NWSL championship: Gotham FC beats OL Reign to win dramatic title one year after last-place finish

NJ/NY Gotham defender Ali Krieger, center, kisses 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, center, kisses 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) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Gotham FC won a beautifully chaotic NWSL championship game Saturday, beating the OL Reign 2-1 to complete an out-of-nowhere rise from the league's basement to its mountaintop.

A year ago, the New Jersey-based club finished dead last in the 12-team National Women's Soccer League. New additions, a new coaching staff and a revamped culture propelled Gotham to the playoffs, then through those playoffs, all the way to its first title.

And two of those 2023 additions were the heroes Saturday in San Diego. Lynn Williams, a multi-time NWSL champ acquired in a draft-day trade from Kansas City, opened the scoring in the 24th minute. After Rose Lavelle equalized for the Reign, Esther Gonzalez scored in first-half stoppage time to put Gotham ahead for good.

The best player on the field, though — and ultimately the championship game MVP — was undoubtedly Midge Purce.

Gotham's right winger diced up the entire left side of the Reign defense, beating three players in quick succession, to set up Williams for the opener.

Purce also served the corner that Gonzalez — a recently crowned World Cup winner with Spain — turned into the winner.

Then Gotham held firm. And its anchor all along, through good times and bad these past two seasons, was Ali Krieger.

In her final professional soccer game, the 39-year-old captain and two-time world champion was rock solid and won her first NWSL title. She jumped up and down, deliriously, moments after the final whistle, while thousands of fans at Snapdragon Stadium chanted her name.

The final had been billed as a matchup of Krieger and Megan Rapinoe, two retiring legends, former teammates and close friends. That narrative fizzled in agony, though, within three minutes, when Rapinoe went down injured. She exited the match in tears.

Rapinoe's injury sucked life out of the early stages. But then the game rebounded with verve. Lavelle, who'd struggled all year with injuries, was at her playmaking best. Purce and Yazmeen Ryan were consistently dangerous for Gotham, who struck the woodwork twice.

The difference, in the end, was quality in the final third. The Reign had chances, for example: Lavelle carved up Gotham with a devilish through-ball early in the second half and sent forward Veronica Latsko bearing down on Gotham keeper Mandy Haught, all alone. But Latsko fired a tame shot that Haught pushed to safety.

In the final minute of stoppage time, Lavelle had one final chance, but sent it sailing over the bar — and that's when the night descended into madness. Replays revealed that Haught, who'd crept to the top of her penalty box to punch a ball away from Reign attacker Elyse Bennett, had actually reached outside the area to handle the ball.

After a video review, the referee ruled that Haught had denied the Reign an obvious goalscoring opportunity. So Haught was red carded and sent off. Gotham tried to sub in backup goalkeeper Michelle Betos, but didn't have a substitution window left — so midfielder Neely Martin stepped into goal, tugging on a bright pink jersey, to defend a free kick from the top of the penalty box, 19 yards out.

Lavelle, though, hit the wall with her last-gasp free kick.

Gotham was dogged in defense of its lead. It maintained its signature high press for all 100-plus minutes, keeping the Reign pinned back. It repelled every last Reign cross. And then, at the final whistle, its players erupted, joyous and triumphant.

A half-hour later, Krieger lifted the trophy. Fireworks shot skyward. And the club's remarkable turnaround had its crowning achievement.