(Image Credit- NJ/NY Gotham FC twitter)
It’s been a rough stretch for NJ/NY Gotham FC. The team is winless in the last six contests and has gained only two points during that stretch of games. And yet, what is happening on the pitch
is not the only area of concern for the club. On the evening of Sunday, August 22nd, Jeff Kassouf of The Equalizer reported that Head Coach Freya Coombe had signed with Angel City, the new NWSL team in Los Angeles slated to debut next season. According to both Jeff Kassouf and Meg Linehan of The Athletic, Alyce LaHue, Gotham’s recently fired GM, had given Angel City permission to approach Coombe and Gotham was given the chance to counter Angel City’s offer. This is to say, it seems like everything leading up to Coombe’s decision was above board. But that doesn’t mean her departure doesn’t sting.
Initially Gotham announced that Coombe would stay through the remainder of the season. However, on August 24th, Interim GM Yael Averbush West revised that statement. After speaking with Coombe as well as with the players, Averbush West wrote, it seemed in the best interest of everyone involved for Coombe to leave the team after their August 29th match against Orlando. Gotham is in the final stage of hiring a new head and assistant coach and plans to make the announcement “very soon.” As of the writing of this article, Gotham has made no announcement about such a hire.
Averbush West’s decision to speed up Coombe’s departure makes sense. Although it is not ideal for a coach to leave a team mid-season, Coombe’s future job as coach of Angel City presented a very clear conflict of interest, as she was coaching Gotham players she would potentially seek to acquire for Angel City in an expansion draft. And although no player has publicly spoken out against Coombe, surely it feels funny (read: bad) to be coached by someone who you know will be coaching against you next season. Surely some players must feel betrayed.
Coach Coombe has done an admirable job with Gotham FC, taking over a team that had well-documented dysfunction, and turning them into a competitive club, one that even made it to the Challenge Cup final this past fall. It’s only natural to feel attached to a coach who has helped to generate such positive changes and inspired such strong play. There’s also part of me that thinks the new LA team could have simply chosen not to be an agent of chaos. It is already an incredibly well-financed and well-resourced team. Angel City could have found a different coach, one not already affiliated with a squad. They could have used their significant capital to invest in a new NWSL coach, and ideally one who is also a woman.
There are simply not enough women head coaches in the NWSL. As documented by Lindsey Gibbs (and others), as of 2020 there was only one female head coach, Freya Coombe. At present, there are three, but it’s worth noting that the two who are not Coombe, Laura Harvey and Becky Burleigh of the OL Reign and Orlando Pride respectively, were hired mid-season this year and Burleigh still has “interim” attached to her title. This number doesn’t increase when one of these coaches jumps from one team to another. Now it’s on Gotham to make a new hire, hopefully one that furthers the equity and representation found among the NWSL coaches.
To return to Gotham’s play on the field: it’s impossible to believe that this latest upheaval hasn’t affected the players’ performance on the pitch, especially because it is just one of many. After their loss to the Orlando Pride this past Sunday, team Captain, McCall Zerboni, confirmed, “I want to be transparent – it’s been really, really difficult. We’re all just trying to navigate it and figure it out, and deal with the news and anxiety of what’s to come.” Against Orlando, Gotham looked competitive. Carli Lloyd had a great chance within the first minute of the game, and as has been true in a number of previous matches, Gotham dominated possession throughout the game. But, despite outshooting the Pride, Gotham was not clinical on goal and could not find the back of the net. Zerboni was quick to clarify that she didn’t believe the departure of Coach Coombe, or any of the other recent changes endured by the club, was to blame for the club’s losses. “At the end of the day there are no excuses,” she said. “We have to get it done on the field.”
The future is so bright for this team. They have explosive offensive power, accurate and creative facilitators, shut-down defenders, and stingy goalkeepers. They also lead the league in pre-game fits and the players seem to generally have a great time with each other off the pitch. There’s time for Gotham to get back into the playoff picture. The team plays the Chicago Red Stars (currently in 5th place) on September 4th. Perhaps Gotham will get back Midge Purce, who has been out for the entire month of August with a strained quad. Gotham has yet to win without her. But a new coach would certainly help as well.