by Alok Dadhekar
This year’s second best team in the Challenge Cup, NJ/NY Gotham FC (8 points), will face the mighty Portland Thorns (10 points) in the final today at 1 pm ET at the Thorn’s home ground at Providence Park. It has been quite a journey for Gotham over the past 2 years as they went about improving their dire situation both on and off the pitch. The Thorns, despite the exit of some well known names like Australians Caitlin Foord and Ellie Carpenter, and USWNT forward Tobin Heath, seem to have gotten even stronger with the additions of established USWNT stars central defender Becky Sauerbrunn, defender/midfielder/forward Crystal Dunn, promising young American Sophia Smith, and talented Finnish defender Natalia Kuikka.
Gotham won their first 2 matches of the group stage. The first was a 1-0 away win at the Orlando Pride with a late goal by Paige Monaghan. The second was a thrilling 4-3 home win over the North Carolina Courage. This win over the reigning NWSL champions made people stop and take notice. Their final 2 matches were 0-0 draws away at the Washington Spirit and home to Racing Louisville. The Washington one was a tale of 2 halves. Gotham played really well in the first half - full of energy and creating many chances. The second half was a bit worrying. They sat back a lot, allowed the Spirit to come at them, and create some good attacks, while not creating much of their own. The defenders were amazing, but in the end Gotham was lucky the Spirit couldn’t finish off their chances. Gotham did look a bit tired in the second half. It was a similar vibe to their first match, away at the Orlando Pride. It's been just 2 away matches so far, but the travelling does seem to sap them of some of their energy. Hopefully, they'll get better in this regard as the season progresses, and more importantly it doesn’t affect them in today's final. The Louisville one was very frustrating. Gotham controlled the match throughout but could not finish their chances. They need to be more clinical against the Thorns, who won’t give them many looks at goal.
The Thorns' depth came up big in their first 2 matches of the Challenge Cup group stage, where they were missing big names like Sauerbrunn, Dunn, Horan, Sinclair and Smith because of the FIFA window of international matches. They won comfortably 2-1 at home against Kansas City, and more importantly a hard fought 1-0 away win against the Chicago Red Stars who despite missing some national team players were still a very strong side. With their stars back, they absolutely blitzed (30 shots on goal, 10 on target) the OL Reign at home, but worryingly could only score 2 goals. In their last match they travelled to the Houston Dash, who had almost all of their last year’s Challenge Cup winning first 11. It was an even and high quality encounter which ended in a 1-1 draw.
Gotham coach, Freya Coombe, has been trying a possession based style of play, from last year, that is more vertical compared to other similar teams in the NWSL. In the few matches so far, there have been signs that when the system clicks, Gotham becomes an exciting attacking team. Their go-to formation has been the flexible 4-3-3, and its variations - 4-1-4-1 / 4-5-1 - depending on match state. They can be adaptable based on how their opponent sets-up as well, as could be seen when they started out with a midfield diamond (4-1-2-1-2) to counter the Courage’s midfield box (4-2-2-2) in that famous 4-3 home win in the group stage. There is a good chance Gotham will go with the same formation in the final, given that the Mark Parson’s Thorns usually prefer the midfield diamond as well. Here are the expected starting lineups -
Gotham: Haracic; Dydasco, Lewandowski, Freeman/Johnson, Dorsey; Cudjoe; Lee, Kawasumi/Long; Lloyd; Monaghan, Purce.
Thorns: French; Kuikka, Hubly, Sauerbrunn, Klingenberg; Rodríguez/Salem; Horan, Dunn, Sinclair, Smith, Charley.
Gotham’s entire team has been performing well, but the standouts seem to be forwards Purce and Monaghan, midfielders Sodam Lee and Jennifer Cudjoe, and the entire backline.
You cannot count out USWNT midfielder/forward Carli Lloyd who has a knack of delivering amazing performances on big occasions. And also, some players, like forwards Ifeoma Onumonu and Évelyne Viens, and fullback Sabrina Flores could come in without reducing the quality of the starting line-up one bit. Allie Long, the USWNT midfielder who was acquired from the Reign in the week leading up to the Louisville match, played the 2nd half and we could see an instant jump in the quality of play. Hopefully, she can be integrated well in the Gotham system, as Gotham is currently missing midfield veteran, McCall Zerboni, who’s not been available for any matches so far because of a back injury, and their former captain and midfielder Sarah Killion Woldmoe, who is now with the Red Stars. Hoping Gotham can bring the energy and fight similar to the gritty 1-1 away draw the last time (3 August 2019) these 2 teams met where Imani Dorsey scored a brilliant equalizer to cap off a clever team move. This was also one of the first matches of Coombe being the head coach.
The Thorns are stacked with talent both experienced and upcoming. Besides their stars mentioned earlier, the ones that stood out were forwards Morgan Weaver and Simone Charley, midfielder Rocky Rodríguez, and central defender Kelli Hubly, who seems to have displaced Kuikka to a fullback role. The final will also be notable for Purce and Rodríguez playing against their former teams for the first time after the trade early last year that saw them swap teams.
Gotham have made it to a final after a long time (the last one they did in 2009, they won the WPS Championship), while the Thorns have been in 3 NWSL Championship finals, winning 2 of them (2013, 2017). An exciting and entertaining match with lots of (well crafted) chances and goals, would be ideal, but as a Gotham fan, I’d take a scrappy 1-0 win over the Thorns any day.