It’s the Climb: Gotham FC Promise Progress after Underwhelming Challenge Cup
At the start of the 2022 Challenge Cup, Coach Scott Parkinson thought he and his Gotham FC players would pick up where they left off last season: playing a similar style to what took them to last year’s cup final and to the team’s first playoff appearance since the league’s inaugural season.
And with Gotham having maintained the majority of its core players — including MVP candidate and leading goal scorer Margaret Purce — that expectation was a reasonable one. If anything, the off-season acquisition of Kristie Mewis raised expectations for what the team’s attack could be with someone like Mewis to play those key passes in the final third.
But in the six games of Challenge Cup play — which ended for Gotham on Saturday after a 1-1 draw with Orlando — the results, and, perhaps more importantly, the performances, did not meet those expectations.
“In my head, I’m planning preseason out like we’ll be the Gotham we were last year: we’ll just kind of play a similar shape and similar style, and we’ll just kind of move on from that. Within two games, we’ll be rocking, and let’s try to win this thing — and that just didn’t happen,” Parkinson said following Saturday’s match at Red Bull Arena. “We weren’t the team we were last year. We aren’t the team we were last year.”
For long stretches in this tournament, Gotham looked like a team just getting to know one another — missing the chemistry and possession-oriented play that previously defined them. They ended their Challenge Cup run with two losses, three draws, and just one victory. In those games, they conceded eight goals and scored five. But just two of those five goals came from open play, underscoring Gotham’s struggle to build a cohesive attack.
It was in these minutes that you wonder just how much Kailen Sheridan, who was traded to San Diego in the off-season, and Allie Long, who recently announced that she’s pregnant with twins, are missed by the club.
Gotham often struggled last season to score, but they managed to get results by not conceding many goals. This was often up to some last-ditch defending and heroic saves from Sheridan, who made the NWSL Best XI in 2021. With Sheridan embarking on a new challenge in southern California, the same stinginess in the defense has been missing.
Ashlyn Harris, coming to Gotham with her own list of accolades, is of course a capable keeper, but there have been moments of unease, particularly in defending set pieces. In their 1-3 loss to the Spirit, Washington equalized on a free kick outside the box but curiously during that sequence, neither the wall nor Harris moved once the ball was struck, leaving it to curl into the net. And on Saturday, Gotham conceded early from a corner kick during which Caprice Dydasco lost her mark near post and Harris didn’t react in time to stop the header from finding the back of the net. In her post-game remarks Saturday, Dydasco noted that giving up that kind of goal is characteristic of a backline-goalkeeper relationship that’s still in its infancy. It’s a matter of chemistry and communication that will improve as the season progresses, she said.
The absence of Long, however, may be trickier for Gotham to solve long term. In her first season with the club, Long became undroppable, anchoring the midfield and initiating the team’s build-up play from the back. Without her, Parkinson has had to tinker with various player combinations and formations, which has left little time for building consistency. McCall Zerboni, Jennifer Cudjoe, and rookie Taryn Torres have all taken turns filling in at the holding position, with Cudjoe and Zerboni looking like the clearest replacements. But that’s a question that will likely still need to be answered in the early stages of the regular season.
And though the Challenge Cup revealed the work that still needs to be done by Gotham in order to be a convincing playoff contender, the second half of Saturday’s game was a reminder that there is still much to be optimistic about with this side.
With a 1-1 scoreline at halftime, Gotham came out firing in the second 45, creating chance after chance. Zerboni became quite the imposing figure, breaking up Orlando’s play and winning balls in the air. Her partners in midfield, Mewis and Japanese international Kumi Yokoyama were able to get on the ball much more, breaking lines and combining with the forward players. And without having to do so much defending, Dydasco was able to push forward into the attack, playing crosses into the box.
Ifeoma Onumonu and Paige Monaghan both came close to putting the game away — and probably should have — with their opportunities in the second half. But the fact these two got into such dangerous positions and posed a constant threat on goal, and that they did so without Purce — who was left out of the lineup as a cautionary measure due to a tight abductor — will be seen as something to build on.
And that was certainly the message after the match: this team will build, and we’ll have to be patient.
“It is just a build, and I don’t think the Challenge Cup to the league is like a cliff, where now we just jump off and it’s time,” Parkinson said Saturday. “Ultimately, we are not playing in a fashion right now that’s gonna win an NWSL championship — right now. And I don’t think that we can solve that in a week. So, I think it’s going to continue to be a build up, but though we know that there will be challenges, and we may take steps back and we may stall, we just have to keep driving forward and pushing forward.”
It’s a message Parkinson has imparted on his players, as well. And despite the struggles, Mewis said it’s a message the players have bought into.
“I think [that message is] obviously sometimes hard to stomach because you just want to be the best you possibly can be on the get-go,” said Mewis. “I mean, [Parkinson] said tonight that obviously, from the beginning to the end [of the tournament], we are definitely getting better. I think we still have so much to work on, but no one wants to peek at the beginning of the season.”
Mewis said it’s a matter of building partnerships on the field, and that will keep them inching forward.
“We obviously wish we did better with the results and with some of our play, but I think that the potential is just unreal with this team,” she said. “I’m so looking forward to the rest of the season.”
Gotham starts their regular season campaign with a rematch away to the Orlando Pride on May 1, and those signs of progress will be crucial in the coming weeks to keep the supporters and players galvanized. The promise of potential may satisfy for now, but there will come a point where that potential needs to be realized.