In one of the most dramatic ends to a final you’ll ever see, Gotham FC goalkeeper Mandy Haught was shown a red card in stoppage time for handling the ball outside of the box to deny a goal-scoring opportunity to the OL Reign.
But when referee Ekaterina Koroleva blew her whistle a couple of interminable minutes later, a Gotham reduced to 10 players – and forced to put 5′ 7″ midfielder Nealy Martin in goal – kept the ball out of the net to preserve their 2-1 lead and emerge as the 2023 NWSL Champions.
The chaotic ending will get the headlines – how could it not? Then there’s the storyline of the Reign’s Megan Rapinoe leaving her final professional in the just the sixth minute with what seems to be an Achilles tear, or defender Ali Krieger ending her legendary career with her first-ever club title, or the worst-to-first journey for a club that finished dead last in 2022.
But this title was won because of teamwork — and because of an incredible performance from forward Midge Purce.
Going into the NWSL Championship Final, the biggest question for Gotham was who would step up and score goals. The defensive unit was so solid they had yet to allow a goal in the playoffs, but the attacking trio of Lynn Williams, Esther Gonzalez, and Purce is among the most lethal in the league on paper, but they had yet to log a goal in the postseason.
That changed tonight when Purce put on a creative masterclass.
Gotham’s first goal was conjured out of nothing. Purce received the ball at the edge of the attacking third, then slalomed through the Reign defense before picking out Williams inside the penalty box.
The overhead shot above shows you the geography of the play, but to fully appreciate Purce’s skills you need to watch the field-level view below.
The Reign scored four minutes later, when Rose Lavelle put on a show of her own and equalized with a beautifully-worked goal. It was as if Purce and Lavelle were locked in a high-stakes dance-off.
But it was Purce who won the day, the title, and the Player of the Match.
Attacking trio delivers
The Gotham we saw in the regular season – a Gotham that managed just eight wins out of 22 regular season games, and that made it to the playoffs because of goal differential – might have collapsed under the disappointment of giving up a goal so soon after going ahead.
But the Gotham we saw in the postseason – a Gotham that won two gritty games on the road, and that went 239′ without giving up a goal – are more resilient. Two minutes into first-half stoppage-time, a Purce corner kick was headed emphatically into the goal by Esther, giving the Goths a lead they wouldn’t surrender.
To repeat the question we asked above: Who would step up and score goals?
It wasn’t clear coming into this game. Gotham had found a way to score against both the North Carolina Courage and the Portland Thorns in the postseason, but neither team were defensive powerhouses. The Reign were different. They also had two clean sheets in the playoffs. Both allowed just 24 goals in 22 regular season games.
Esther and Williams provided the answer, but it was Purce’s creativity and relentless work rate that carried the day.
It was a team win, but the team couldn’t have won it without Purce.
About that red card
Goalkeeper Mandy Haught was the hero of our Instant Reaction to Gotham’s 0-1 win over the Portland Thorns last week: She saved the win.
That was just as true today — until things got a little bit messy.
First, the good. Namely, Haught doing Haught things, like defanging a Reign attack powered by the nearly unstoppable Lavelle.
Next, what needs improvement. Namely, getting caught on the edge of a box when facing a stoppage-time breakaway charging at full speed.
Hindsight is 20/20, but Haught should have positioned herself a little farther back to take on the play as it entered the penalty area, or charged out to head or chest the ball and brace herself for the collision.
Instead, Haught was correctly shown a red card, and Gotham had to play out whatever stoppage-time minutes remained after the VAR check with just 10 players. And because head coach Juan Carlos Amorós already used all of his substitutions, Gotham would finish the game with a midfielder in goal.
It made for a wildly entertaining finale. The Gotham defenders looked like they underwent a growth spurt when play restarted — they looked taller and stronger than ever, as if they were put on this earth to protect the stand-in goalkeeper. The 5′ 7″ Martin was so unsure of herself that she put on her gloves first, then her shirt, but her defenders made sure the ball never came near the goal.
Hopefully, Haught will be remembered for what she did up until the red card.
This Gotham should be remembered for overcoming the odds to win a title that they fully deserve after being the best team on the field tonight.