Last night Gotham FC cemented themselves as the team to beat in the Eastern Division of the Challenge Cup, taking down the North Carolina Courage 4-3 in their home opener at Montclair Soccer Park.
Needless to say goals were not scarce in the clubs’ first game (officially) in front of fans - shoutout to anyone who’s watched a game at Montclair from the parking garage - in over a year. After a relatively slow start, the match exploded open in the 17th minute when star Gotham forward Midge Purce picked up the ball in her own half and charged all the way to the North Carolina net, slotting the ball past keeper Casey Murphy after leaving two would-be defenders for dead.
The Courage wasted no time to strike back though, as the own talismanic Debinha fired the equalizer into the far corner just four minutes later. And only a minute after that the Brazilian would find the back of the net again for the lead, sending a pinpoint delivery from Jessica McDonald past DiDi Haracic with a clever sliding finish. Needing to mount a comeback of their own, the recently-rebranded club did not disappoint the home faithful, as Purce knocked home a shot/cross from winger Paige Monaghan to put the match on level terms. Veteran center forward Carli Lloyd would then shift the advantage back in Gotham’s favor, latching onto a clever through ball from fullback Imani Dorsey and slotting her one on one chance past Murphy.
The second half was filled with just as much action as the first. Five minutes into the half Jessica McDonald would equalize again for the Courage, beating Haracic to a 50/50 ball in the box and heading a looping finish home (while also scarily colliding with Haracic- though thankfully both players walked away unharmed). Gotham would finally seize the lead for good in the final moments, with Ifeoma Onumonu gliding past a defender and setting up a brilliantly clever flick from Evelyne Viens to put the homeside ahead in the 92nd minute. It would be the second straight late winner for Gotham, and a second straight late game-winning assist for Onumonu.
Overall, the game was everything the matchup with the Pride was not. While the Pride matchup was cagey, filled with rusty play, and often lacking in attacking conviction, Tuesday’s shootout was high-paced and direct. While the team kept its roots in head coach Freya Coombe’s preferred possession style, they added a sharp transitional element that forced North Carolina coach Paul Riley into a pair of halftime defensive substitutions to shore up the Courage backline. With an almost-full roster at her disposal, Coombe brought out an unabashedly attacking lineup - highlighted by the return of Purce, who won woman of the match honors, from national team duty to the starting forward line. Carli Lloyd made her first appearance for the club since 2019, providing a ruthless finishing instinct at the center of the front three.
Purce and Lloyd proved to be prime examples of the fluidity Coombe’s system against the Courage displayed. Both played the entire match, but neither stayed in their position for the full 90 minutes. Purce’s shift to fullback for the final stretch, and Lloyd’s regression into a deeper midfield role each show that the 2021 edition of Gotham FC is not only confident in its identity and ability, but also confident that they can bring even more attacking firepower (such as Onumonu and Viens) onto the pitch late and not sacrifice defensive stability. Team confidence has been a hallmark of Coombe’s tenure as coach, and it’s a characteristic that serves the squad well in late moments like last night against the Courage and last week against Orlando.
Gotham FC will look to defend their spot atop the Eastern Division next week, when they take on the 1-1 Washington Spirit under the lights at Audi Field, with kickoff set for 7pm Eastern.