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The secrets of their success: Why Gotham FC now top NWSL table

The team that finished dead last in 2022 are a title contender in 2023.

First place feels good | Michael Thomas Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since July 2013, Gotham FC sit on top of the National Women’s Soccer League table.

Sunday’s 4-1 win over OL Reign at Lumen Field was the most convincing team performance in the eight games played this season, a sign that things are clicking for this heavily rebuilt side.

Eight games in may be too early to judge the effectiveness of the rebuild given the rock-bottom finish in 2022. However, the most recent result provides a good example of everything that is going right at Gotham right now.

Gotham’s best performance to date

The match against OL Reign had it all: Squad rotation, aggression on both sides of the ball, and Lynn Williams.

Four different players found the back of the net against a tough opponent on the road. Jenna Nighswonger returned to the Gotham lineup with a long-range effort worthy of goal-of-the-year contention. Lynn Williams doubled the lead in the 12th minute when the US Women’s National Team forward capitalized on Lauren Barnes’s mishit backpass with a calm finish.

A run of play representative of the cohesion in the side led to a third goal before the halftime whistle: Sinead Farrelly did well to break a line on her own before cutting the Reign’s backline apart further with a driven pass to Delanie Sheehan. Sheehan cleverly moved it across to Taylor Smith with her first touch, leaving the 29-year-old with a routine finish.

Then Bruninha scored the first goal of her NWSL career – and Gotham’s fourth of the game – in the 73rd minute by forcing a turnover in the host’s eighteen-yard box and firing a left-footed shot past Phallon Tullis-Joyce.

Versatility and depth

That complete performance lifted the Goths to the top of the NWSL standings, one point ahead of reigning champions Portland Thorns. Head coach Juan Carlos Amorós and general manager Yael Averbuch appear to have orchestrated a complete 180-degree turn at Gotham after the team finished in last place in 2022.

When Amorós took the job last year, he had a clear idea of what the team needed to compete. Nearly every Gotham player commented during preseason on the 38-year-old head coach’s rigid instructions. He made clear what every individual’s responsibilities are in areas all across the field.

Eight games in, and those directives have taken the shape of an organized defense. It helps that he has versatile players capable of filling in at multiple roles.

The former Tottenham manager started implementing this plan at the back. Defender Ali Krieger has made the adaptation easier on the squad given her experience, leadership, and ball-playing abilities. Amorós tapped her to help Ellie Jean shift into playing as a central defender, rather than out wide. Kristen Edmonds is already comfortable at center-back and left-back and has been seeing time in both positions.

The effectiveness of drilling defensive responsibilities in players outside of their usual positions showed off ten minutes into the season when a calf injury saw Ali Krieger’s night cut short against Angel City FC. Edmonds shifted centrally when Amorós chose rookie Jenna Nighswonger to replace Krieger, and the Florida State alum filled in at left-back without skipping a beat. She’s since carved out a regular spot for herself in defense despite enjoying a successful college career in midfield.

Bruninha’s ability to play at both fullback positions allows both the Brazilian and Kelley O’Hara to see playing time. Bruninha has tended to shift to left-back in games facing particularly dangerous wingers.

This versatility has given Amorós more flexibility in depth when dealing with a compact schedule.

Competition for the Starting XI

Rotation in midfield is largely based on fatigue, given how well each of the regular starters are playing. Gotham plays with three central midfielders, and four players are seeing extended minutes. To varying degrees, these available midfielders share similar qualities that make switching players in and out not too difficult. Long usually anchors, and Zerboni shines brightly defensively, but Mewis and Farrley are comfortable going box-to-box on either side. Nealy Martin made her first league start of the year and played ninety minutes as a defensive midfielder in Sunday’s win.

Moving the Challenge Cup into the regular season means Gotham saw a pair of three-game weeks, giving Amorós time to see nearly everyone on his roster get competitive minutes. This included all three of the team’s rostered goalkeepers.

Amorós insists he doesn’t have a first choice in goal despite Abby Smith’s seven league starts. It may be one of the ways he keeps Mandy Haught and Michele Betos motivated, alongside starts in the Cup and the former’s nod in Chicago.

Gotham seems to be weathering its first depth crisis of the year with the help of Taylor Smith. She made four starts on the wing since Midge Purce suffered a hip injury in April that has kept her out of contention. Smith’s goal Sunday comes on the end of a run of solid performances, building her case for starting minutes even when Purce is healthy.

Purce’s form in the opening four games should have her spot secured, but Amorós has been adamant about picking players based on form and training, not their name. That appears to be what’s keeping Ifeoma Onumonu from seeing regular time in the starting lineup. She was expected to lead the line this year, but after failing to find the scoresheet in three straight starts, the Nigerian international has been limited to substitute appearances and looks to have fallen on the depth chart.

Establishing this depth and competition for places should prove beneficial when the World Cup kicks off in July. Up to seven Gotham players are in contention for a spot on their respective national teams for the 2023 edition of the tournament.

The X-Factor: Lynn Williams

The biggest factor in Gotham earning results while Amorós implements his vision is, without a doubt, Lynn Williams.

The 30-year-old headlined Gotham’s ten offseason acquisitions when she joined the squad via trade in January. Williams brought proven winning and scoring ability to try to spark an attack that found the back of the net just 16 times in 22 league games last year.

Williams’s seven goals across league and Challenge Cup play have proven how difficult she is to defend in the attacking third. She’s scored from range, finished between defenders as a central forward, and hasn’t been afraid of taking defenders on by herself.

Lynn Williams is having a career year for Gotham FC.
Michael Thomas Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

These goals not only make Williams the current joint-leading scorer in the league, but they’ve been the difference in Gotham’s results. Williams has four game-winning goals, which accounts for fully 12 of the club’s 16 points.

That her strikes have won matches is due in no small part to Gotham’s ability to stay in games even when things aren’t exactly clicking. Late goals have turned scoreless meetings with the Orlando Pride and North Carolina Courage into wins. Thus far, Gotham have yet to give up a leading score.

The only notable lapse of concentration that cost Gotham came in the April trip to Kansas City. Undone by Debinha, the Goths conceded twice in four minutes en route to a second loss of the year. Amorós noted his disappointment after conceding the first goal, citing the team’s extensive work in remaining composed after either side scores.

Gotham might be sitting in first place, but Amorós and this team are still striving to improve their form.

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