April 17, 2024

SAN DIEGO — Two days ahead of the highly anticipated 2023 NWSL championship between NJ/NY Gotham FC and OL Reign — and shortly after the league announced a historic new media rights deal that includes a package of matches across ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes, as well as ESPN+ — both rosters and coaching staffs met with journalists for a media day Thursday.

We identified how Saturday’s NWSL championship could play out, from key players to tactical matchups that could define the game. Then we asked players and coaches about their views of each. Here’s what they had to say.

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The stars saying farewell: Ali Krieger (NJ/NY Gotham FC) and Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)

There is no doubt about the headline matchup of Saturday’s final. Krieger and Rapinoe, two long-time friends and former USWNT teammates, will play their final games. Rapinoe is still a game-changing talent, while Krieger had one of the best club seasons of her career in 2023.

“It’s really special, to be honest,” said Rapinoe about playing Krieger in the final. “I mean obviously only one of us is going to be able to win and that’s going to be sad for whoever the person is that doesn’t win. But it’s really special to share the length of career that we have [had]. I know if I win, she’ll be happy for me; if she wins, I’ll be thrilled for her.”

Both Krieger and Rapinoe jokingly acknowledged that they’ll talk smack to each other throughout the week and the game (Rapinoe more so). “I think she’ll stay on the left-hand side, at least let’s hope so,” Krieger said. “I already told her she should because if she comes to the right, she’s going down. No — all jokes aside, she’s going to bring it and I’m going to bring it and that’s how we respect each other most. We’re both winners and we’re going to show up and show out and do our thing and hope our teammates do the same.

“Honestly, at the end of the day, I’m so proud of us. We have really maxed out our whole NWSL experience. We were like, did we really make it this whole way? Yeah, we did and that’s why we’re here. You could tell that we really wanted it most.”

Gonzalez is a No. 9 who can float into deeper midfield positions. She basically played as a holding midfielder in the first half of Gotham’s semifinal win over the Portland Thorns before moving back up to her striker role. Lavelle is a known entity, but hardly played this season because of injuries. Her return to full fitness made a clear difference in the semifinal victory over the San Diego Wave and she changes the way the Reign plays for the better.

“The dynamic that Rose gives us is so unique to Rose Lavelle,” Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock said. “There is not another player like her in the entirety of the world. What she is able to do for us, you can’t really explain it unless you’re playing with it. But obviously, it has a knock-on effect on my game in a positive way.”

For Gotham coach Juan Carlos Amoros, Gonzalez provides much more than just an attacking influence. In the recent win over Portland, the World Cup-winner provided a handful of duels won and a couple of tackles.

“She’s a No. 9 that can score goals, but on top of that, as we saw in the last game, she’s a fantastic player for helping the team in other positions,” he said. “To come out of pressure, dropping into midfield. For us, it’s very important the way our forwards defend … the first defender is the No. 9 and her role is massively important to avoid chances from the opposition.

“[She could have] come to our team thinking ‘I’m world champion,’ but she’s not done that, she’s come super humble, ready to work extremely hard. The players have done the same. A lot of them are learning Spanish.”

play

0:53

Can OL Reign take the top prize after getting over their semifinal hump?

Sebastian Salazar talks to Rose Lavelle and Emily Sonnett about OL Reign making the NWSL Championship final for the first time in several years.

The heartbeats of the team: Lynn Williams (NJ/NY Gotham FC) and Jess Fishlock (OL Reign)

Any observer of the NWSL over the past decade knows that moment when Fishlock is fired up. Maybe the referee missed a call. Maybe the Reign need a wake-up call. Maybe she just scored a golazo. When that moment comes, the rest of the Reign follow.

Reign forward Veronica Latsko, who scored the game-winning goal in the semifinal, sees that energy from Fishlock and holding midfielder Emily Sonnett.

“The two of them, it feels like the powerhouse of the cell,” Latsko said. “Putting in hard tackles, covering ground defensively and offensively is big. I definitely think that energy is contagious. When one person is exuding that kind of energy and workforce, it inspires others around them to do the same.”

Williams’ energetic efforts haven’t been overlooked for Gotham either, which can often energize the team in difficult situations. “What I love about Lynn is she’s such an incredible talent and she is so hard-working with that talent,” Gotham midfielder McCall Zerboni said. “Someone who has the ability to score goals and break lines like her, but she also will hustle all the way back into our defending penalty spot to win a ball off somebody.

“That is so incredibly motivating from someone who’s achieved so much in their life, even on the world stage. Those moments that you’re tired in the game and you’re like, ‘oh my gosh, she just sprinted 80 yards to go back and defend’ when she’s like one of the most glorious attackers in the world. That’s what really makes her special.”

The goalkeepers in their biggest moments: Mandy Haught (NJ/NY Gotham FC) and Claudia Dickey (OL Reign)

This might be the most unlikely goalkeeper pairing in NWSL championship history. Both Haught, 25, and Dickey, 23, took over the starting jobs late in the season — Haught due to Abby Smith‘s injury, and Dickey as part of a shakeup that saw Phallon Tullis-Joyce transfer to Manchester United.

Both goalkeepers quickly integrated into their respective teams as the first lines of attack as well as shot-stoppers. Who will rise to the moment on Saturday in, undoubtedly, the biggest game of either’s career?

“I don’t think every team has two No. 1 goalkeepers where your comfort with them behind you is the same,” Gotham FC defender Kristen Edmonds said of Haught. “We’re lucky to have that.”

Gotham FC defender Jenna Nighswonger added: “She’s been so great. Abby was great for us and for Mandy to step in and just do the exact same thing has been huge for us. I think Mandy’s so good on the ball, which I think has been big for us, like building out [from the back], especially against Portland Thorns. She had so much of the ball and for her to have the calmness, composure and vision to just pick out a pass, I think has been big and she’s come up huge for us sometimes.”

For the Reign, Dickey stepped in under the pressure of replacing a No. 1 [Tullis-Joyce], who performed well last season, but fell out of favor with coach Laura Harvey.

“It’s been so fun to watch [Dickey],” defender Lauren Barnes said. “She’s been in a really hard situation. It’s been super competitive. To switch a goalkeeper at the part of the season that we did and have a young goalkeeper coming in — and we put a lot of pressure on her to come in — and actually play games, it’s really difficult. You give her that space and time to feel those games, make the mistakes she needs to, learn from them, and grow. Watching her do that in less than two games is really impressive.

“She’s one of the best I’ve seen with the ball at her feet. That’s something we really encourage at this team. We really want to play, so I think being able to utilize all the players on your team, including your goalkeeper, gives us that extra factor. If we can’t play forward, we go back to Claudia, and she can distribute just as good as the two center-backs on the field.”

The full-back battle that could define the game: Jenna Nighswonger (NJ/NY Gotham FC) and Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)

Two full-backs could define a game of superstars? They sure could.

Huerta is among the top crossers in the NWSL and a converted full-back who loves to get forward; Nighswonger started playing at full-back only this year and was named 2023 NWSL Rookie of the Year on Thursday.

Huerta plays on the Reign’s right; Nighswonger on Gotham’s left. Both players love to get forward, which means that even if they aren’t directly matched up against each other, they will have to worry about the space that they vacated and how it might leave their team vulnerable in transition.

“I think a lot of it is so about timing,” Huerta said. “It’s like if I’m in the backline and I’m looking at our team, do we have possession of the ball or do we not? Right? If we have obvious possession, I’m going to go and I’m going to look to see where that winger is because the winger is probably going to be the one that’s tracking me. If we have full possession, I’m going, I’m losing her.

“But sometimes it’s a little bit of a risk because I can think we have full possession and then we don’t. And then the winger has just an advantage on top of me. But I do feel with Laura [Harvey] and her experience, she’s really honed in the countermeasures. And if I am high and I’m out of position, who’s then going to be taking care of the space that I just left?”

play

2:05

NWSL announces new 4-year rights deal

NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman details the league’s new 4-year rights deal.

Huerta is a couple of years into her full transition to the full-back role from her attacking midfield and forward days, and made the U.S. World Cup roster as a full-back. Nighswonger is even newer to the position, but she echoed the thoughts about timing.

“I think a really important part of the position is just like reading when to go,” Nighswonger said. “For example, if [Gotham right full-back] Bruninha goes up the field, I can’t go, so Huerta’s pushing the line, like really high. It’s just like reading numbers. My first job is defense, so I need to make sure that the area that I’m leaving is covered, and if it is, then I can go forward. I don’t think I’m paying too much attention to who specifically it is or how much they’re getting forward.”

Prediction

OL Reign 0-1 NJ/NY Gotham FC. Expect another tightly contested, gritty, defensive game in which Gotham pushes the right tactical buttons and shuts down the Reign’s attack. Yazmeen Ryan scores the winner. — Jeff Kassouf

OL Reign 1-0 NJ/NY Gotham FC. This is going to be a tense one that could go either way, especially with how both could thrive defensively, but Reign have the slight advantage of staying local after playing at Snapdragon last week. — Cesar Hernandez

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