December 1, 2023

NJ/NY Gotham FC advanced to the National Women’s Soccer League Championship for the first time with a 1-0 victory over the defending champion Portland Thorns on Sunday. Gotham, the lowest-ranked team in the six-team playoff field, will play OL Reign in next Saturday’s NWSL Championship after Laura Harvey’s side defeated San Diego Wave 1-0 in Sunday’s other semifinal.

Portland Thorns 0-1 NJ/NY Gotham 1 (AET)

A tactical chess match played out in the first semifinal, to the advantage of a NJ/NY Gotham FC team that preferred to slow the game against a talented and athletic Portland Thorns side. Ultimately, NJ/NY Gotham FC head coach Juan Carlos Amoros made the decisive move in extra time.

Gotham forward Katie Stengel scored the game-winning goal in the 107th minute to lift Gotham, the team that finished last in the NWSL a year ago, to the NWSL Championship. Stengel came off the bench seven minutes earlier, during the first half of extra time, as Amoros sought to unlock a Thorns defense that stood firm for most of the night.

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Veteran center-back Becky Sauerbrunn anchored that effort for Portland, but the 38-year-old was substituted during the extra-time intermission. Seventy seconds after that break, Stengel struck a sweet, curling shot into the top corner from a central area just outside Portland’s penalty area, the space Sauerbrunn had patrolled so spectacularly.

“Disappointing. It felt very much like a battle out there. Both sides had their chances,” Sauerbrunn said after the match. “I thought both sides defended quite well. Both sides had chances and they just happened to finish one and we didn’t. That’s sometimes how soccer goes. It’s a little cruel. It feels cruel right now.”

Stengel’s goal stood as the game-winner and No. 6 seed Gotham held on for a 1-0 victory, upsetting the defending champions in Portland.

The match was marked by tactical tweaks for Gotham and significant lineup changes for Portland.

Thorns head coach Mike Norris made several changes to the lineup that lost 5-1 to Angel City FC to end the regular season three weeks earlier, including dropping starting goalkeeper Bella Bixby in favor of Shelby Hogan, who started only once in the regular season. Reigning league MVP Sophia Smith also made her first start for the Thorns since Aug. 27, having fully recovered from a minor knee injury.

Smith was the Thorns’ outlet up top as the home side tried to break open the game, and they found their star behind Gotham’s defense twice in the final 11 minutes of regulation. Gotham FC goalkeeper Mandy Haught came off her line in the 79th minute to smother the ball at Smith’s feet, and 10 minutes later, Smith threaded a ball to Morgan Weaver inside the penalty area for an open shot that Weaver scuffed.

Moments of wide-open play were relatively rare under the heavy rain in Portland, however. Most of the match was a nuanced tactical battle in midfield, which favored the visitors and their detail-oriented coaching staff that prefers to create “organized chaos” in the middle of the park.

Esther González, typically the team’s No. 9, played the first 45 minutes in a deeper midfield role to get on the ball more frequently and clog up the middle of the park. The result was a Thorns midfield that struggled to find the game at times. Norris started 18-year-old attacking midfielder Olivia Moultrie over heavy-legged internationals Christine Sinclair and Hina Sugita — each of whom played and traveled for their national teams over the past week — and while Moultrie had moments of individual flair, Gotham’s compact defensive shape kept her in check.

“We did such an amazing job at regaining the ball in the middle,” Haught said. “We doubled down and we had back pressure. 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.”

In the 32nd minute, Gonzalez created and nearly finished Gotham’s best opportunity of the first half as she made a delayed run behind Portland’s defense and was disrupted by Hogan, who had to sweat out a possible intervention from the video assistant referee that never came.

Sticking to his principles of fluid formations, however, Amoros shifted Gonzalez back to her usual striker role at the start of the second half. Gonzalez gave Gotham more of a hold-up presence up top after seeing his team mostly settle for outlet passes to Lynn Williams or Margaret “Midge” Purce in the first half.

“[When we designed] the game plan we wanted the ability to find Esther a little bit more in those connecting positions like the No. 10 and also arriving late to the box to find more chances that way and also stretch the backline with people [who are] really good one-on-one, like [Yazmeen Ryan] and Midge on the wings,” Amoros said.

Gotham, led by 39-year-old center-back Ali Krieger, defended brilliantly against the attacking trio of Smith, Weaver, and Crystal Dunn. Aside from the pair of open-field moments, Smith was largely kept in check by Krieger and a rotation of covering defenders who provided timely double-teams. Gotham’s back four, combined with the small shifts Amoros made in midfield, kept Portland off the board.

Stengel then took care of business on the other end. Playing for her fifth different NWSL team after joining Gotham late this summer, Stengel scored one of the most important goals of her career just after the start of the second extra-time period.

“I’ve gotten around to many different countries, been able to play with a lot of different styles,” Stengel said. “And this is definitely one of those nights that I’ll remember and one of the best I’ve gotten to experience in my career.”

Gotham now heads to the NWSL Championship for the first time with hopes of completing a worst-to-first journey in one year. Under its previous Sky Blue FC branding, the franchise won a title in Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) in 2009. That was the last time the team had won a postseason game up until Gotham’s Oct. 22 victory over the North Carolina Courage in the first round.

The team’s victory also means that the final game of Krieger’s illustrious career will be a championship game.

Portland’s elimination also guarantees a new NWSL Championship. After falling short of the NWSL Shield due to that 5-1 loss to Angel City, the Thorns exit a season without any trophies for the first time since 2016. — Jeff Kassouf

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