Back in September, Ali Krieger sent a text message to Megan Rapinoe, hoping to make her schedule work to see the legend on the pitch one last time. The prospect thrilled Rapinoe, who wondered if she could return the favor by working Krieger’s last game into her schedule.
“When is your last game for the Gothams?” Pinoe texted.
“November 11th,” Krieger shot back. It was a confident response: at the time, Krieger’s team, NY/NJ Gotham FC, had dropped to fifth place in the standings. There was still a question of whether Gotham would make the playoffs at all so the idea that they’d make it to the NWSL’s November 11th championship? It was a bold assertion.
Rapinoe laughed in response and then the significance of the date seemed to strike her. The Reign were in a better position than Gotham but not by much: they’d just won their first game after dropping three in a row. But, never short on confidence, Rapinoe quipped back, “Well I guess that’s my last game too.”
And now, two months after that text exchange, the prophesy has been fulfilled: Megan Rapinoe and the OL Reign will face Ali Krieger and Gotham FC for the NWSL Championship. It’s a fairytale ending for the pair who have been part of this league since its inception and who have won nearly every piece of hardware available in women’s soccer except this one.
We asked the two legends Megan Rapinoe & Ali Krieger if they had messages for each other ahead of tomorrow’s #NWSLChampionship
The difference is too much 🤣💀 pic.twitter.com/7wMzCJVKCt
— The Women’s Soccer Show (@TheWOSOshow) November 10, 2023
Both will retire as legends, but only one will finish their career as an NWSL champion.
NWSL Playoff Format
The NWSL playoffs have a pretty simple format: the top six teams in the league — as determined by point standings and, if necessary, goal differential — advance to the playoffs.
The top two teams get opening round byes, leaving the other four teams to battle it out in the quarterfinals. The winner of those games move onto face the league’s top finishers at their home fields in the semifinals. Then, of course, the winners of the semifinal match-up in the finals. Seems pretty simple, right? It would… if not for the international break.
And then there were two 😌 pic.twitter.com/UdvIpkUQsN
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) November 6, 2023
The international break is a period, pre-determined by FIFA, when players leave their club teams and join their national teams for international duty. It causes upheaval and a pretty unnecessary detour in the middle of the seasons and, importantly for what we’re discussing today, the playoffs, that a lot of players want to see changed. On a playoff edition of their podcast, “The RE-CAP Show,” NWSL legends Tobin Heath and Christen Press both urged the NWSL to change the format.
How’d the OL Reign and Gotham FC Get Here?
The road to the championship isn’t easy for any team but one would be hard-pressed to argue that Gotham’s road to San Diego — the franchise’s first ever trip to the finals — wasn’t more hard won. After all, last year they finished 12th in the league. Twelfth out of 12 teams! From worst to… maybe, possibly… first!
Alexa, play that song that goes, “started at the bottom now we here…”
Still, though, the Bats (as they’re affectionally known) barely squeaked into the playoffs. In the end, they finished tied in overall points with the Orlando Pride but won the sixth and final spot in the playoffs by goal differential.
In the opening round, Gotham drew the North Carolina Courage. The home team was short-handed: North Carolina was playing without future league MVP Kerolin who had torn her right ACL in their regular season finale. Kerolin’s absence was just too big of a hole to fill in the short time the Courage had to prepare. Without the Brazilian superstar, the Courage didn’t have that potent offensive threat and Gotham’s defense allowed them to control the game. The Bats won their quarterfinal match-up (2-0) and advanced to the semifinals against the defending champion Portland Thorns.
In their semifinal match, Gotham defense was relentless… and it wasn’t just their stellar backline, it was everyone. There wasn’t a moment when Thorns’ forward Sophia Smith got on the ball and wasn’t immediately surrounded by four Gotham players. Did that exhaust the Gotham frontline? I think so because their offense just wasn’t as potent… but you could also chalk that up to the torrential rain and the artificial pitch. At any rate, Gotham escapes with a goal in extra time from Liverpool transfer Katie Stengel and advance to the franchise’s first ever finals.
Can't hit it much sweeter than that 💥
Katie Stengel gives Gotham the lead! pic.twitter.com/dCvVIptqm8
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) November 6, 2023
On the other side of the pitch, OL Reign’s championship run is built on the back of its veterans.
Megan Rapinoe, Jess Fishlock, Lauren Barnes and Head Coach Laura Harvey have been with the OL Reign (formerly known as the Seattle Reign) since its inception. That’s unheard-of in professional sports. But while they’ve been together a long time, have won the NWSL Shield (the regular season trophy) three times and been to the finals twice before; the NWSL Championship is the one title that’s eluded them.
Thanks to their fourth place finish this season, the OL Reign were able to host their quarterfinal game in Seattle. They had a difficult draw, playing Angel City who came into the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the league under new head coach Becki Tweed. But, for the first time since Sept. 3, OL Reign’s star midfielder Rose Lavelle was available for action… and right away, you could see her impact on the pitch. The Reign were able to stifle the usually potent Angel City offense and get the ball into their attacking third. Late in the game, Phoebe McClernon drives the ball inside to a running Veronica Latsko who heads the ball in for a 1-0 victory. The win was the first Reign playoff victory since 2015.
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) November 6, 2023
But Latsko’s not done! She become the first player in NWSL history to score in back-to-back playoff games since 2019, when, against the San Diego Wave, she sends a cross in that — somehow! — finds its way into the back of the net. The look of absolute shock and dismay of Latsko’s face, even as she celebrates her goal, might be one of the highlights of the 2023 season for me. The Reign defense is, once again able to stifle a potent offense and keep Alex Morgan and the San Diego Wave from capping off their Shield-winning season with a trip to the finals.
With their storied careers, their imminent retirements and with Krieger and Rapinoe having manifested this championship match, it’s understandable that they’re the story that everyone’s talking about.
Can’t get enough of these two 😁
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) November 10, 2023
But those aren’t the only storylines that I’m invested in.
The Returns of Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim
Most of the women who have changed the game of women’s soccer, you know. They become so ubiquitous that even if you’re not a soccer fan, you recognize them. Mia Hamm. Brandi Chastain. Abby Wambach. Brianna Scurry. Megan Rapinoe. Ali Krieger. Alex Morgan. Even if you’re not a fan of the beautiful game, you recognize them. Their legacy precedes them. But Saturday night, two absolute gamechangers will put on the Gotham FC kit and compete for a championship… and not nearly enough people watching will know who they are.
Back in 2021, Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim both came forward and shared the story of the abuse they experienced under their former head coach, abuse that drove them both away from the game.
The fallout was cataclysmic and necessary. Coaches were fired, some owners were pressured to sell, the NWSL began an immediate investigation, US Soccer tapped Sally Yates (yes, that Sally Yates) to conduct a separate inquiry. Farrelly and Shim’s courageous testimony brought long overdue changes to the game.
Victory in Portland. 🖤 pic.twitter.com/NPG2oAYD8K
— NJ/NY Gotham FC (@GothamFC) November 6, 2023
Once they were both able to see that change was possible — Shim still serves as chair of US Soccer’s Participant Safety Taskforce — they were able to recapture their love for the game. Farrelly returned to the NWSL in March, after an eight year break from soccer, and Shim returned in June.
“Returning to the NWSL has been one of the most challenging, transformative, eye-opening experiences of my life. I’m here to tell you that if you have the courage to step outside of your comfort zone and face that shadow, whatever it might be in your world, you can receive peace in exchange. You can receive joy, something I personally feared I might never feel again while playing soccer. The journey back was neither smooth nor linear, but it has been worth every difficult experience and hard lesson I learned to get to where I am now.” — Sinead Farrelly
Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim are heroes. Perhaps if they raise an NWSL trophy on Saturday, the world will start to recognize them for the gamechangers they are.
Is This OL Reign Coach Laura Harvey’s Last Stand?
Other than the NWSL finals, the big news in women’s soccer right now is the anticipated hiring of Chelsea manager Emma Hayes to lead the USWNT. For non-soccer fans, it’s hard to quantify how big of a hire this but, simply put: Emma Hayes is largely considered to be the best coach in women’s soccer today. After the conclusion of Chelsea’s season, she’ll be working to restore the USWNT to its former glory, as well as rebuilding a depleated US Soccer youth system.
Hayes’ move leaves an opening at Chelsea and, assuming that Hayes takes her team along with her, it’s probably one of the best jobs in all of women’s sports. Does OL Reign coach Laura Harvey — an England native with coaching/managing experience at Birmingham City, Arsenal, OL Reign and the US U-20 team — take a shot at that position?
Whatever happens in Saturday’s match, Harvey’s been a candidate for the USWNT head coaching job twice now and hasn’t gotten it… and, on some level, that’s got to frustrate her. Does she look elsewhere for other international coaching opportunities? Does she ride off into the sunset with Megan Rapinoe, a player that’s been central to her life, both professionally and personally?
Is That Your Pitch?
Questions about the soccer pitches usually revolve around one thing: grass or artifical turf.
(There was also the time that “baseball diamonds” was an option but soccer fans like to purge that from our collective memories.)
Despite grass being the preferred playing surface for most players, OL Reign and the Portland Thorns still play on artificial surfaces so there was a chance the NWSL championship would be played on turn (to their credit, the Thorns are pushing for changes to their stadium). But, thankfully, back in July the NWSL announced that this year’s championship would be held at the home of the San Diego Wave, at Snapdragon Stadium… which boasts a grass pitch.
Crisis averted, right? If only.
The Wave share a stadium with the San Diego State University Aztecs and remnants of the previous night’s football game lingered on the field. The Aztec insignia, the hashmarks, divots… all fully visible during Sunday’s match. It was absolutely dreadful. It looked like no effort had been made to prepare the pitch to host the NWSL semifinals. It fell so far below the standards you’d expect for a professional sports club…. the Wave and the NWSL should’ve been embarrassed.
So what’s the pitch in San Diego going to look like on Saturday? Is it possible to rehab that field in time? Hopefully so, but more important for me, at least, how do we begin to set new expectations about facilities in the NWSL? Is there going to be a move away from turf, permanently? How are we negotiating use of these shared facilities and are NWSL teams getting priority in their use?
And Finally, Which Players Are Gay in the NWSL Championship Game?
NY/NJ Gotham FC
Quinn (who uses they/them pronouns)
Jess Fishlock & Tziarra King
How To Watch the NWSL Championship Game
The NWSL championship airs live on CBS and Paramount+ on Saturday at 8PM ET/5 PM PT. Do yourself a favor and skip the pre-show.