NJ/NY Gotham FC is used to the rain, and as usual, it couldn’t hold them back.
With a goal from Katie Stengel assisted by Kristie Mewis in the 107th minute, the visitors were able to overtake the reigning National Women’s Soccer League Champions the Portland Thorns in their semifinal matchup on a rainy Sunday in Portland.
Gotham manager Juan Carlos Amorós employed his preferred starting lineup, with Lynn Williams and Midge Purce flanking Esther González up top, and Ali Krieger paired with Maitane López at center back.
Although this was his preferred lineup today, Amorós stressed after the game how important the entire team was to get to this moment, and indeed, Gotham utilized all available substitutes to get the job done in Portland.
“I think that’s the beauty of this team,” said Stengel after the game. “We have depth and we have a lot of players who can play many different roles. We have a lot of good forwards. And I think that’s what makes us very dangerous.”
“This is a squad of 26 players where everyone [is] important and key at certain points of the season,” said Amorós.
Portland began the game with a significant press on Gotham, overloading the midfield and limiting Gotham’s own high press that has become the key to NJ/NY’s season. To contain the damage, Gotham sat back, with González often dropping back to pick up the ball and restart the attack.
Rookie of the Year finalist Jenna Nighswonger proved crucial in the early moments of the game, creating multiple opportunities and taking multiple shots.
“She works so hard, has such a good head on her shoulders,” Stengel said. “She’s a converted outside back, but when I first came here, I had no idea. I swore she played with [the] vision all along.”
The Thorns had plenty of opportunities of their own in the first half, including an outside-the-box rocket from Morgan Weaver which went into the arms of a waiting Gotham goalkeeper Mandy Haught.
Nealy Martin held down the midfield for Gotham at the six and played a physical game to contain the speedy Thorns counterattack, including picking up a yellow card in the 40th minute to stop a breakaway from 2023 Golden Boot winner Sophia Smith.
A scare for Gotham came in stoppage time of the first half, as Haught collided with an oncoming Weaver just outside the box. Haught finished out the half, which ended scoreless.
“I wasn’t gonna go down without a fight,” Haught said. “It was physical and my entire team in front of me were laying their bodies out so I was just doing the same.”
Gotham dominated possession in the first half with over 60% and outshot the Thorns six to three, but with each side only having one and two shots on target respectively. Gotham’s clean sheet in the opening 45 came from the ability to limit Smith’s touches on the ball and weather the storm of the Thorns’ press.
The visitors came out strong in the opening minutes of the second half, but as the game wore on, tired legs and rain-soaked turf got the better of the team. The Thorns took advantage of Gotham’s lulls with the fresh legs of early second-half sub Hina Sugita who came on for Rocky Rodriguez, but a stalwart Gotham defense continued to limit the Thorns’ chances throughout the second half.
Amorós would wait until the 80th minute to make subs, replacing Purce and González with Sinead Farrelly and Kristie Mewis. Mewis had not seen the pitch for Gotham since this summer when she left for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup and returned with a lower leg injury.
“It was a difficult period of her career,” Amorós said. “What she’s done the last three, four months behind the scenes is work, and work, and work to get ready. She knew that she could be ready for the semifinal. She came in for maybe 10, 15 minutes plus the extra time and left her heart out there. We know her ability, and she got the assist at the end of the day. We’ve missed her.”
Gotham continued their dominance on the ball in the second half, out-shooting and out-possessing the home side, but a scoreless draw would send the game into extra time.
“We always wanted to go and win the game and would not have [been] happy just to go for penalties,” said Amorós.
With almost all of Gotham’s backline on yellow cards, the team sat back in extra time, absorbing the pressure and looking for their opportunities. Martin, Yazmeen Ryan, Delaine Sheehan, and Williams all exited the game, with Gotham showing off the depth of its bench.
A banger from Stengel in the 107th minute would seal the deal deep into the second half of extra time. The 1-0 final score sent Gotham, last year’s 12th-place finishers, to its first-ever NWSL Championship.
“I have 26 players that are committed to the cause, and some of them were here last year,” Amorós said. “We can see the ability that they have. The credit goes to them, every single member of the staff, and how the owners have supported our vision.”
It is Amorós’ vision that the players have credited for getting Gotham from last place to the final in just one season. For Stengel, Amorós’ positive intensity is what makes him get the best out of his players every single day.
“He comes with a lot of energy and he’s a great coach,” Sengel said. “He wants the best for every single player and makes sure everyone’s on the same page. He has a very specific training style and playing style he wants every day. He’s an incredible coach who I think has taken this league by storm. This team has turned it on its head. So it’s very fun to be a part of and work under him.”
For Haught, having Amorós lead the team into the finals gives them an edge no matter who they face in San Diego.
“He’s a fantastic leader,” said Haught. “His style is not easy, but he knew the group that he had and were able to implement whatever he asked for, and he’s just a very strong coach and we’re super excited to have him lead us into the finals.”
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