With a goal in the 83rd minute by team-leading goalscorer, Ifeoma Onumonu, Gotham FC managed to eke out a 1-1 tie against Racing Louisville this past Sunday. At the end of the weekend, with the lone point they gained in the match, Gotham sits in third in the NWSL standings.
As was true last week when Gotham played North Carolina, in the first half of this game, Gotham was outplayed. Although they retained more possession of the ball, and had 6 shots to Louisville’s 5, none of Gotham’s shots were on goal. In the meantime, each of Louisville’s three chances in the first half was legitimate, and Louisville could have easily been up 3-0 at the break had it not been for heroic saves by gold medal-winner Kailen Sheriden.
In the first half, I was particularly impressed by the play of Savannah McCaskill for Racing Louisville, who has an insane work rate and was all over the field, tracking forward and backward from endline to endline. She, along with standout rookie, Ebony Salmon, and Nadia Nadim (who had played for Gotham in 2014-2015, during their Sky Blue days) gave Gotham all sorts of trouble. Though Estelle Johnson continued her excellent work and shut Salmon down when she faced up one on one, there were gaps all over the field that Racing Louisville continued to find. In the 13th minute, Nadia Nadim scored a goal from very close range after an excellent build-up by Louisville.
Racing Louisville was able to exploit their speed and skill against Gotham in part because Coach Freya Coombe elected to go with a 3-5-2 lineup and moved three-time NWSL team-of-the-month player Caprice Dydasco up to the midfield. This configuration left holes in the back line and did not generate the offensive power that I imagine it was supposed to.
In the second half of the match, Gotham tightened up their defense and basically took McCaskill out of the game. Erica Skroski played particularly well, making a number of important tackles and clearances, especially late in the game against a speedy Cheyna Matthews, who had subbed in for Ebony Salmon.
Sodam Lee, having come in for Gaëtane Thiney, added pace and pressure in the midfield, but it wasn’t until Freya Coombe substituted Jennifer Cudjoe in for McCall Zerboni and Brianna Pinto in for Delanie Sheehan in the 66th minute that Gotham’s offense started to click. Cudjoe particularly made a significant impact almost right away (leading me to also wonder: why has she not been playing at all in the past few matches?!), drawing a hard foul at the midfield, playing ferocious defense, and sending a number of great balls forward to the feet of Gotham players in the offensive third.
It was Gotham’s substitutes, combined with the efforts of their most consistently excellent players, that finally garnered them a goal. Caprice Dydasco drew a foul in Gotham’s defensive third. Kailen Sheridan took the free kick and sent the ball long towards Jennifer Cudjoe, who corralled it, and passed it back to Nahomi Kawasumi, who had entered the match in place of Elizabeth Eddy in the 77th minute. Kawasumi passed the ball forward to Ifeoma Onumonu, who received the ball with her back to the goal, took one touch, and then sent a rocket of a shot into the upper left corner to net one of the most beautiful goals of this NWSL season.
Gotham has the talent, especially once their injured players come back, to be the best team in the league. In the meantime, Coach Coombe should settle on a lineup and formation that plays to Gotham’s strengths. Caprice Dydasco has been a dominant wing defender who manages to impact the game offensively, even when assigned to the back line. Why mess with that? Jennifer Cudjoe, who draws contact, gives excellent defensive and offensive pressure, and is a possession-first player, should see more time on the pitch. Nahomi Kawasumi has wonderful field vision and has been an effective starter. There’s no reason to tweak what has worked in the past.
Gotham should also look to play even more through Allie Long, who has the best pass-completion percentage in the NWSL. And if NWSL’s player of the week Ifeoma Onumonu continues to perform at the level she has been, Gotham will continue to be a challenge for any team they face, regardless of which of their injured players return, and when.
NJ/NY Gotham returns to action when they face OL Reign on Saturday (tomorrow)!