spot in the NWSL Championship on Nov. 11.

Krieger — who will retire at the end of this season — hopes to extend her career by one more game while Gotham, a franchise that was once the laughingstock of the league under previous Sky Blue FC branding, has eyes on completing the journey of worst to first. Whether that happens won’t take away from this Gotham team’s complete makeover, one that players and staff feel has given it a foundation it has long lacked.

An obvious change at Gotham from Day 1

To Krieger, it was clear from the first day of the 2023 preseason that things were going to be different.

“The first day we walked in and had a meeting, and it was like everybody was just so shook in such a good way,” Krieger said. “Because this is what we’ve been wanting this whole time, someone to really just lay out this plan for us and really give us this identity that we can follow and that we can be behind and that we could support. And then we just go out and we execute it.”

The person leading the meeting was Juan Carlos Amoros, the team’s new head coach who had been signed to a three-year contract in the offseason. Amoros had spent part of 2022 as the interim head coach of the Houston Dash, which he helped lead to its first playoff berth, and he had previously coached in Europe, most prominently as co-coach of Tottenham Hotspur.

Everything about that first meeting was different for Gotham. For one, it took place in Florida. The team committed six figures to holding training camp at IMG Academy in Bradenton, rather than sticking the team on turf in an indoor bubble in New Jersey in late winter. Gotham general manager Yael Averbuch West noticed how the Kansas City Current had gone from last place in 2021 to an appearance in the NWSL Championship the following year, and the Current credited that preseason trip with setting up the team for success. Gotham, in need of changes, decided to copy the model and finds itself on a similar worst-to-first quest.

The actual meeting on that first day was also a breath of fresh air for a team that had lacked identity and stability. Freya Coombe left the squad in August 2021 to take the Angel City FC job. Scott Parkinson replaced Coombe and, almost exactly a year later, was fired midseason. Meanwhile Amoros came in with a clear vision, laying out plans well beyond the first week.

“We put a lot of effort into that first day because at the end of the day, we are humans and first impressions are not [everything] about a person, but it’s important,” Amoros told ESPN. “And I think we wanted to ask them to go with us on a journey, but you need to you need to tell them: How is that journey looking? How is it that you’re gonna manage them or how are you going to manage the day to day in terms of living with them and what values and what they can expect from you in off-the-pitch aspects? But on the pitch, players need to know there is a clear idea.”

Gotham’s staff, which includes several international coaches, had only assembled in Florida the day before that meeting due to visa delays. The team’s technical staff had more than doubled year-over-year, general manager Averbuch West said, to make it one of the largest in the league.

“One of our key areas of investment was coaching,” Averbuch West said. Krieger points to that investment — not just in Amoros, but in the staff he required to join him as part of his hiring — as the club putting its money where its mouth is. Each staff member plays an integral role, she said, including those behind the scenes in the front office.

As Amoros spoke to ESPN from the team’s training facility in northern New Jersey before departing for Portland, Jesus Botello Hermosa, the team’s head of tactical analysis, was in the other room playing chess with midfielder Nealy Martin and simulating the Thorns’ tactics with chess pieces.

Earlier in the day, Hermosa led an “intense tactical conversation” with defender Kelley O’Hara before analyzing video with defender Ellie Jean to the backdrop of Spanish music. Jean, Amoros said, is trying to learn to speak Spanish.

Hermosa is the team’s data specialist. Citing StatsBomb, Amoros says that Gotham FC wins back the ball farther from its goal than any other women’s team in the world, a stat the squad uses as evidence of its highly effective press. ESPN Stats & Information says Gotham FC has an average sequence start of 50.5 meters from their own goal this season — the furthest of any NWSL team — but Lyon in France is further at 59.1. Either way, Gotham is built around its press, and the North Carolina Courage fell victim to it when NJ/NY beat them in the first round of the playoffs on Oct. 22.

Data, however, isn’t everything. “I love data — I think football is also very important,” said the 39-year-old Amoros, who says he spent his teenage years as a fan sitting in the last row of Real Madrid‘s Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, as well as smaller stadiums in Spain, to learn about tactics. “The right mix between data as an objective approach and the subjective approach, what you see within is the right combination.”

Amoros describes his style as “making simple things look complex,” which shows in how Gotham plays. He speaks to players about their “roles,” not “positions,” emphasizing the team’s desire to be fluid in attack. In simple terms, Gotham typically plays in a 4-3-3 formation, but the team’s shape rarely looks like that at any given moment on the field.

Take Gotham’s playoff win over the North Carolina Courage. Yazmeen Ryan lined up as the team’s attacking midfielder, but could often be found higher up the field than any other Gotham player as the team pressed a Courage side that wanted to play short combinations out of the back. Midge Purce started as Gotham’s right winger, but frequently defended in deep areas, almost like a fullback.

Amoros and his staff call it “organized chaos in the middle,” with freedom and flexibility granted to their central players. The term is ironic considering the team came from a place of complete chaos in 2022, a fact from which nobody within Gotham hides.

Overcoming a dreadful 2022 as the NWSL’s worst team, and making the necessary changes

Krieger is one of several key players who endured that brutal 2022 season and returned for 2023. It was “a mess,” as she recalls it — nothing around the players had been going right, and all they could do was show up and try to play as a team rather than digress to individual play. “It’s a long, dark road if you’re an outlier in that tough, adversity moment,” Krieger said.

Gotham’s 12-game losing streak smashed the league record for futility. It stretched from mid-July until the final game of the season in October, a 3-3 draw that denied the Thorns the NWSL Shield. The streak began with a 5-0 loss in Portland.

“I can’t remember the last time I lost 5-0,” Krieger told ESPN. “We’re all staring at each other like, we’re not bad. We just don’t have the tools right now to really be set up for success. We weren’t really gaining the tools. And that was really difficult to go out on the field and try to apply something when you’re kind of just out there telling each other what you think we should do.”

Luck played a role, too. In 2021, Gotham eked its way into the playoffs behind an average season that saw the ball bounce their way most of the time. The joke around the NWSL was that there was a forcefield around Gotham’s goal.

Reality hit hard in 2022. “I was really, really down on myself because these games were so close,” Krieger said. “Some of the games were only like 1-0 or 2-1. It was like we just didn’t have that luck.”

Amoros witnessed this from afar. He oversaw Houston for a pair of summer victories over Gotham last season and knew the work ahead when he took the latter job. He has kept some of the roster’s core in place, including Krieger at central defense and Purce up top. Williams and Ryan were crucial offseason additions that vastly improved the team’s attack, but the most important change came in the team’s approach.

Throughout the year, Gotham players have talked about the coaching staff instilling a “winning mentality,” which has largely been a foreign term in New Jersey for most of the club’s 15-year existence. This is the franchise that went winless until the last game of the 24-game 2018 season, the same year the team was exposed publicly for making players take ice baths in trash cans and live in houses with plastic bags and cardboard over the windows.

At training this year, however, winning has been integrated into every small task. When Gotham players scrimmage or play small-sided games, the staff takes a photo of the winning squad and brings the picture to the meeting the next day so the victors can bask in temporary glory.

“It’s the day-to-day that creates the environment,” Amoros said. “We designed a framework of developing and implementing the style [of play]. The players, they want to be challenged, they want to have fun and they want to have a fair chance to play. That’s what they want.

“Any coach in the world can make 11 people happy, but what happens with the other 15? That is the key, because 15 people are always going to be upset with you. Six are gonna be super upset because they’re out of the roster. Nine are gonna be upset because they’re out of the team. Eleven are very happy because they are starting. That’s the reality that every coach has. Now the challenge for me: how do you get 26 people happy?”

This holistic strategy has paid off. The midfield trio that dominated North Carolina and thrived down the stretch doesn’t exactly scream star power: Alongside Ryan and Martin is Delanie Sheehan, who scored the game-winning goal against the Courage. Both Martin and Sheehan are largely unheralded players who fit Gotham’s system well and do the dirty work in the middle of the park, orchestrating the organized chaos Amoros is looking for.

Nighswonger is a good individual example of Amoros’ desire for fluidity. Her NWSL debut came in front of a sold-out crowd in Los Angeles on opening weekend. Krieger had to leave the game with an injury just 10 minutes into the match and Amoros wanted Nighswonger, who was drafted as an attacking player, to play fullback.

“I was like, ‘What in the world?'” Nighswonger recalled thinking at the time. She started 17 regular-season matches after that, lining up everywhere from fullback to winger and central midfielder, and is a finalist for NWSL Rookie of the Year.

Ryan and Williams were Gotham’s most significant roster changes in 2023, along with the late-season arrival of Spanish defender Maitane Lopez and forward Esther González. Ryan, who had just won a title with the Thorns, arrived through a three-team trade that shipped the No. 1 pick in the draft — used on 18-year-old Alyssa Thompson — to Angel City. Gotham then used allocation money acquired in the trade to get the No. 2 draft pick from the Orlando Pride, in turn flipping that pick to the Kansas City Current in exchange for Williams.

Williams, who learned of her abrupt trade while with the U.S. women’s national team in Australia, is a proven winner in the NWSL — exactly the type of player Gotham needed. She is a three-time NWSL Championship winner and three-time Shield winner. She won the NWSL Golden Boot and MVP award in 2016 and has scored the second-most goals in league history.

Williams also had not played in nearly a year due to a hamstring injury, which meant there was an element of risk. “We knew that if she was fit, she was going to be someone that would really drive the standards on and off the pitch, offensively and defensively,” Amoros said.

Williams reiterated throughout the season how the club made her feel wanted, alluding to that being the opposite feeling she had in Kansas City given the way things ended there. Her seven regular season goals led all Gotham scorers, but her defensive work rate is what set her apart. Amoros calls it “contagious,” which fits Gotham’s high-pressure system.

A change in goal after Ashlyn Harris retired also made Gotham significantly better defensively this year, giving up just 24 goals in 22 games — nearly half of the 46 conceded last season. Abby Smith was responsible for most of that after assuming the starting role — she led the league is post-shot expected goals minus goals against (PSxG-GA), per FBRef, though she missed the end of the season due to injury.

Krieger has also been an integral part of that defensive improvement by putting in one of her best club seasons to date. Lopez was a key addition, too, helping Gotham dominate the Courage in the first-round playoff game.

The NWSL Championship within reach

Now Krieger & Co. face another benchmark game against Portland at Providence Park, a place that holds meaning for Gotham. It was there at Portland’s downtown stadium that Gotham lost the 2021 Challenge Cup final, a moment the team thought was the start of an upturn, only to learn it was an anomaly. Providence Park was also the scene of that embarrassing 5-0 loss just 15 months ago. But a berth to the NWSL Championship is on the line on Sunday, and the feeling around this Gotham team is different than those previous visits.

Gotham’s strong identity has carried them, but the team also needed some luck — take the final day of the season, when a 2-0 lead at home against Kansas City evaporated into a 2-2 draw. Had Krieger not saved a shot from going into an empty net, Gotham might have lost and never made the postseason. These are the fine margins in the NWSL.

Amoros recognizes how that dominant first half in Seattle in May looks like a turning point from the outside, but he says he has seen just as many important moments in games Gotham has lost and in days following at training. Where Gotham finds itself now is the reward, one they hope continues on Sunday.

“Obviously, the first half in the in Seattle was amazing but there’s been a lot of moments especially at the beginning of the year, it was more batches of certain games of whole halves but we weren’t able to maintain that throughout the 90 minutes,” Amoros said.

“But when it came to the most important moment which obviously was this this playoff game [against North Carolina], I think that was when the team really stepped up and put everything together to put [in] a very complete performance. That’s the job here in the playoffs. There is no margin [for error] — there are no mistakes. You can’t afford any.”

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