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How Gotham FC rose from NWSL laughing stock to champion

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 11: Ali Krieger #11 of NJ/NY Gotham FC kisses the NWSL trophy at Snapdragon Stadium on November 11, 2023 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Ben Nichols/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Ali Krieger of NJ/NY Gotham FC kisses the NWSL trophy at Snapdragon Stadium on Nov. 11, 2023 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Ben Nichols/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Gotham FC’s worst-to-first tale begins somewhere beneath the basement of the National Women’s Soccer League.

The New Jersey-based club won its first NWSL title Saturday, one year after a pitiful season that ended with a league-worst 13 points and 17 losses in 22 games.

But numbers undersell the scope of its turnaround. Its 2022 futility was not rock bottom. This is a story that begins last decade with leaking ceilings and dried mucus on walls, without locker rooms or running water at team facilities, and with rampant sub-professional conditions that scarred players and made the franchise, then known as Sky Blue FC, the most ridiculed and censured in the league.

Those conditions finally sparked a reckoning in 2018, amid a shocking Sky Blue season that careened off the rails, without a win until its very last weekend. That was the fissured bedrock from which the 2023 NWSL champions have risen.

The turnaround began off the field, with improved housing, groundshares and a 2021 rebrand. Then it accelerated on the field in 2023, for the world to see. Revered captain Ali Krieger anchored it. Juan Carlos Amorós, the recently named NWSL Coach of the Year, steered it. They and a team of “incredible human beings,” as Krieger said, grinded through the playoffs and toppled the OL Reign in a chaotic final, 2-1.

This, however, is a deeper story of a club reformed and reborn. Around this time last year, Krieger sat down with its leaders for “tough conversations.” She and others pointed to various shortcomings, and said: “Look, this isn't good enough.”

If they wanted to win an NWSL trophy, or even just the league’s respect, “then we all have to be 100% in,” Krieger explained. “It can't just be the players. It has to be the coaches, it has to be the medical team, it has to be the support staff, it has to be the front office staff. It has to be our photographers, our social media team, our communications team.” For years, many of those departments hadn’t been properly staffed, financed or aligned. Owners and executives, Krieger said, had “to be willing to spend the money, and the time, and the energy, to make it right.”

And in 2023, more so than ever before, they began to do that.

Lynn Williams, a U.S. national team veteran and offseason acquisition, remembers a Day 1 meeting with general manager Yael Averbuch West, who told the players: “Look, we've done a disservice to you guys in the past. But we are gonna start right now with building the foundation.”

NJ/NY Gotham defender Ali Krieger, third from right, celebrates with teammates after NJ/NY Gotham defeated OL Reign 2-1 in the NWSL Championship soccer game, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
NJ/NY Gotham defender Ali Krieger, third from right, celebrates with teammates after NJ/NY Gotham defeated OL Reign 2-1 in the NWSL Championship soccer game, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

‘The girls deserve better’

Gotham, founded in 2006 as Jersey Sky Blue, is the longest-operating professional women’s soccer team in the United States — but for years, it was “professional” in name only.

It was co-founded and financed by Phil Murphy, a Goldman Sachs alum who’s now the governor of New Jersey. His motivation, he’d later say, was essentially to inspire his soccer-playing daughter. His problem, apparently, was that he and co-owner Steven Temares, then-CEO of Bed Bath & Beyond, had no clue how to run a soccer club. They largely left it in the hands of Tony Novo, a mortgage loan officer at PNC Bank who, in 2013, became Sky Blue’s part-time general manager and president.

Novo oversaw an operation that players and coaches described as amateurish and draining. They trained at colleges and elementary schools, sometimes on “horrible grass.” Without proper medical equipment, and without locker rooms, laundry facilities or an equipment manager, they’d arrive in smelly or self-washed training gear, plop their backpacks down beside a field, and practice, as if they were a U-13 travel team.

They couldn’t shower after practice, or even after games at Rutgers University’s Yurcak Field. To treat her aching muscles, Carli Lloyd would take ice baths in a 50-gallon trash can. And they couldn’t go to the bathroom, except in a port-a-potty. (When all of this came to light, the club’s temporary solution was a field-side RV with a toilet and shower.)

And the ghastly conditions didn’t end there. They extended to player housing. The club provided a rotating cast of rentals, some 45-plus minutes away, often for only a few months at a time, forcing players to move multiple times midseason. Some would sleep in bunk beds, or even on teammates’ couches. Some were reportedly forced to live with an elderly man who repeatedly made inappropriate comments, or with a couple who “scolded” one player for not caring for their daughter.

And the homes themselves? “Players reported living in houses with broken windows, cracked floors, leaking ceilings, dried mucus on the walls, and, in one instance, a whole human toenail sitting on a windowsill,” Sally Yates wrote in her 2022 investigative report on abuse in women’s soccer. “One player stated that her housing was so abysmal that she believed the house had been abandoned. Another player even reported finding a bag of cocaine in her bedsheets.”

Assistant coach Dave Hodgson, speaking to The Equalizer in 2018 after leaving the club, called some of the living conditions “horrific.”

On the road, life wasn’t any better. There were early-morning flights, and stops at gas stations or fast food joints, to save money. Other cost-cutting measures left the players (and their equipment) cramming into vans, or passing time before night games in common rooms because they had to check out of hotel rooms early. On one trip to North Carolina, Hodgson alleged, they spent hours at the airport, unable to hire vans, because a credit card didn’t work.

All of this came to light in 2018, via The Equalizer and Once A Metro, after former striker Sam Kerr scored a hat trick against Sky Blue then spoke out about how “the girls deserve better.” And all of it contributed to the worst season in NWSL history, nine points from 24 games.

“As a competitor, in the past, to see the players that they had, on paper, I was always curious why they weren't having so much success,” Williams said this week. Here, in all these alarming reports, was the answer.

The following February, the club’s top two draft picks, Hailie Mace and Julia Ashley, spurned Sky Blue and headed overseas to avoid these “bad things.”

And it was around that time, it seems, that ownership decided they had to change.

NJ/NY Gotham defender Ali Krieger (11) holds the trophy after NJ/NY Gotham defeated OL Reign 2-1 in the NWSL Championship soccer game, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
NJ/NY Gotham defender Ali Krieger (11) holds the trophy after NJ/NY Gotham defeated OL Reign 2-1 in the NWSL Championship soccer game, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Big-name investment yields a new era

In 2019, after years of neglect, Tammy Murphy, Phil’s wife, announced she’d take on “an active role in club activities moving forward.” She “committed to improving the player experience.” The club soon parted ways with Novo and, inch by inch, tried to uphold Murphy’s promise.

Ahead of the 2020 season, it moved in with the New York Red Bulls, at the MLS club’s training facility and stadium. It welcomed Ed Nalbandian as a minority owner and managing partner. In 2021, a week before its season began, it unveiled a sleek new logo and name, NJ/NY Gotham FC. And six months later, it snuck into the playoffs for the first time since the NWSL’s inaugural season, 2013.

But still, not all was well. In 2022, as Krieger told ESPN, they remained “a mess.” They’d cycled through five coaches from 2019-22. Scott Parkinson, one of the five, recently said: “When we got into the offseason of 2022, I think it’s fair to say there were some alignment issues internally. I don’t think the club was ready to commit to what was required. We weren’t good in 2022 and I think we were fighting a tough battle off the field as much as we were on the field.”

As they slumped to another last-place finish, though, and endured an unprecedented losing streak that spanned more than half the season, they began attracting investors. Lloyd, now retired, bought in. Kevin Durant, his business partner Rich Kleiman, Sue Bird, Eli Manning and New York Giants executive Pete Guelli followed. The club’s valuation rose above $40 million. A better ownership structure had crystallized. And before long, a new era began.

Arguably the most significant investment was in Amorós, a Spaniard who previously coached Tottenham, Real Betis and the Houston Dash. Gotham hired him away from the Dash, and players soon understood why he’d been coveted. At early meetings, Williams recalled, video presentations would have closed-captioning in multiple languages — a small detail, but one of many that made all players feel accommodated and valued. In those early days of preseason at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, they began to bond around a new identity. And they began to believe.

They all knew, though, that investments had to be multifaceted. “It's not always about the players, what we need,” Krieger said. “Are the coaches getting what they need to be successful?” The club answered that question by backing Amorós with a strength and conditioning coach, a head of tactical analysis, and a generally expanded staff.

“Then you think about the front office staff: Is there enough people?” Williams added. “Are they wearing too many hats? Do we have the right people in the right places?” The club began to answer those questions, too, and players noticed.

They noticed, and responded, and bought in.

“When you have a team that invests in you, and you see the investment, it allows you to feel like you are truly a professional,” Williams said. “We give so much, we are away from our families all the time, we are putting our bodies on the line, we have cuts, scrapes, bigger injuries that are gonna be life-long in some cases. And we are giving everything to this team and everything to this game. So to have a GM, or an owner, or fans come out, and say, ‘You know what, we want to give you guys this to hopefully get to a standard that is acceptable and thriving’ — it allows you to say, ‘OK, this is worth it.’”

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 11: Margaret Purce #23 of NJ/NY Gotham FC is awarded the NWSL Championship MVP following the 2023 NWSL Championship against the OL Reign at Snapdragon Stadium on November 11, 2023 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)
Margaret Purce of NJ/NY Gotham FC is awarded the NWSL Championship MVP following the 2023 NWSL Championship against the OL Reign at Snapdragon Stadium on Nov. 11, 2023 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)

Gotham FC evolves overnight with title win

It helped, of course, that Averbuch West — who, as a former player and NWSL Players Association leader, had been an unconventional GM hire — traded for Williams and Yazmeen Ryan, and built a roster that Amorós could mold into a high-pressing machine.

That machine stormed out of the gates this spring. And it felt validated by a 4-1 win over the Reign in Seattle in May. That, Krieger remembers, was the moment when she thought: “Now I know we can actually do this. ... We can get into the playoffs. This can be a thing.”

“I knew that everyone was willing to buy into the plan, to the process, and also to themselves,” she said.

They slowed over the summer, and down the NWSL’s grueling stretch. But bonds and belief held them together. They squeaked into the playoffs on goal differential. They blanked North Carolina in the first round. They topped Portland in a rain-soaked semi.

They savored each win as they went. But they never got complacent. Nor has the club, which is still in the early stages of its journey. For all its growth, Gotham still attracts below-league-average attendance (6,293 per game in 2023), and still doesn’t have a training ground or offices that it can call its own.

But it is now a truly professional club. And its transformation climaxed amid buzz, underneath fireworks, on the NWSL’s biggest-ever stage, in primetime on Saturday night.

It was everything Krieger had dreamed of as a little kid, and everything she’d pushed for, day after day, drill after drill, meeting after meeting, in New Jersey and beyond.

And all of it, at the very final stage of her career, paid off.

“I don't think I could dream of a better ending for myself,” Krieger said. “I just want to ride off into the sunset.”