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Cup runners-up Gotham prepare for regular season opener against Houston

Carli Lloyd and the newly-rebranded side look to build on good preseason form

Racing Louisville FC v NJ/NY Gotham FC Photo by Howard Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Tonight NJ/NY Gotham FC will open their 2021 regular season at home against the Houston Dash, their first league game under their new rebrand.

The opener will come on the heels of a heartbreaking Challenge Cup final defeat to the Portland Thorns last weekend in Oregon, a loss that saw Gotham come, literally, within a fingertips reach of the trophy. A Carli Lloyd goal would be the only one for the Harrison side in the ninety minutes of regular time, canceling out Christine Sinclair’s early opener for the Thorns, as the game headed to penalties locked at 1-1. The ensuing shootout brought plenty of nerves- but in the end it was Adrianna Franch’s decisive save on Nahomi Kawasumi’s effort that clinched the title for Portland after seven nervy rounds.

The regular season opener against the Dash should provide an early look into how head coach Freye Coombe intends to set up in the long term as the club pursues an elusive first playoff berth since 2013.

The first major point of interest for the Black and Blue this spring will be in net. Kailen Sheridan appears to be a gametime decision for the Dash match and all other matches in the immediate future following an quad injury sustained on international duty with Canada. In any other circumstance, Sheridan would be a penned-in starter as soon as she was fully fit and perhaps in certain prior years even a little before then. But backup DiDi Haracic proved throughout the Challenge Cup to be a more-than-reliable option between the pipes, and has a very solid argument in her current form to remain as Gotham’s netminder for opening day. Whether Coombe opts to ride the hot hand in Haracic or make the transition back to her traditional number one in Sheridan will be something to keep an eye on in the lineup tonight.

At the back, another storyline to watch will be how Coombe deploys the trio of Gina Lewandowski, Estelle Johnson, and Mandy Freeman in her lineup’s two centre back spots. Heading into the spring Lewandowski and Johnson were both considered to conventionally be the incumbents after the veteran pairing enjoyed a strong 2020, but Coombe has given plenty of minutes to the much younger Freeman over the course of the Challenge Cup, with the former USC standout eventually earning the nod in the final. Freeman’s status as a fixture in the starting lineup will be an interesting trend to follow as the season progresses.

The midfield is the area of the field where Gotham’s lineup is most clear. It’s all but a cinch that the majority of the minutes in Harrison will be divided between the quartet of Jennifer Cudjoe, Sodam Lee, McCall Zerboni, and Allie Long. Cudjoe, the breakout star of the 2020 season, featured heavily in the club’s Challenge Cup run, and while an injury kept her out of the final, Lee played an integral role in the group stage portion as well. Zerboni and Long complete the group of starting Gotham midfielders, with the two veterans bringing equal amounts of energy, bite, and leadership to the pitch. One thing to watch will be how Coombe selects her team in the more distant future- right now Lee and Zerboni are both actively dealing with injuries, but since Gotham’s preferred formation only has space for three midfielders it’s a fair assumption to say that there will be at least one odd woman out every match when all four players are fit.

Rounding out the Gotham lineup is the attack. Headlined by Midge Purce and Carli Lloyd, NJY’s forward line heads into opening day on the back of an up-and-down Challenge Cup. While games like the club’s 4-3 home opener shootout win against the North Carolina Courage put on display the explosiveness Gotham’s attack possesses in transition, the same lineup would then sputter on the front foot in the next two group stage games, as NJY battled to 0-0 stalemates against the Washington Spirit and Racing Louisville. There’s no shortage of viable options in attack for Coombe, with Purce, Lloyd, Paige Monaghan, Ifeoma Onumonu, and Evelyn Viens all registering points in the Challenge Cup and playing well, but the question of what combination of these players and overall style of play will produce the best (and most consistent) results remains to be seen.

While many of these storylines are more long term, tonight’s match against the Dash should provide a very early look into Coombe and Gotham’s plans for 2021. The game will kick off at 7:30 pm ET and will be broadcasted on Paramount+.