The most-hyped NWSL championship game in the league’s brief history was supposed to be a celebration of Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger, who were making the final appearances of their storied careers.
But the game will be remembered for Lynn Williams’ brilliance and a Rapinoe injury that conspired to change the storyline early in Gotham FC’s 2-1 win over the OL Reign on Saturday.
Williams made history by taking the field for Gotham since the game marked her fifth NWSL final, matching Kristen Hamilton’s record. But with the win she wrote her own page in the record book, becoming the league’s only four-time champion. And she played a big part in that, opening the scoring in the 24th minute.
Gotham’s other goal came from Esther González in first-half stoppage time; Midge Purce assisted on both goals. In between, Rose Lavelle scored the Reign’s lone goal.
Yet despite the heroics of Williams and Purce, the game lost much of its luster in the third minute when Rapinoe collapsed to the turf with what appeared to be a right Achilles injury and had to be helped off by two trainers.
Rapinoe had made her presence known in the opening minute, sending a dangerous, left-footed cross into the box. Two minutes later she went down without being touched after making a move toward Gotham defender Jenna Nighswonger. As several teammates surrounded her, a stretcher was brought onto the field, but Rapinoe waved it off, struggling to her feet to accept a hug from Krieger as the crowd of 25,011 at Snapdragon Stadium, which had fallen silent, rose in applause.
Bethany Balcer, who hadn’t played more than 15 minutes in a game in almost a month, came on in her place. Balcer would put her stamp on the game in another way 25 minutes later, delivering an exquisite through ball that launched Lavelle on a dash up the middle of the Gotham defense toward the tying goal.
Williams had drawn first blood with a right-footed shot from the center of the box five minutes earlier. The hard work on that one was done by Purce, who avoided a couple of challenges on a sprint up the right wing before delivering a right-footed feed from the edge of the six-yard box just short of the end line. It was the first goal Reign keeper Claudia Dickey had given up since Oct. 1, ending a string of 431 consecutive scoreless minutes. But it wouldn’t be the last.
The goal frame saved Dickey twice, seconds apart late in the first half, first when Purce hit the left post with a shot, sending a rebound out to Delanie Sheehan, who drove her try off the crossbar.
But González, who signed with Gotham just days after winning the World Cup with Spain, didn’t miss with her header in first-half stoppage time, giving Gotham the lead for good by nodding in a bending Purce cross from the center of the box.
Gotham had to wait out some anxious final minutes after goalkeeper Mandy Haught was red-carded from the match seven minutes into stoppage time.
That Gotham were even in the championship game seemed unlikely coming into the season. The team lost 17 times last season, but under first-year manager Juan Carlos Amorós, who last week was named the NWSL coach of the year, Gotham qualified for the playoffs for just the second time since 2013, then shut out North Carolina and Portland on the road to reach the final.
The title was the team’s first and its run from worst to first also sent Krieger, 39, out a winner for the first time.
Rapinoe, meanwhile, finished her career on the Reign bench, using crutches to make her way to the field for the start of the second half wearing a boot on her right foot.