Gotham’s Playoff Push Comes Amid NWSL’s Overdue Reckoning

By: Hannah Oberman-Breindel
Posted: October 14, 2021

It’s been nearly two weeks since the Athletic published a watershed piece by Meg Linehan detailing the sexual abuse perpetrated by Paul Riley and the league’s failure to act when players reported the abuse. It’s been nearly two weeks since the NWSL players demanded that play be suspended in order to protest the league’s conduct, to grieve, and “to give players space to process their pain.” 

Linehan’s piece, which centered the testimonies of Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim, was not the only public revelation of systemic abuse perpetrated by coaches in the NWSL. In mid-August, Kaiya McCullough went on record for a piece in the Washington Post by Molly Hensley-Clancy to report racist verbal abuse that McCullough endured during her rookie season which ultimately led her to leave the league and soccer. Her experience was corroborated by four other players who spoke to the Post on the condition of anonymity. 

After the publication of the Washington Post article, Richie Burke was suspended while the NWSL conducted their own investigation. At its conclusion, on September 28, the league fired Burke and sanctioned the Washington Spirit, two days before the Athletic published their investigation of Paul Riley’s misconduct. Since the publication of the Athletic article, Paul Riley has been fired as well.  

When play resumed this past Wednesday, at the behest of players, the league’s systemic failure to protect its players loomed large. Along with their choice to resume play, the players submitted a list of demands that, if met, center and empower players to participate in the management of their own league, and put in place more institutional checks to the power of GMs, owners, and coaches. Ultimately their return to play was also defiant; “we will not let our joy be taken from us,” the NWSLPA declared.

With that, Gotham FC, as well as the other teams in the NWSL, took their places on the field on Wednesday, October 6. At the time, Gotham sat just outside the playoff window. The past two games saw Gotham fight on the field for needed points to move them into playoff contention. Off the field, Gotham players continue to lead the league and be vocal in their pursuit of a league which is worthy of the players in it.

Carli Lloyd’s Send-Off: 

Gotham has played twice since NWSL play resumed. On Wednesday, they played the Washington Spirit at Subaru Park in Chester, PA. The game had been moved to the stadium outside of Philly so that Carli Lloyd, who will be retiring at the end of the season, could play a “home” game very close to where she grew up, in Delran, NJ. Lloyd’s soccer career, which spanned two decades, cannot be undersold. She has made the second-most international appearances (314) of any player (behind Kristine Lilly). She has scored 134 goals for the U.S. Women’s National Team and tallied 64 assists.  “She deserves stadiums and complexes and fields to be named after her and she deserves statues. She’s a legend, an absolute legend,” National Team Coach Vlatko Andonovski said about Lloyd recently. 

Nearly 10,000 fans filled Subaru Park to watch Carli Lloyd play with Gotham to a 0-0 tie against the Spirit. Gotham’s two best chances came in the 53rd minute from Margaret Purce, who has finally returned from a quad strain (and whose presence on the field has been sorely missed) and in the 78th minute from Carli Lloyd in the 6 yard box. Washington had the better chances throughout the game and Gotham came away with a point mainly because of the extraordinary play of Imani Dorsey, who virtually shut down the usually electric Trinity Rodman, Estelle Johnson, and Kailen Sheridan.

But the game was far from business as usual. More important than what happened on the pitch, more important than the celebration of a legend (with all the respect in the world to Carli Lloyd), was the strength and solidarity among the players. At the sixth minute of the game, all 22 players on the field, as well as substitutes from both benches, gathered at the center circle and locked arms. Some stood with their eyes open, staring out. Others had their heads bowed, their eyes closed. The NWSL Players Association had released the following statement about the gesture: “Players will join together in solidarity at the center circle for one minute in recognition of the six years it took for Mana, Sinead, and all of those who fought for too long to be heard.”

Gotham Beats Orlando In A Wild Game: 

Prior to this Saturday’s game against the Orlando Pride, Gotham was on the outside looking in. But with just single points separating 4th through 8th place in the league where the top six advance to the playoffs, every game from now until the end of the regular season feels like a playoff. 

Gotham got the scoring started immediately. In the 3rd minute of the game, Ifeoma Onumonu brought the ball upfield and sent a nice cross to Caprice Dydasco who laid it off to Gaëtane Thiney, who one-touched the ball into the upper right corner. It was the first NWSL goal for Thiney, who was starting in the midfield for Allie Long, who had received her 5th yellow card during the game on Wednesday and was serving the required suspension. Caprice Dydasco, meanwhile, with five assists on the year, shares the NWSL assists lead with Carson Pickett 

Thiney, having the game of her short NWSL career, scored again right before the half. Caprice Dydasco drew a foul in the 46th minute right outside the 18 yard box. Thiney lined up, struck the ball with her right foot, and rocketed it into the goal. Ashlynn Harris got a piece of the ball but couldn’t stop it from going in. And just like that, Gotham was up 2-0 going into halftime. 

Gotham brought the same level of intensity to the start of the second half of the game and delivered one of their most beautiful goals of the season. Imani Dorsey played the ball up the line. Ifeoma Onumonu, noting Carli Lloyd’s superior position, dummied the ball and it came through to Lloyd’s feet. Lloyd then passed to Nahomi Kawasumi in front of her. Kawasumi flicked the ball to Ifeoma Onumonu who slotted the ball across to Margaret Purce. Purce took one touch and sent the ball sailing past Harris into the goal.

Up 3-0, things got a little more tense, especially in the last 10 minutes of the game. With little to do for much of the game, in the 85th minute, Kailen Sheridan perhaps lost focus and misplayed a ball which ended up at the feet of Erika Tymrak, who then put a ball on goal that went through Sheriden’s hands. Then in the 89th minute, Estelle Johnson pulled Alex Morgan down in the box, resulting in a penalty kick, which Marta calmly and clinically converted. Just like that, with 4 minutes of stoppage time remaining, the score was 3-2, and a game that had felt like an obvious win for Gotham now felt tenuous. Gotham’s early MVP of the season, the goalpost, ended up coming up with a key save in the 90+6 minute of the game on a shot from Toni Pressley. Ashlynn Harris, who’d come out of goal for the final sequence, also had a shot blocked. The game ended immediately following that final tense flurry, and Gotham came away with a much needed three points.

The last 15 minutes notwithstanding, Gotham looked like a complete team for much of the match. The play in the midfield and forward line was inspired with many long sequences of possessions resulting in shots on goal. Ifeoma Onumonu looked excellent, with clean touches and deliberately placed balls. She and Caprice Dydasco had a hand in most of the offensive runs and both remain keys to Gotham’s success. Carli Lloyd had a strong game as well, looking much more in sync with her teammates. McCall Zerboni was a difference maker at both ends of the field. And Margaret Purce continues to lead with speed and finesse. When all of the players are on and connected, Gotham is a really fun team to watch. With the 3 points they gained from the win against Orlando, Gotham is squarely in the playoff hunt again, currently sitting in 6th place with four games left, one more game than most of the other teams above them in the standings.

After the game on Wednesday, Imani Dorsey remarked, “Soccer is very much what we love and what we love to do…this is our passion. I know that I play because I love it.” That joy was certainly evident in the way Gotham played against Orlando on Saturday. But as Dorsey clarified Wednesday, she also plays with purpose. “I want to leave the sport better for the next generation, and I want to be part of something big and something that I can change and have an impact on,” she said.

Gotham continues their fight for a playoff spot against the North Carolina Courage this Sunday. The players’ fight for recognition, for accountability, for a safe league that honors their talents and amplifies their voices, will be ongoing.

Image Credit: Nj/NY Gotham FC twitter

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