OL Reign will try to give Megan Rapinoe the sendoff she deserves before retiring from professional soccer – an NWSL Championship trophy. To do that, they’ll need to beat NJ/NY Gotham FC in the NWSL final on Saturday, an opponent that will be motivated to do the same for the retiring Ali Krieger.
The championship battle kicks off at Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego at 5 pm PT and will air on CBS, in addition to streaming on Paramount+.
After a last-place finish in 2022, Gotham brought in head coach Juan Carlos Amorós and several new signings, including Lynn Williams, Yazmeen Ryan, and World Cup champion Esther González. The team turned things around and earned the sixth and final spot in the NWSL playoffs – beating the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns to advance to the final. Amorós was named NWSL Coach of the Year this week for leading the club’s turnaround.
Both Amorós and Reign head coach Laura Harvey have demonstrated tactical flexibility throughout the season, and both teams have rotated lineups due to tactics, injuries, and the World Cup at different points throughout the season.
The Reign and Gotham have another thing in common: neither team has won an NWSL final, which means the league will welcome a new champion this year. This is Gotham’s first time appearing in the championship match, while the Reign lost both final appearances in 2014 and 2015.
Get to know OL Reign’s opponent and what the Reign will need to do to shut them down.
Head to Head
This is the third meeting between OL Reign and Gotham this year. The two teams split results in the regular season.
- The Reign won 2-0 in convincing fashion on the road back in April.
- Gotham was the victor in a dominant 4-1 win at Lumen Field in May.
- The Reign are 12-8-7 all-time against Gotham.
- In the regular season, Gotham (8-7-7) scored 25 goals and conceded 24.
- OL Reign (9-8-5) scored 29 and conceded 24 in league play.
- Lynn Williams led Gotham with 7 goals and 3 assists in the regular season.
- Both teams averaged 50% possession in their two matchups this season. The Reign averaged 9.5 shots in these matches (1.5 xG average), while Gotham averaged 12 (1.2 xG average).
What to Watch
Here are four things to watch for in the championship match.
Mirroring the approach he brought to the Houston Dash after taking over as head coach midseason in 2022, Amorós had found success getting his team to play in a high-pressing style.
In the regular season, Gotham forced the most high turnovers by a wide margin (367 compared to Portland in second at 311). They had the second-most shots in the league from these high turnovers (53). And while they weren’t able to convert as often as they wanted, Gotham scored three goals from these turnovers.
Here’s one example from their NWSL semifinal against the Portland Thorns that shows just how effective their high press can be. It really kicks into gear when the ball goes to a centerback.
In their 4-1 win against the Reign back in May, Gotham’s front four worked hard to force the Reign to the left side of the field, away from the danger of Alana Cook and Sofia Huerta, while also plugging up options to Quinn and Emily Sonnett in the midfield. Here’s one clip that illustrates their approach.
When the Reign sprayed the ball wide on the left, Lynn Williams closed down quickly – forcing the Reign into a number of mistakes. Williams has started on the wing and up top for Gotham throughout the season. Wherever she lines up on Saturday, she’ll close down quickly on the Reign.
How the Reign can counter the press: There are two ways to handle a high press like this. The first is quick passing and switches combined with the ability to dribble out of pressure. The second is bypassing the press altogether and going long. One thing that going long early can do is force defenses to drop instinctively, giving you a little more room to work with. And the Reign have players like Cook who can deliver pinpoint long passes. If that doesn’t work for the Reign, they’ll need to be disciplined on the ball as they build.
Gotham plays with a high defensive line
Paired with their high press, Gotham also plays with a high defensive line. This compresses the field for opponents while also forcing teams into offside calls. In fact, Gotham leads the league in offside calls against their opponents – with 74 compared to just 24 for opponents who face the Reign.
High lines can be incredibly effective, and they are for Gotham for the most part. However, they can leave a team vulnerable in transition. Here’s an example of how Kansas City did that in their 2-2 draw with Gotham to close out the regular season – finding the switch to a wide-open Alexa Spaanstra on the right side of the field.
While Gotham’s high line recovers on the below play against North Carolina, look how high it was at the start. Despite the recovery, the Courage still created a goal-scoring opportunity by putting that high line on their heels. In this example, the Courage switched the field in their defensive third, made a progressive pass, carried the ball up, and sent a dangerous ball into the box.
Portland’s best chance in the NWSL semifinal came when they won a clearance and were able to transition quickly on Gotham with their fullbacks still high. Gotham was rather lucky to see Morgan Weaver unable to get a clean shot off on the dangerous opportunity.
How the Reign can beat the high defensive line: As the clips above highlight, transition, transition, transition. It’s been the main way that OL Reign has attacked and created chances in recent weeks. They’ll be hoping to repeat this in the final.
Gotham likes to attack with numbers
With forwards like Williams and Midge Purce, who can both cover a lot of ground and are dangerous on the dribble, Gotham likes to isolate opponents into 1v1 battles. Williams in particular has been a real menace this year. She leads the league in shots, in addition to being second in shots on goal, tied for third in the league in goals (7), and third in non-penalty expected goals.
Expect Gotham to push their outside backs high into the attack to create additional width and add numbers. In this clip from the NWSL quarterfinal against the Courage, right back Bruninha is the tallest and widest player on the right side, where the attack starts. Teammate Williams wins the long ball nearby before finding left back Jenna Nighswonger for a run on the opposite side after Purce pulled her defender towards the center.
How the Reign can limit Gotham’s chances: The Reign need to continue defending just like they have for the last month, as a team. Expect Sonnett to play a big role defensively, covering lots of ground to ensure her outside backs aren’t defending in isolation. And wing players like Veronica Latsko will be crucial in picking up the late runs from Nighswonger.
Can the Reign get crosses off?
The Reign leads the league in completed crosses – and it’s a big part of what makes the team dangerous. In addition to having players who are good in the air, crosses cause opponents to scramble in a dangerous spot on the field.
However, in their two matches against Gotham this year, the Reign managed to whip in just 6 and 10 crosses respectively, their lowest totals this season. Gotham allows the fewest crosses in the league.
There is some space on the wing to whip balls in, as Alexa Spaanstra found on the right with the Current. Using the width and overlapping runs could produce something similar for the Reign.
How the Reign can find some crossing success: If the Reign can switch the ball quickly and often, they should be able to get Rapinoe and Huerta open to find runners in the box. Latvia should have a few opportunities as well if she takes advantage of the team’s width. But if the Reign don’t get a lot of chances to cross, the team will need to take advantage of the few opportunities that emerge. And even if they can’t cross, they can still create chances with smart runs into the box – just like they did in their first match against Gotham.
How to Watch
The NWSL final kicks off at 5 pm PT on Saturday, Nov. 11. The match will air on CBS and stream on Paramount+. I will also be available on the NWSL website for international viewers.