By just about all accounts, Gotham FC has enjoyed a successful start to the 2021 season. They won the Eastern Division en route to a Challenge Cup final appearance, currently sit in 5th in the league standings (which would be their highest final table position in years if the season was to end today) and have only lost two games of their opening eight. And yet the Tri State’s NWSL club might still have another level to reach before the campaign’s close.
With Sunday’s sopping 1-0 loss to Portland in the books, Gotham’s multi-goal game drought was extended to six matches. In four of those contests they were shut out outright. Through the Thorns match, no club has scored fewer goals so far in the regular season. While Gotham have made great strides on and off the pitch, and their results reflect that, their attack still appears to be stuck in first gear.
It’s not for a lack of weapons on the forward line. There’s a solid argument to be made that Midge Purce is the best young forward in the NWSL and the USWNT player pool. Winger Paige Monaghan has displayed a clear knack for finding the back of the net at the top level, and Ify Onumonu remains a perennially underrated option at center forward. 2019 first round draft pick Evelyn Viens is considered by many to be perhaps Canada’s top prospect and scored at a torrid rate throughout college. Not to mention national team legend Carli Lloyd remains in the fold as a constant threat to opposing goals.
But something hasn’t clicked. Manager Freya Coombe has used five different attacking combinations in the opening eight games, trying to find the right mix of transitional speed and possessional comfort. These combinations have been both a blessing and a curse - while the constantly rotated lineup keeps teams on their toes and ensures Gotham can offer a variety of different looks each match, the lack of chemistry that can be developed by a consistent attack line has at times caused misfires in build-up. So while the team is hard to predict, these varied attacks often struggle to find a groove driving forward.
Another key factor in the inability of the attack to reach the next level is style. Coombe has often spoken of her wish for Gotham to emerge as a possession based team, but has had to try to produce such a style of play with a stock of players in attack that often look better suited to play in a more transitional form. Against the North Carolina Courage, where New Jersey/New York exploded for four goals (accounting for more than half of the teams’ total account this season), two of the home sides’ three first half goals were products of long runs by Midge Purce and Paige Monaghan, who drove at the Courage defense on the dribble before producing either the finishing touch or the final ball. Coombe’s juggling of quick, direct players such as Monaghan and Viens with players like Purce more adaptable to her preferred possession style has made Gotham’s search for their attacking identity much more difficult.
The final question mark in Gotham’s attacking struggles is Midge Purce herself. Midge the player is not the question - she’s anything but. The USWNT Olympic hopeful leads the team in goals and has their only goal so far in the regular season. She’s been a dynamo every time she is able to touch the ball. But where exactly she should play remains the biggest unknown about getting the Gotham attack to its best.
Purce, who almost exclusively has played fullback for the USWNT, has seen her minutes split between the backline and attack during her time in Harrison. She’s performed well at right back for Gotham, putting a solid shift whenever called upon, but 2021 appeared to be her first year at Gotham where she’d be able to feature entirely as an attacker. But on Sunday against the Thorns (beit the result of tactical shifts or US Soccer requests) she was moved back to fullback after a string of starts in the attack. Purce put in a very solid performance - but her choice as the backline replacement for the injured Imani Dorsey when Sabrina Flores enjoyed a strong 2020 campaign at right back is a strange one. AmericanSoccerAnalysis’ numbers show Purce leading Gotham in both xG and G+. The latter metric shows just how vital the Olney, Maryland native is to NJY’s attack - while she ranks in the league’s top ten with a score of 1.24, the next best Gotham forward is Carli Lloyd who only scores a 0.18. While Purce is the team’s star no matter where she plays on the pitch, her role in bolstering the team’s struggling attack going forward will be absolutely vital to any playoff ambitions.